Von BRUENCHENHEIN, Eugene (1910–1983)

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  • Publication
  • Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: “Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philosopher”
  • By Brett Littman, with a preface by Maria Ann Conelli. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2011. 76 pages. Available at the museum shop.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, in 1910, a year when Halley’s Comet came back into the near Solar System. His mother died when he was seven. His father, a sign painter, married again to a woman who not only wrote treatises on evolution and reincarnation but also painted on canvas. It seems likely that Von Bruenchenhein learned to paint from both of them at an early age. He attended Catholic schools in Green Bay and Milwaukee through the tenth grade, then dropped out to work first in the small family grocery business, then later in a greenhouse and flower shop. He married Eveline Kalke (who called herself Marie) in 1943, and a year later went to work in a commercial bakery. He stayed with the bakery until it went out of business in 1959, then spent the rest of his life in semiretirement. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he had spent much of his life making art in seclusion. Thousands of drawings and paintings were discovered in his home, along with odd floral ceramic pieces, miniature furniture and towers made from gilded chicken bones, large cement sculptures, dozens of poems and written works, and hundreds of photographs of his wife Marie in exotic costumes and settings. She and his close family had kept his immense output a secret for decades. Although his early works were more traditional depictions of flowers and landscapes, among them was found a vast series of apocalyptic finger paintings, begun in 1954 in reaction to the development of the hydrogen bomb. Later works reveal interests in evolution and the origins of life, outer space, and futuristic cities. Throughout his house he had placed messages to himself, some in pencil scribbled directly onto the wall, and some on gilded homemade plaques. One in the basement said, “Create and Be Recognized!” while a plaque in the kitchen testified: “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein—Freelance Artist, Poet and Sculptor, Inovator [sic], Arrow maker and Plant man, Bone artifacts constructor, Photographer and Architect, Philosopher.”

The above biography is taken from ‘The End is Near! (American Visionary Art Museum exhibition), with kind permission of the author Roger Manley.

The artist is represented in the following museum collections: The Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne; The John Michael Kohler Museum & Arts Center, Wisconsin; The American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Milwaukee Art Museum; New Orleans Museum of Art; Newark Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910–1983) was one of the most complex and multifaceted American self-taught artists. Born in Marinette, Wisconsin, he was from an early age self-identified as an artist. Over a 50-year period, between the late 1930s until his death in 1983, Von Bruenchenhein produced expansive bodies of work in poetry, photography, ceramics, sculpture, painting, and drawing. This exhibition marks the first New York museum presentation of his work across all disciplines. Organized by guest curator Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center, New York, it comprises approximately 100 objects culled primarily from the American Folk Art Museum’s extensive holdings, as well as loans from several private collections. From Folk Art Museum

“Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: ‘Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philosopher’” focuses on the formal leitmotifs of leaves and floral patterns as organizing principles in Von Bruenchenhein’s multidisciplinary oeuvre. The exhibition highlights the evolution of these forms from the fabric and wallpaper featured in the early “pinup” photographs of the artist’s wife, Marie, to hand-built ceramic flowers, vessels, and crowns. These ideas are further abstracted in vertical chicken- and turkey-bone towers and thrones and in paintings of spires, castles, and visionary buildings. The installation culminates with a book of drawings housed in a wallpaper-sample book and 34 rarely displayed ballpoint-pen drawings, unifying the two structural strands. Made in the early- to mid-1960s, those works range from studies of arabesque curves to architectural designs.



  • NEW YORK TIMES  — November 4, 2010

The self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was a slight man of meager means. Born in Marinette, Wis., in 1910, the son of a sign painter and shopkeeper, he never finished high school, and once the family moved to Milwaukee, lived most of his life in a small house built by his father. He was too short to serve in the Army during World War II. He worked in a flower shop and then a bakery, and after health problems forced an early retirement in 1959, when he was 49, he got by on a Social Security check of $220 a month until his death in 1983.

But Von Bruenchenhein (pronounced BROON-shen-hine) made the most of everything that came his way. Everything included his love of plants and his wife and muse, Marie; his ability to make ingenious use of all kinds of scavenged materials; and an outsize imagination apparently further expanded by recreational drugs.

When he died, he left a large and unruly universe of muliple mediums crammed into the Milwaukee house. Comprising photographs, paintings, sculptures and drawings, it was known only to family and close friends. After his death a friend, Daniel Nycz, brought his work to the attention of Russell Bowman, who was director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Von Bruenchenhein’s hyper-productive creative existence is receiving its first in-depth museum exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum. Organized by Brett Littman, a guest curator who is the executive director of the Drawing Center in SoHo, the show is overdesigned and ultimately too small and tame to do Von Bruenchenhein’s achievement full justice; it especially scrimps on his luridly colored, slightly greasy looking hallucinatory paintings from the 1950s and early ’60s. But it nonetheless reveals the artist as a kind of dazzlingly weird, subsistence-level Renaissance man, laying out the fruits of his labor with a clarity that makes them feel of a piece.

Near the beginning of the show a small sign that Von Bruenchenhein incised in foil-covered insulation and displayed in his kitchen announces the scope of his ambition: “Freelance Artist — Poet and Sculptor — Innovator — Arrow maker and Plant man — Bone artifacts constructor — Photographer and Architect — Philosopher.” (This, in its entirety, serves as the exhibition’s subtitle.)

Of this cavalcade of characters, “Plant man” seems to have come first and remained foremost, the energy source for all the others. But his stepmother was equally important. After his mother died, when he was 7, Von Bruenchenhein’s father married Elizabeth Mosley, a former schoolteacher in Panama who had returned to the United States to become a chiropractor. A painter of floral still lifes and a writer of pamphlets on things like reincarnation, she fostered Von Bruenchenhein’s love of the natural world (and, it would seem, a certain kind of free thinking). He considered her his mentor until she died in 1938.

The time Mosley spent in Panama cannot be underestimated, given Von Bruenchenhein’s subsequent emphasis on tropical and exotic flora. In the 1930s he built a greenhouse and grew cactus, joined the local Cactus Club, studied botany and often said he was a horticulturalist.

But his real artistic blossoming seems to have been inspired by Marie, whom he met in 1939, when she was 19 and he was 29, and married four years later. Over the next decade or so he took thousands of photographs of her in various states of undress, often wearing clunky heels, garters, scarves, and draped with pearls or flowers. When she dons dresses, they are floral prints. She is almost always seen against one of three or four floral backdrops, seated on small patterned rugs. Despite frequently bared breasts and thighs, the photos feel remarkably innocent.

Von Bruenchenhein’s images belong to the complex history of set-up photography that gained critical mass in the early 1980s. Like a proto-Cindy Sherman, Marie assumes female, Hollywood-related roles. She serves as chaste pinup girl, Tahitian princess (or tourist), would-be starlet, Breck Girl, young Madonna(although they had no children) and much more.

Von Bruenchenhein’s willing collaborator, Marie is, however, rarely completely at ease. There’s an awkwardness, even a subtle deer-in-the-headlights alarm that registers in these images and is perhaps the most direct reflection of Von Bruenchenhein’s personality available to us. It speaks to the intensity of his ambition, which one can imagine may have verged on the tyrannical, to her desire to please and to the undoubtedly claustrophobic quality of their enterprise. Marie Von Bruenchenhein was 63 when her husband died; she survived him by less than a decade.

In the 1950s Von Bruenchenhein, partly inspired by tests of the hydrogen bomb, began painting on small masonite panels or cardboard. At the rate of about one a day, he turned out slightly garish semi-abstractions, manipulating paint with his fingers, combs and other small objects, including brushes made from Marie’s hair.

These combustible little images suggest exotic plants, strange sea creatures or cosmic fireworks, as well as cover art for science-fiction novels; they hint at visionary architecture. Unfortunately there are only three examples of the 1950s paintings in the show, and they are relatively quiet ones at that.

The mid-1960s brought a rash of drawings made with ballpoint pens, rulers and French curves that are the least known of Von Bruenchenhein’s work. Many of them were glued into a large album of wallpaper samples that is also part of the show, and that viewers can page through in digital animation. Their fine-lined forms oscillate among templelike buildings, floral designs, spaceships and outlandish stringed instruments — and often resemble distant cousins of Frank Stella’s painted-relief series from the 1970s.

Meanwhile in the late ’60s Von Bruenchenhein began concentrating on sculpture in two distinct mediums. From clay scrounged from construction sites he made ceramics baked in his coal oven and decorated with whatever kind of paint he could find. The show includes small, oddly tentacled flowers related to some of the sea creatures in his paintings (although not the ones here); individual concaved leaves whose mixtures of color are especially rich; and perforated vases assembled from smaller ceramic leaves that suggest laurel wreaths run amok. In these pieces Von Bruenchenhein’s weirdness turns Victorian, especially in a flame-colored leaf-vase sitting on an ochre-colored pedestal that suggests an ornate occasional table.

There is a similar emphasis on the incremental in the little thrones and towers he made out of salvaged chicken and turkey bones, using airplane glue and paint. Oddly inhabited even though empty — thanks to the protrusions of bones — the thrones befit a man who sometimes referred to himself and his wife as the king and queen of his self-created realm.

A gold-painted tower, made mostly from vertebrae, is a creepier matter. But it does, however, dovetail with eight larger paintings from the late 1970s, when Von Bruenchenhein was painting exclusively on cardboard. Featuring lacy, visionary skyscrapers of an Art Deco sort, these works once more take advantage of mundane physicality, using the ridges and honeycomb of the cardboard, softened by paint, to suggest crenellated or brickwork surfaces or occasionally climbing vines.

The skyscrapers emerging from lush, tropical greenness do their best to tie things together. They connect to the bone tower and leaf-vases and the space-age designs of the drawings. They suggest the profound attraction of fantasy, the conjuring of other worlds that starts with the photographs of Marie.

But they lack the intensity and inventive paint handling of the paintings of the 1950s and ’60s, which show Von Bruenchenhein unbound. They have a place in the history of postwar painting, as surely as Marie in her many guises has one in postmodern photography.

Von Bruenchenhein belongs among the great American outsider artists whose work came to light or resurfaced in the last three decades of the 20th century: Henry Darger, Martin Ramírez, Bill Traylor, James Castle and Morton Bartlett. But Von Bruenchenhein was not an isolate. He wanted people to see his work, wanted to sell it and approached galleries in Milwaukee without luck. One can imagine him being thrilled at the attention his work has received since his death, just as one can imagine him perusing the careful Folk Art Museum show and saying, “More, more, more.”

“Eugene Von Bruenchenhein” runs through Oct. 9 at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 265-1040; folkartmuseum.org.


Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

Exotic and full of strange energy, the work of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who was born in 1910 and died in 1983, emerged from the Midwest like something belonging to another place and time. He painted glowing apocalyptic landscapes which, in the New Museum’s 2008 exhibition ‘After Nature’, looked at home alongside rapturous visions of a ruined world by artists and filmmakers such as William Christenberry and Werner Herzog. Other works are obsessive but radiantly inventive: staged photographs of his wife that recall portraits ranging from E.J. Bellocq’s haunting images of New Orleans prostitutes to Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits; leafy ceramic vessels and crowns; and absurdly macabre towers and thrones, assembled from poultry bones, which could have been dreamed up by a young artist working today.

Von Bruenchenhein made art and wrote poetry for nearly 50 years. In his Wisconsin kitchen, where he literally cooked up much of his work (baking ceramics in a coal stove, cleaning and drying bones), he hung an incised aluminum plaque promoting his services as a ‘Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philosopher’ (sic). This shingle, presumably seen only by relatives and friends, provides the title for an intriguing exhibition focusing on this self-taught (but far from aesthetically unsophisticated) artist. The show’s guest curator, The Drawing Center’s Brett Littman, emphasizes Von Bruenchenhein’s use of leaf and floral motifs as an organizing principle, and the results demonstrate how his disparate bodies of work enriched one another.

Botany was a lifelong passion that shaped Von Bruenchenhein’s formal approach to art-making. The show opens with cacti displayed alongside one of the cast-concrete masks – several feet high and inspired by pre-Colombian art – that he created to place amongst exotic plants in a greenhouse he built in his backyard. He worked in a florist’s shop and – later, for a longer period – a bakery, both jobs that suggest fertility and repetition.

Gardening and floral arranging helped fuel a vivid reimagining of mass-cultural imagery in the thousands of photographs Von Bruenchenhein took of his wife and muse, Marie, from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, developing them in a makeshift darkroom. Like Seydou Keïta, another self-taught photographer, he used patterned backdrops, but to more extravagant ends. Rococo wallpaper and drapery, exotic costumes and strings of beads combine to make his beloved subject resemble a blossom emerging from lush vegetation.

The images echo pin-ups – Marie is often topless and some poses mimic vampy cheesecake shots – but her expressions are those of an ingénue, unable to hide her pleasure as she assumes various guises, from tropical princess to Tinseltown siren. The identities she awkwardly assumes seem to anticipate Sherman’s work, but that association is undercut by the palpable intimacy between photographer and model. Photographs that are tinted blue or mauve, or in which Marie gazes heavenward wearing a glittering crown, also recall Joseph Cornell’s innocent carnality and the magical, protected world his collages evoke.

For Von Bruenchenhein, the domestic arena was a well of creativity. He also began to make ceramics early on and focused intensely on them through the early 1970s, firing clay he scavenged from construction sites. He made objects embellished with iridescent paint, included fragile florets, foliate vessels inspired by Mayan incense pots and graceful crowns made up of interlaced arching leaves.

He shifted his focus from photography to painting between the mid-’50s and mid-’60s, and made around 1,000 luminous images, working on Masonite or corrugated cardboard and applying paint with his fingers or tools such as sticks, leaves or combs. The show focuses on his vertical cityscapes, calling attention to how the accretive marks in the paintings echo the foliate patterns in the ceramics and the segments in the lacy bone sculptures. In works such as Edison Complex (1978), textured buildings and spires melt into mottled skies.

The bone towers and thrones Von Bruenchenhein made during the late 1960s and early ’70s, such as Gold Tower (c.1970), subtly gleam with automobile paint; they too have architectonic qualities. Littman posits that he may have been inspired by Milwaukee Modernist architecture such as the conical glass-and-steel domes in the Mitchell Park Conservatory Complex, designed by Donald Grieb; he was apparently also struck by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The show concludes with a selection of Von Bruenchenhein’s dynamic line drawings, some mounted inside a wallpaper sample book, which reflect his continuing interest in uniting the geometric and the organic.

Such works make one wonder what would have happened if Von Bruenchenhein had lived in the New York area, like Cornell, and had made similar contacts, or had merely successfully exhibited his work in the Midwest. Such rigid hierarchies as outside/inside may not have much value, but if the question ‘Where is it going?’ is one that isn’t asked about so-called outsider art, then Von Bruenchenhein’s contemporary-looking visions, with their restless formal experimentation, don’t belong in that category.

Kristin M. Jones


The Magazine AntiquesEugene Von Bruenchenhein

Surely the single greatest event of Von Bruenchenhein’s life was his meeting Eveline Kalke, ten years his junior, at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in 1940. After a three-and-a-half-year courtship, they married and remained together for forty years, until his death in 1983. Taking the name Marie, apparently in honor of one of his favorite aunts, she served as his muse and ballast. That he was in love with her—indeed, fixated on her—seems entirely plausible when you see the abundance of photographs he took of her, and only her, in sundry states of undress (see Fig. 5). Often she appears, again unironically, as a vamping diva, tricked out in all the beaded trumpery of Yvonne De Carlo starring as Salome.

With some exceptions most of this is hardly art photography as connoisseurs would usually understand the term. Rather it scrupulously adheres to the format of traditional pinups of the 1940s and 1950s. We shall never know for certain what drove Von Bruenchenhein to make these pictures, which he developed in his bathroom sink and intended for his eyes only. But he seemed pleased and proud that his wife was as fetching as any pinup. Certainly these images are neither adventurous nor especially ambitious as art, beyond a few pretentious double exposures, as in one self-portrait in which he has Marie, a massive disembodied head, hover in the air above him. Whatever his motives, it is consoling to think that, in a life of unenviable hardship, he loved his wife and his devotion was richly requited.

As for Von Bruenchenhein’s generally diminutive sculptures, they are a delight, even if they do not represent his best work. More than anything else, they give proof of an indisputable gift, an inspired hobbyist’s knack for creating compellingly whimsical forms. Too poor to afford better materials, Von Bruenchenhein collected chicken bones from the trash of nearby restaurants or clay from the soil of local construction sites to fashion his bizarre thrones and Maya-inspired heads and polychrome ceramic crowns (see Fig. 3). The most striking of these sculptures are surely the chicken-bone thrones, painted a lustrous silver and gold, that are formed from the felicitous joining of drumstick bones with breast bones to form a sharp and spindly totality (see Fig. 8). In viewing these works one is hard put to explain what they could possibly mean or how they have achieved that powerful sense of rightness, of perfection, that is so immediately evident in them. But in their epigrammatic concision, they achieve something of the entrancing power that we find in such surrealist monuments as Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-lined cup or Hans Bellmer’s mutilated dolls.

Von Bruenchenhein’s greatest claim to immortality, however, are surely his paintings, and they are wondrous things. Once again, because of his indigence he was compelled to commit his visions to such cheap surfaces as masonite and corrugated cardboard. These surfaces, combined with the artist’s general indifference to paint textures as such, often cause his paintings, encountered face to face, to feel a little shallow and spare. But their great achievement consists in their astounding chromatic and compositional perfection, which has nothing “outsider” about it.

As with his sculpture, it is not always easy to say what is happening in his paintings. Sometimes they flirt with representation, as in his depiction of a mushroom cloud threatening nuclear Armageddon. In another work on the same theme, The Danger We Face (1954), this fear takes the form of feline menace, part hydrogen bomb, part bearded cat. For the most part, however, Von Bruenchenhein prefers biomorphic abstraction.

Among his best works are Culmination and Fantasia Imperialis (Fig. 10), both from 1954. The malachite green that dominates their compositions, together with golden gashes that resemble lava rising from the earth’s mantle, gives these works an almost Asiatic baroqueness that recalls the opiated dreams of Thomas de Quincey (1785– 1859). Four years later, in his Wand of the Genii series, Von Bruenchenhein conjures into being a dense array of sub-aquatic life forms so definitive in their rare and masterful beauty as to call into question, at last, the distinction between outsider and mainstream art (see Fig. 11).

This is not to deny that Von Bruenchenhein was indeed an outsider and that he was surely different from the likes of such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. Rather it is to question whether the distinction is relevant any more, when the results are so masterful and assured. After all, much outsider art, even very compelling outsider art, is more interesting for its back story, for the circumstances of its creation, for its embodying of an exceptional personality, than for the objective quality of its visual results. But in paintings like those just mentioned—which fully deserve to be counted among the best American paintings of the last century—Eugene Von Bruenchenhein has every entitlement to be taken as seriously as Pollock or Jasper Johns or anyone else you care to name.

When Von Bruenchenhein died in 1983, Dan Nycz, one of the few acquaintances who were aware of the existence of his paintings and sculptures, undertook to sell them to an institution, in order to raise money to care for Marie, who was ailing and who died six years after her husband. Ultimately, the entire collection was acquired and catalogued by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was not, in the conventional sense, a great artist. His paint textures, as I have said, are often perfunctory, and he can lapse at any moment into bathetic mediocrity. And yet there was greatness in the man. Von Bruenchenhein does not need that special pleading and condescending indulgence with which we so often view the art of outsiders. With him, as with the best outsider artists, Henry Darger (1892–1972), Achilles Rizzoli (1896–1981) and Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), one has a reinvigorated sense of the depth and complexity of even the humblest souls. There is a fallacious tendency to imagine—against the abundant testimony of our own dreams each night—that the imaginative faculty is the privileged domain of culturally exalted figures. The best outsider artists prove otherwise. Whether in their asylums, their hospices, or their prison cells, these unenviable souls recall to us the sublime words of Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” They prove—if proof were needed—that a janitor who passes his lonely life in a basement or a baker’s assistant whose lungs are debilitated by decades of floating flour—may yet possess an internal world as rich and infinite as that of the melancholy Dane or even of his creator.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: “Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philospher” is on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York to October 9, 2011.

1 Leslie Umberger, Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2007), p. 268.

2 Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary (John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis., 1988), p. 32.

JAMES GARDNER is an art and architecture critic who contributes frequently to Antiques.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) was a visionary artist who created a vast number of paintings, photographs and sculptural objects that overfilled his modest house in Milwaukee, a collection undiscovered until shortly after his death. He worked at a bakery during the day and privately made his obsessive art in virtual isolation, with the exception of his wife, Marie, and select relatives and friends.

Born in Marinette, Wisconsin, Von Bruenchenhein’s mother died when he was seven. His father, a sign painter and shopkeeper, later married a woman who at one time was a teacher, and who published treatises on evolution, believed in reincarnation, and painted floral still lifes. Although he did not finish high school, Von Bruenchenhein became fascinated with botany and science, and wrote extensively on his own metaphysical theories of biological and cosmological origins, as well as the primal genesis of a genetically encoded collective knowledge. He also composed reams of poetry on nature, love, war and politics, and imaginary travels through time and space.

Von Bruenchenhein’s prolific work crammed every corner, closet and cabinet of his house, where nearly everything was available to be exploited by his ambitious creative energies. He rendered paintings on cardboard and Masonite, in addition to furniture, ceilings, walls, doors and windows. He developed photographs in the sink. He erected sculptures from TV dinner chicken bones and model airplane glue. Ceramics were formed from hand-dug clay and fired in the parlor stove. Poems and philosophical writings littered the home, as though no thought would be lost for lack of a proper writing surface or instrument. Reel-to-reel tapes that recorded continuous conversations and background music serve to chronicle an everyman’s everyday approach to art.

In 1939 Von Bruenchenhein met Eveline Kalke, “Marie,” at a state fair in Wisconsin, and they were married in 1943. Marie was his muse, and they collaborated in staging hundreds of passionate and provocative, yet playful and loving, pinup-like photographs and slides of Marie. Costumed in drapery, bikinis, stockings and heavy heels, and adorned in swags of multiple pearl necklaces and homemade tin crowns, she posed seminude in front of chenille bedspreads and floral patterned backdrops. Von Bruenchenhein’s resourcefulness played a central part in both the assembling and the effect: a luxurious setting fashioned from five-and-dime supplies. Their relationship found a sort of sideshow glamour in his carefully considered, and often erotic photographs. These intimate vignettes exemplify a subject/object dynamic, where Marie is immortalized while he occupied the part of voyeur. When seen together as a series, her response to his approach becomes a visual narrative. Acting as a model, and taking on the roles of goddess, queen, star, seductress and ingénue, she explores her own place in this work, often defining the look of an image through a glance or a smile.

In 1954 Von Bruenchenhein began making intricate, brightly colored and spontaneously created surrealistic “finger paintings” of atomic mushrooms, radiating hearts, mythical sea creatures, serpent monsters, phantasmal landscapes, shooting comets and futuristic metropolises. He manipulated the paint with acute facility, using his fingers, sticks, straw, and brushes made from Marie’s hair, to achieve amazing spatial effects. His paintings reflect the desire to see magnified that which can be both beautiful and horrific. These visions of mysterious life-forms, cosmic forces and dreamlike places were typically executed in one intuitive, possessed and intensely frenzied session. He, in fact, believed that his art was the result of “unknown forces at work…forces that have gone on since the beginning.”

Von Bruenchenhein also made many organic vase-shaped ceramic sculptures and life-size crowns with flower, leaf and bud motifs. In the 1960s and 1970s he made sculptures of miniature chairs and thrones constructed out of dried chicken bones, as well as delicate architectural spires or towers of up to five feet high.

Seemingly living an ordinary life, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was an extraordinary artist whose eccentric imagination and enigmatic expressions give us insight into both a world of his own and worlds unknown.

– Caelan Mys

The works of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein are represented in numerous museum collections, including: American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; John M. Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Milwaukee Art Museum; New Orleans Museum of Art; Newark Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


Eugene Von Bruenchenhein  (1910–1983) was an American outsider artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

His versatile body of work included over a thousand colorful apocalyptic landscape paintings; hundreds of sculptures made from chicken bones, ceramic and cast cement; pin-up style photos of his wife, Marie; plus dozens of notebooks filled with poetic and scientific musings. Von Bruenchenhein’s work is represented in various museum collections, including: American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, (Sheboygan, WI); Milwaukee Art Museum; New Orleans Museum of Art; Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago; Newark Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Early life

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was born July 31, 1910 in Marinette Wisconsin. He was the second of three sons by Edwin and Clara Von Bruenchenhein. Within a few years, the family moved to Green Bay and eventually settled in Milwaukee where Eugene’s father worked as a sign painter. In the 1930s, Edwin built a small home on Milwaukee’s west side at 514 S. 94th Pl (eventually razed in September 1983) from which he ran a grocery store. It was within easy walking distance of the state fairgrounds.[1][2]

Von Bruenchenhein’s mother, Clara, died in 1917 when Eugene was seven years old. His father then married Elizabeth “Bessie” Mosely, a schoolteacher who had returned to the U.S. from Panama to become a chiropractor. In 1926 she had authored a pamphlet entitled, “Evolution: The Law of Progress Based on Truth”, along with several other treatises on evolution and reincarnation. She painted floral still lifes and the young Eugene regarded her as a mentor until her death in 1938.[2]

In the late 1930s, Bruenchenhein built a greenhouse behind his father’s home to house his growing collection of exotic plants and cacti. He became a member of the Milwaukee Cactus Club, worked at a local florist shop and studied books on botany. When asked, he told people he was a horticulturist.[2]

Bruenchenhein was a man of small stature, so much so that he was prevented from serving in the Army during WWII because he did not meet the minimum height requirement.[3]

In 1939 he met Eveline T. “Marie” Kalke at the Wisconsin State Fair. She was 19, he was 29. They married in 1943 and a year later Eugene took a job at Carpenter Baking Co. in Milwaukee. He worked there until 1959 when health problems and the closing of the bakery led to his premature “retirement” at the age of 49.[2] In the last year of his life, Bruenchenhein and his wife were living entirely off his $220 monthly Social Security checks.[4]

Bruenchenhein owned a Nash Rambler but once admitted to a friend that he only filled the gas tank twice a year.[4]


Von Bruenchenhein is best known for his photographs, including hundreds of portraits of his wife Marie in exotic costumes and settings. He frequently made use of the double exposure to give his photographs an added touch of surrealism; the frequently cited example is the portrait where Marie holds her own head in her hand. The photographs evoke pinup girls of the 1950s, such as this one, from the permanent collection of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. Marie served as his muse, becoming the subject, directly or indirectly, of all of his art and writing. A homemade plaque in his kitchen gave him the epithets of “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein—Freelance Artist, Poet and Sculptor, Inovator [sic], Arrow maker and Plant man, Bone artifacts constructor, Photographer and Architect, Philosopher.”


Von Bruenchenhein developed his own unique style of finger painting also incorporating the use of small sticks and home made brushes which he made with his wife Marie’s hair. His paintings were made by “pushing” paint around on the smooth surface of primed masonite to create three dimensional effects often depicting swirling masses in a rhythmic, calligraphic style. The paintings often appear to depict other worlds resembling landscapes in outer space, distant planets, sea fauna or other unusual life forms. One of his paintings was used as the cover art for the CD Transmalinnia by the Los Angeles indie music group Lumerians.[5]

Death and legacy

Von Bruenchenhein died on January 24, 1983 at the age of 72 from congestive heart failure. Shortly afterwards, Daniel Nycz, a West Allis policeman who had befriended Von Bruenchenhein years earlier, contacted Russell Bowman, then chief curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, in the hope that some of Von Bruenchenhein’s artistic creations could be sold off in order to provide for Eugene’s impoverished widow, Marie. Bowman in turn called Ruth Kohler, director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and officer of the Kohler Foundation which was known for preserving the work of outsider artists. In September 1983, all of Bruenchenhein’s works contained within his home were transported to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Subsequently, an extensive effort to document, catalog and preserve Von Bruenchenhein’s work was mounted under the direction of Joanne Cubbs.[1]


  1. ^ a b Auer, James.”Von Bruenchenhein’s weird, wondrous world glows again”.The Milwaukee Journal. March 25, 1984.
  2. ^ a b c d Cubbs, p.12
  3. ^ Cubbs, p.20
  4. ^ a b Jensen, Dean.”Late artist saw a different world”.The Milwaukee Journal.June 1987.
  5. ^ Ian S. Port (Apr. 22 2011). “Lumerians Talk Video Projections, Recording in a Church, and “Space-Rock””. SF Weekly. http://blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown/2011/04/lumerians_talk_video_projectio.php. Retrieved 2011-05-15.


  • Cubbs, Joanne (1988). Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary. John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  ISBN 0-932718-25-6

External links


Motif/Obsession: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

March 17, 2011 by deborahj  (If you go to the website, you will see the images)

In the spring of I997, artist and teacher Doug Ashford was invited to teach an undergraduate class at Antioch College in Ohio. What resulted was a brilliant excursion into the socio-logical effects of museums within cultures. In the resulting essay entitled, The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford states in his class syllabus, “The function and habits of the contemporary museum are today under great critical and social pressure. No longer accepted as pristine containers, their galleries and catalogs are increasingly understood as repositories for ideological and emotional directives.” 1

Ballpoint pen on paper

In The American Folk Art Museum’s current show, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Freelance Artist / Poet and Sculptor / Innovator / Plant man / bone artifacts constructor / Photographer and Architect / Philosopher, one can see evidence of the emotional underpinnings that curator Brett Littman was striving for. Littman serves as Executive Director for The Drawing Center and I recall viewing the Gerhard Richter exhibit there this past November, Lines Which Do Not Exist. Holland Cotter, in reviewing the show states, “One reality seems fairly clear. At present, the fashion for work that is ideologically overdetermined in meaning, political or otherwise, has passed.” 2

The passage of overtly ideological work is due in part to the advent of technology. It serves as catalyst, ushering in an era of global connections to a diversity of worlds, cultures, and socio-political thought. It has made us smaller – in a sense – and more granular in our observation of society, art, and intent. At this level, we can discern more intimate and revealing constructs that open up different ways of seeing and understanding. It is this granular level that is in evidence at the Eugene Von Bruenchenhein exhibit. One sees the curator’s attempt to bypass the idea of the museum as simply a repository and present artifacts that represent an individual’s collective experience.

The Alternate Worlds of EVB

It is significant to note that The Drawing Center’s mandate, “to provide opportunities for emerging and under-recognized artists”, is aligned with The American Folk Art Museum’s position as, “… a vibrant cultural community and the world’s leading center for the study and enjoyment of American folk art, as well as the work of international self-taught artists.” 3 Von Bruenchenhein is certainly under-recognized and on the final point, he meets the criteria for inclusion at the American Folk Art Museum – Von Bruenchenhein had no formal training. Littman takes advantage of this fact to place Von Bruenchenhein’s work in the realm of a “culturally specific” 4 exhibit – albeit one that is specific to an individual.

Littman presents multiple artworks culled from Von Bruenchenhein’s disciplines – they are all contained in the title of the show – to order to guide the viewer through the artist’s evolution. The text panel at the beginning of the exhibit, explains, that “…leitmotifs of leaves and floral patterns [are] organizing principles in Von Bruenchenhein’s multidisciplinary oeuvre.” 5 The curator equates the artist’s body of work with a musical term that denotes a recurring theme. In this way, the viewer is prepared to look for clues in the work itself and not refer to predetermined cultural markers.

We are to understand that Eugene Von Bruenchenhein never studied art, never finished high school, and lived his entire life in a small run-down house in Milwaukee. He worked as a baker and then a florist until health problems forced him to retire. For 24 years – until his death at age 73 – he existed on monthly social security checks in the amount of $220. What possessed a poor, uneducated, man to create the ethereal landscapes, bone chairs, pottery, and meticulous and beautiful ballpoint drawings? Von Bruenchenhein would fall squarely into Doug Ashford’s depiction of the “politically disenfranchised, and historically isolated” 6 – those who are not represented by traditional, dominant, museum practices. Von Bruenchenhein lacked entitlement and access to connections, so to present his work within the confines of an academia that embraced this paradigm, would be counterintuitive.

Littman wisely takes the first step by choosing not to contextualize Von Bruenchenhein’s work within the tumult of the era. Several paintings appear in the exhibit with most being produced between 1954 and 1963, a time in the art world when Abstract Expressionism was giving way to pop art. The lush and vibrant works are expressionistic renderings, reminiscent of science fiction landscapes – both futuristic and bordering on horror. As America entered an era of extreme social unrest in the 1960s, agendas of feminism, racism, and war, would dominate public discourse – but none of this dialogue appears in text panels. Instead, we learn that Von Bruenchenhein painted on discarded bakery boxes, was deeply influenced by his stepmother Elizabeth Mosey, and that he used tufts of his wife’s hair as paintbrushes. He also believed he was a royal descendent from an ancient Pre-Columbian tribe.

Elizabeth Mosey also served as Von Bruenchenhein’s mentor and fostered an acute reverence for the natural world, including botany and horticulture. Mosey painted floral still lifes and wrote booklets on reincarnation. In general, she was possessed of a free-thinking, spiritual temperament that impacted Eugene for the remainder of his life. Her influence is prevalent throughout. Littman has chosen to present a thematic framework as opposed to arranging the exhibit within a historical timeline. We are able access each genre of the artist’s work within the gallery in any order, without sacrificing the relationship of artist to object.

Upon entering the exhibit, we are greeted by a small cactus garden accompanied by a text panel that reveals that during the 1930s, Von Bruenchenhein built a greenhouse and grew cactus. He even studied botany and maintained that he was a horticulturalist. His entire oeuvre was dominated by floral patterns and cursive, leaf-like motifs and the unifying theme of a primordial nature underscores the exhibit.

Across the room, we are presented with an entire wall of the artist’s black and white photographs of his wife, Marie. The photos are reminiscent of a bygone era; now all have faded into sepia and all feature Marie in front of a floral background – whether wallpaper or a tablecloth. Littman chose to install floor to ceiling panels of large floral wallpaper in muted pastel tones – evocative of the 1950s – behind over 100 photos. He repeats this floral wallpaper motif behind other objects. The effect is twofold. The floral paper speaks to the artist’s obsession with plant life, the natural universe, and the otherworldly. Secondly, it ties him to a specific time and place in a social background that may have isolated him from the mainstream. Littman was purposeful in his depiction of the artist as a very singular personality. We have a sense that this world is solely orchestrated by Von Bruenchenhein and not dependent on outside influences. There is a disconnect between the austerity of the architectural space of the museum and the interpretation of the artist’s oeuvre. Again, the curator circumvents this obstacle with the repetition of the floral motif, thus reinforcing the idea that Von Bruenchenhein was possessed of a fierce individuality and a mind that did not stray from its purpose. These are clues that the viewer finds within the exhibit. In Robert Storr’s essay, Show and Tell he says, “Showing is telling. Space is the medium in which ideas are visually phrased. Installation is both presentation and commentary, documentation and interpretation.” 7

In The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium, Doug Ashford points to interpretation as something that should be fluid and not predetermined by a museum paradigm. He insists, “… we see [ourselves] as authors of identities already consolidated through consumerism.” 8 He believes that we produce a conscious notion of what we are via our relationships with objects. In his classroom at Antioch, Ashford’s intent was to create multiple realities in the museum by juxtaposing disparate artifacts that would, hopefully, challenge the viewer’s idea of meaning.

In another section of the gallery, Littman juxtaposes seemingly disparate objects in very close proximity, which gives the viewer the impression that they may have entered a different exhibit. It is a calculated effect that doesn’t fully resonate until after one has left the building. Delicate architectural thrones fashioned from bleached turkey and chicken bones – culled from countless poultry dinners – are displayed in pristine glass cases. The clear cubes with stark white bases are incongruent considering the contents. But it is clear that the painstaking attention to detail and the energy it required to make these sculptures is deserving of an ornate display case – and reverence for the artist. Directly beside these sculptures, are two walls of exquisitely rendered ballpoint ink drawings – 34 to be exact – first discovered in a wallpaper sample book. Littman continues the floral wallpaper motif behind these drawings. They are biomorphic, art deco, and cursive renderings that reveal Von Bruenchenhein’s dogged attention to detail and an ability to access an endless well of creativity. There is also an electronic version of the ballpoint drawings that the viewer can watch on a monitor. It is an interesting choice to present the drawings as digital references alongside their paper counterparts. The viewer is forced to consider the delicacy and rigor required to render such images in an age where a computer would now be used to complete such detailed work. One can also see the character of Von Bruenchenhein emerging – that of a whimsical yet determined man who harnessed his creativity despite few resources and no recognition during his lifetime. Littman leads us through a conceptual journey where we intuit the artist’s deep passion for nature and his acceptance of a metaphysical universe that could become muse or tormentor in an instant. By the time we leave the exhibit, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein has emerged as the seminal Outsider, whose creativity both alienated him and fueled his existence.


  • 1. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, Art Journal, Vol 57. No. 2 , (Summer, 1998) p 28-37, accessed February 10, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778006.
  • 2. Holland Cotter, “Building an Art of Virtuoso Ambiguity”, The New York Times, (September 9, 2010), accessed November 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/arts/design/10richter.html.
  • 3. American Folk Art Museum’s mission statement, http://www.folkartmuseum.org/.
  • 4. Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon, “With our faces to the rising sun”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? ed. Paula Marincola, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia 62.
  • 5. Brett Littman, Exhibit text panel for Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.
  • 6. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 28.
  • 7. Robert Storr, “Show and Tell”, in What Makes a Great Exhibition? Ed. Paula Marincola (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), 17.
  • 8. Doug Ashford, “The Exhibition as an Artistic Medium”, 29.

^ a b c d Cubbs, p.12

  1. ^ Cubbs, p.20
  2. ^ a b Jensen, Dean.”Late artist saw a different world”.The Milwaukee Journal.June 1987.
  3. ^ Ian S. Port (Apr. 22 2011). “Lumerians Talk Video Projections, Recording in a Church, and “Space-Rock””. SF Weekly. http://blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown/2011/04/lumerians_talk_video_projectio.php. Retrieved 2011-05-15.


  • Cubbs, Joanne (1988). Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary. John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  ISBN 0-932718-25-6

External links