Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic
American Folk Art Museum, New York City
5 September – 1 December 2014
by CINDI di MARZO
Willem van Genk (1927-2005) is one of the most unusual members of a coterie of fascinating outsider artists, and not just because of his fetishes for plastic raincoats – which he obsessively collected and altered; women’s freshly washed hair – which could lead to embarrassing situations when he was in the vicinity of a hair salon; and trolley cars – which manifested in a series of fancifully embellished sculptures and an intricate trolley station he spent years building in his apartment in The Hague. Along with Adolf Wölfli, Martín Ramírez and possibly Henry Darger (who was never diagnosed as mentally ill), van Genk’s status as an artist with schizophrenia highlights a fact that is true for all genuine outsiders whatever their personal challenges: untainted by market considerations and a zeal for reputation-making, they have found a way to contain and express their inner chaos in highly original, emotionally resonant and enduring works of art.
First introduced to American audiences at the 2005 Outsider Art Fair in New York with his Keleti Station (1980-1990), van Genk remains a little-known name in US, despite his legendary status to admirers of outsider art and art brut in Europe and Japan. A large oil painting that could serve as a signature work, Keleti Station sold for a record-breaking sum a few months after the artist’s death from heart failure in 2005.1
Van Genk’s debut solo exhibition in the US, Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York, will certainly establish his genius in North America and, one hopes, stimulate serious study of his panoramic cityscapes, complex collaged renderings of what he viewed as the hidden sources of power in urban environments: transport networks, grand architectural feats, monolithic political regimes and mass media.
The 17 large paintings, collages, sculptures, drawings, sketches, books, raincoats and notations in Mind Traffic are being presented with a concurrent display of paintings by Bronx-born Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997), son of Italian immigrants, a populist and union organiser.2 An inspired curatorial compare and contrast, the two exhibitions reveal stylistic similarities between these urban-focused artists who shared an early sympathy and later disappointment with communism, and point to how their individual circumstances produced diverging priorities.
Fasanella believed that art should not be made for, and enjoyed by, a privileged few. He celebrated his Italian American heritage, immigrant status and love of New York in his paintings. In 1996, his success in capturing that life was recognised when his 1950 oil painting Subway Riders (1950) was installed in the Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street subway station.
Van Genk began to exhibit his work in the 1950s, held a disparaging view of naive or folk art, believed he should be included with the most talented artists of the day, notably Robert Rauschenberg, and frequently complained to his dealer, Nico van der Endt of Galerie Hamer, that prices paid for his art were too low. So whereas the avant-garde artist maintains that, essentially, art is about art, Fasanella asserted that art was about life. For van Genk, art was survival. Because of his concern for the display and reception of his work, some in the outsider art community have challenged van Genk’s inclusion in their ranks; for example, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art rejected him for its 1992 show Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art. Still, it seems clear that van Genk’s art was “a sophisticated device for him to process the world around him and maintain control over his daily routine and identity,” according to Dr Valérie Rousseau, curator, art of the self-taught and art brut, at AFAM, who organised Mind Traffic with Patrick Allegaert and Yoon Hee Lamot, curators at Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium, a venue dedicated to art created by those with mental illness.3
Born into a Catholic family in Voorburg, the Netherlands, van Genk was the youngest of 10 children. His mother died five years after his birth; subsequently, he became dependent on his eldest sister. His father, a member of the Dutch Resistance during the second world war, helped to hide Jewish families but was physically abusive to van Genk when the boy could not master traditional academic skills.4 From an early age, van Genk demonstrated great artistic skill and became a bibliophile with an extensive library of travel books, which are now housed at Museum Dr Guislain. He also became a connoisseur of classical music, with a particular fondness for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
The complexity of his thought processes came out in a variety of ways, such as rapid, often incoherent speech. His cityscapes reflect his crowded mindscape. Commenting on his fragmented composition, Rousseau says: “Without a sole focal point and comprised of intricately layered images with diverse subjects and small cuttings taken from preparatory sketches, they defy a linear narrative. The verso of the double-sided piece Red Square May Day Parade is filled with images of travel souvenirs, pages of notes, magazine clippings and graffiti-like inscriptions related to the scenes on the front of the work.”
From 1973, van Genk lived on his own. In 1975, his family placed responsibility for the sale of his art with van der Endt. During their 30-year relationship, van der Endt, along with writer Dick Walda,5 helped van Genk to achieve a degree of independence and realise his dream of travelling to many of the world’s largest cities. Only at the end of his life, when he was unable to care for himself, was he confined to a psychiatric hospital.
To get a personal view of the artist, Cindi di Marzo spoke with van der Endt, author of Willem van Genk: A Chronicle (2014).6
Cindi di Marzo: Congratulations on the release of your book, Nico, which offers a humanising portrait of a troubled man with an account of his career as it developed during three decades.When you opened your gallery in Amsterdam, in 1969, you dealt primarily with naive painters. In your book, you say that van Genk’s work crossed the naive, outsider art and art brut genres. Ultimately, you moved toward a more expansive definition of such artists, who had little or no training and were socially marginalised.
Nico van der Endt: In Europe, we had to deal with theoretical attempts to differentiate between various forms of so-called self-taught art, folk art, naive art, outsider art and art brut, to name the most important. While there are similarities, such as being self-taught, that is insufficient as many mainstream artists are self-taught. To me, the decisive quality is the stylistic distance from mainstream art: the greater the distance, the greater the originality. The revolutions in art also demonstrate distance, but the art is or will be in line with art history. The distance that self-taught artists maintain is of a different, fundamental kind. As many art historians have said: art can only be art if it is a reaction to art. At its best, self-taught art is not a reaction to art. The self-taught artist has little knowledge of art and, for a variety of reasons, is not interested in the theoretical problems and his or her position in the art world.
Naive art tends to reproduce the physical world, depicting souvenirs from childhood, professional activities and scenes from ordinary daily life in a surprisingly original, poetic and convincing way. Jean Dubuffet criticised naive artists for following rules based on tradition. He believed that artists who had no knowledge or aspirations were genuine artists drawing on an inner vision. I think he would not have had much appreciation for Grandma Moses, for instance.
Especially in his early work and to a certain extent in his later work, van Genk adhered to conventional compositional strategies and imagery in his cityscapes, and imbued them with strong emotions. Pure art brut presents an inner landscape of fantasies and delusions, often also fuelled by urgent feelings. Therefore, I think we can place van Genk between naive art and art brut. But how important are these distinctions? Many artists contend that there is only good art and bad art. Jane Kallir of Galerie St Etienne in New York has said: “Folk art, naive art, self-taught art and outsider art are different expressions of pretty much the same thing.” Around 1990, I decided I was happy with one umbrella term: outsider art. We do need a way to describe the differences that attract us, not the superficial similarities to mainstream art or historical styles that can be observed, which is the case nowadays with professional artists who have studied outsider art.
CDM: Van Genk’s father physically abused him. Aside from artistic skills, he was unable to function at school. In adolescence, when his family could not cope with his antisocial behaviour, he was sent to an orphanage. His psychiatrist viewed him as mentally deficient and his art of little import. In your book, you note that he often felt powerless. You also say that when you first encountered his art, you felt a remarkable sense of power.
NvdE: I recognised an ambivalent fascination for power and came to see he felt threatened by society, police and politics on the grounds of his mental constitution. He had great intelligence and powers of observation. Often, he complained that he had no friends, felt excluded and was the target of conspiracies. So when I first saw his work, I was stunned by the utter control he had over these immense recreations of dense cityscapes filled with dazzling details. I am referring here particularly to his Moscow drawings of the 50s. Initially, people could not look at them for very long. I was amazed by them and felt uncomfortable [because of] their sinister atmosphere.
CDM: Can you describe his apartment in The Hague, which became a repository for a large collection of ephemera, art, the trolleys and trolley station and, of course, the notorious raincoats?
NvdE: When I visited him in his small two-bedroom apartment, he greeted me in a friendly manner, unleashing a torrent of words that did not stop until I left. Everywhere I looked, I saw stacks of books on the floor, paintings, travel souvenirs, magazines, posters, clippings, mail, chaos at first sight, but precise order. His mail was fanned out on a round table, and a row of magazines stood neatly against the back of the couch as in a shop. The walls were partly covered, like the back of his paintings, with photos and other images, but not his own work. He kept the drawings and paintings in a corner or stored under his bed. I was visually and aurally overwhelmed and left him exhausted an hour later. At the time, he did not show me his raincoats. He was probably just starting to collect them. A year later, his wardrobe was crammed with long, shiny plastic raincoats. He changed the buttons on all of them, replacing them with heavy studs. He wore these coats for protection from a hostile world, yet he would attract attention precisely because of his coats, and he knew it.
CDM: You seem to have been very concerned with placing artworks in distinguished and promising new collections, for example Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland and Alpha Cubic International in Tokyo, and taking a measured approach to advancing his prices. How did you navigate his desire for recognition, dissatisfaction with sales figures and resistance to selling his art?
NvdE: Deep down, he never wanted to sell his work, but also fostered the dream that he would be invited to travel around the world to show it. Selling his work for travel expenses was a concession he was prepared to make. When a work sold, he complained to me that it was being sold for a pittance. I proposed to him that we stop selling to individuals; a sale to them might be considered a loss, like the works sold in Germany in 1964 that have disappeared without a trace. We were in the middle of the 80s and Lausanne, the “world headquarters of outsider art” as I like to call it, had expressed great interest and now I knew for sure we were on the right track. When he was invited to travel to Lausanne, expenses paid, he seemed pleased with the arrangement and I responded to the growing market by gradually increasing prices.
CDM: You were able to place work in many exhibitions, including solo shows in 1998 and 1999 at Museum de Stadshof in Zwolle, The Netherlands, Museum Charlotte Zander in Bönnigheim, Germany, and La Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne.
NvdE: The exhibit in Lausanne marked the beginning of his international fame. The authority of Lausanne still means a lot today, as it is the world’s most eminent collection of art brut and outsider art. I feel that the expertise and legacy of former director Michel Thévoz, later continued by Lucienne Peiry, director of international relations and research, and now Sarah Lombardi, director of the collection, remains unquestioned.
CDM: Van Genk’s desire for fame sets him apart from quintessential outsiders, Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli and English visionary artist Madge Gill, for instance. Has this been an obstacle to getting his work into exhibitions of outsider art?
NvdE: Van Genk was very aware of his qualities and considered his art to rank among the best in the world. He also acquired considerable knowledge of history and politics, which makes his art more sophisticated than many outsiders’ efforts. The real obstacles are that he was not widely reckoned to be among, let us say, the top five outsider artists, which in fact he is. Also, because he combined drawings and oils into large montages and assemblages, there are a limited number to show.
CDM: Van Genk had been exhibiting for a decade before you met him. How did his art change during the time you were his dealer, and when did he move away from drawing and painting to making dozens of model-size trolley buses?
NvdE: When I met him in 1975, the bulk of his work had already been created and he was deeply disappointed with the results. His work had failed to change his life, making him a “sane painter”, as he stated. In the first half of the 70s, he painted a series of oils, assembled boards, with aggressive scenes and strong colours. These were painted “with fury”. Thereafter, rarely new works emerged and he began focusing on the raincoats and trolleys, which gave him pleasure rather than frustration.
CDM: Your experience in the travel industry established a solid connection with the artist. He wished to visit the positive and ominous forces he believed were operating below the surface, as in subways; on the surface, as in railroad tracks; and overhead, as in tramway wiring. Aside from organising many of his itineraries, occasionally you also accompanied him. Can you tell us about one of these trips?
NvdE: We made quite a few trips together, to Paris, Zagreb, Brussels, Stockholm and the first one in 1981 to New York. He always went his own way, even in New York, where I was participating in Artexpo. I made sure the hotel had no hairdresser and booked a tour with a local guide to help him if needed. The first day, we took the subway and were astonished at the ease with which he found his way. We wondered, did he study a map before? We could just follow him to the destination. When my wife and I collected him to return home, he appeared with a dozen or so raincoats. We divided the coats between the three of us and we passed easily through customs, relieved that we had got home without complications.
CDM: Why was communism and Soviet society attractive to him, and why did he eventually become disillusioned with them?
NvdE: Van Genk felt great solidarity with the exploited and downtrodden. The Communist party, represented by Moscow, was the champion of social justice. The idea of common people uniting in order to gain power moved and inspired him. One early experience will have fuelled this, I think. When he had to relocate into a pension where there was not much room for his books, he had to sell quite a few. The next day, he went back to the shop to buy them back, but the dealer asked a high price and he went home deeply shocked and frustrated. I think 1956 marks the first shadow on his political beliefs, when Russian tanks restored order in Hungary, together with the revelation by party leader Nikita Khrushchev of the Stalin crimes. The final rift came in 1968 after the Prague Spring, when the Soviets crushed Alexander Dubček’s reform movement.
CDM: The books he purchased and pored over provide a window on van Genk’s passions.
NvdE: He was always looking for information, trying to discover the secrets of the world, in history, politics and art. I remember a heavy 12-volume encyclopedia and books on travel, architecture and public transport. He also had books on spiders, which scared him, and even a book on cruelty. I also noticed that many of them were in foreign languages, and I had my doubts whether he was able to read them. The second world war was at the centre of his attention; he had been a young, hypersensitive witness of bombings of The Hague and German soldiers in the streets. His father helped to hide Jews, and when soldiers came to the house, they slapped van Genk, who refused to tell them where his father was. He was fascinated by western urban culture, as well.
CDM: At the end of his life, van Genk was institutionalised. How did your relationship with him end?
NvdE: After his arrest, in early 1996, it was obvious that he had to be protected from himself. I, and perhaps some others, suggested to his sister Tine that she obtain legal guardianship. One year later, Willem lost some of his rights. During a meeting with his sister and some friends, it was decided that I would sell no more than one or two works a year. In view of the level of the prices, I could continue to promote his work. A niece tried to obtain guardianship, and the director of the Museum de Stadshof made regular visits for the preparation of his retrospective. When a close friend of Tine became his guardian, I thought it was time to move forward and I mentioned the creation of a foundation. The works would thus stay together, and I could possibly sell one of the many lithographs or another minor object to fund the foundation and maybe also my own participation. After the legal transfer of all works to the foundation, I felt pressure from those involved to abruptly end all efforts on behalf of the artist. I was hurt and also relieved. After three decades, the time had come for others to take over.
CDM: With your long view of both van Genk’s development as an artist and the field of self-taught art, what do you think his work and life story have to say to us now?
NvdE: Although his capabilities had been disparaged from a young age, he was keenly aware of how power politics operate on the world scene and in day-to-day life, and this is no less so today than it was when he was alive. In that sense, he was a visionary, a man discovering a universal truth about the human species. At one time he commented, almost cynically: “Every culture discriminates.” To quote a man who caused so much suffering, Adolf Hitler: “What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.” Van Genk never stopped thinking.
CDM: Thank you, Nico, for talking to Studio International about Willem van Genk. Your input has been invaluable in clarifying the sources of his extraordinarily original and meaningful art.
1. Keleti Station is now in the collection of The Museum of Everything, London.
2. Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget (2 September – 1 December), organised to mark the centennial of the artist’s birth.
3. Exhibited works are from the collection of the Willem van Genk Foundation, the de Stadshof Collection and the Museum Dr Guislain, which manages both of these collections.
4. Van Genk’s obsession with plastic raincoats is said to derive from a visit paid to his childhood home by Nazi soldiers sent to investigate his father’s activities. These soldiers’ uniforms and boots became symbols of power for the boy and took on great significance in his art.
5. Dick Walda wrote the first monograph about van Genk, Koning der Stations (De Schalm, 1997), which he then made into documentary.
6. Willem van Genk: A Chronicle by Nico van der Endt is published by Lecturis, 2014, with text in Dutch and English; hardcover, 128 pp, €34.50/US$53.50. The volume is available from AFAM’s gift shop: 646-783-5985.
For a list of events, discussions and tours scheduled for Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic, go to: http://folkartmuseum.org/?p=folk&id=12459
Willem van Genk Builds His Universe by Van Ans Berkum, published by Lannoo, Belgium, 2011.
Heterotopia: Works by Willem van Genk and Others, edited by Peter Cachola Schmal and Yorck Forster, published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2009.