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Swiss, 20th century.
Born 1864, Bern, Switzerland; died 1930, Bern, Switzerland.

One of the most hallowed artists in the pantheon of Outsider Art, Adolf Wölfli is responsible for inspiring the earliest attempt to truly recognize the Outsider as an artist. Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1864, Wölfli was orphaned at age 10, and endured consistent sexual and physical abuse within the state foster system. He worked briefly as a farm laborer until, following a series of prison terms for attempted child abuse, he was diagnosed with psychosis, and in 1895 was committed to the Waldau Clinic in Bern, where he lived and flourished creatively until his death in 1930.

Although he wrote a brief prose autobiography not long after entering the Waldau, Wölfli’s first drawings do not date until 1904. These works drew the attention of a psychiatrist at Waldau, Dr. Walter Morganthaler, who recognized his talent, and responded to the challenge of honoring it as more than simply a symptom of mental illness. Morganthaler published a seminal study of Wölfli’s work in 1921 entitled A Mental Patient as Artist with the intention of positing a universal psychological theory of creativity, earning Wölfli unprecedented recognition. In 1908 he began his autobiographical magnum opus of 2500 pages of both drawings and collages, filling 45 bound volumes. He also produced a significant archive of smaller, decorative works he called “bread art,” as they were intended to bring in a small income to pay for basic art supplies.

Thanks to the Wölfli scholar and curator Elke Spoerri, we have a clear view into this classic Outsider’s formidable oeuvre, which the artist called “Saint-Adolf-Giant-Creation” The first book, titled “From the Cradle to the Grave” (1908-1912), is an imaginary autobiography as a child, engaged in fantastical adventures. These compositions are framed by the artist’s signature ornamental border, and are marked by composite perspective, intricate cityscapes, and a mix of text and image, including his unique bestiary of ornamental birds and self-portraits, which change as the narrative evolves.



In the following book, “Geographic and Algebraic Books” (1913-16) the artist’s mythical alter ego is canonized, morphing into St. Adolf II. The next two books contain thousands of pages richly layered with poetry, coded musical compositions, and collages that have long captivated not only art audiences but also composers and musicians: “Books with Songs and Dances” (1917-1922), and “Album Books with Dances and Marches” (1924-28). He produced a final book entitled “Funeral March” between 1928 and his death in 1930. Composed not with musical notation but rather with a hybrid phonetic-numeral system exploring an image or images collaged onto the same page.

The scope of Wölfli’s genius has only begun to be fully explored in major exhibitions, and continues to present us with new discoveries and surprises. As is true of many Outsider Artists, Wölfli has influenced generations of artists who have looked not only to his work, but also to the example of his singular dedication to his artwork. 

- Jenifer P. Borum


Selected Exhibitions
2019, Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler, American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
2019, The Doors of Perception, Curated by Javier Téllez in collaboration with the Outsider Art Fair, Frieze New York
2019, Collection de l’Art Brut: Art in Obscurity, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau
2019, Me in Pictures. Five Centuries of Self-Portraits from the Collection of Prints and Drawings, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern
2018, Vestiges & Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic, American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
2017, Adolf Wölfli: A Kingdom of 25,000 Pages, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Hyogo, Japan
2016, World Made By Hand, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2015, Jean Dubuffet: Art Brut and the Collection de l'Art Brut, American Folk Art Museum, New York
2014, Art, Madness - Chocolate. Adolf Wölfli, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland
2014, Purple States, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2013, Outsiders, Naïve and Autodidacts, Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel
2012, Presentation of Works from the Adolf Wölfli Collection, Kuntsmuseum, Bern, Bern, Switzerland
2011, All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs & Karma, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
2011, All Folked Up, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2010, Intuition, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, England
2009, Approaching Abstraction, American Folk Art Museum, New York
2006, Inner Worlds Outside, traveling exhibition, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundacíon "La Caixa," Madrid; WhiteChapel Gallery, London; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
2005, Dubuffet & Art Brut, traveling exhibition, Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf; Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne; Museum of Modern Art Lille Metropole, Villeneuve-D'ascq, France
2003, The Art of Adolf Wölfli: St. Adolf-Giant-Creation, American Folk Art Museum, New York
1998, The World of Adolf Wölfli, Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art, Philadelphia
1992, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
1972, Documenta 5, Kassel, Germany

Selected Collections
American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Amulf Rainer Collection, Vienna
Charlotte Zander Museum, Cologne
Collection abcd, Montreuil
Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne
Damann Collection, Bâle
Lille Métropole Musée d'art moderne, d'art contemporain et d'art brut, Villeneuve d'Ascq
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
Museum of Fine Arts, Bern
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Treger Saint Silvestre Collection, Porto

Selected Bibliography
Stone, Lisa, Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, New York, Prestel Publishing, 2012.
Inner Worlds Outside, exhibition catalogue, Fundacíon "La Caixa," WhiteChapel Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art & Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2006.
Dubuffet & Art Brut, exhibition catalogue, 5 Continents Editions & Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, 2005.
Spoerri, Elka, Adolf Wölfli, Daniel Baumann, and Edward M. Gomez, The Art of Adolf Wölfli: St. Adolf-Giant-Creation, American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2003.
Spoerri, Elka, Adolf Wölfli: Draftsman, Writer, Poet, Composer, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1997.
Morgenthaler, Walter, and Aaron H. Esman, Madness [and] Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1992.
Tuchman, Maurice and Carol S. Eliel, eds., Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

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