Mother and Child with Bird, ca. 1970
oil pastel on paper
25.5 x 19.5 inches (64.8 x 49.5 cm)
Untitled [Portrait of a Man], c. 1967
crayon and pencil on paper
15.5 x 10 in. (39.4 x 25.4 cm.)
American, 20th century.
Born 1898, Germania, Texas; died 1993, McGregor, Texas.
Eddie Arning produced well over 2,000 crayon and Craypas drawings between 1964-1973, while living in a Texas asylum. Known for the stark economy of his compositions and his signature, stylized figuration, he’s often been characterized as a long lost modernist despite his radical isolation and lack of formal art training. It is tempting to evaluate outsider artists like Arning with insider art rubrics when such compelling correspondences arise. After all, couldn’t he be a long lost Fauve? And didn’t he beat Warhol to the punch with his clever remakes of print ads? Sure. But does this comparison game ever reveal more than the limits of the familiar textbook narrative of art history? What does it prevent us from seeing?
The circumstances leading to Arning’s artmaking are compelling. Raised in a strict Lutheran farming household near Austin, Texas, Arning was initially committed to the Austin State Asylum for his violent behavior in 1928. He was released in one year, but was recommitted to the same hospital in 1934 with a diagnosis of “dementia praecox” (an early diagnostic term for schizophrenia). It would be thirty years before Arning was provided with the materials and coaching that would allow his innate talent as an artist to emerge. A local teacher working in the hospital named Helen Mayfield gave him crayons and paper. After an initial confidence-building phase during which he responded design constraints afforded by simple coloring books, he began to try out his own compositions.
Arning’s early drawings, dating from 1964-66, are distilled memories of his youth. Often depicting farm scenes populated by animals as well as interiors that speak of family dynamics, his early work announces what would become his consistent focus on the constructive, formal aspect of image-making. His facility for manipulating form resulted in visually haunting rebuses in which only a few elements appear to survive a dreamworld into waking consciousness. People fish in timeless lakes, birds perch in trees eternally, and family members are shown interacting in changeless, loving gestures. Each drawing marks the artist’s re-construction and reckoning of his difficult past through the elements of plastic form.
Thanks to the efforts of Mayfield and others, including local art collectors Robert Cogswell and Alexander Sackton, we have an accurate accounting of Arning’s work. Their material, archival, and emotional support remained steady, despite the artist’s move from asylum to a nursing home in 1967. In 1966, Arning had begun to design his compositions with a straight-edged ruler and pencil,. By1969, he was using Craypas (oil pastels), and rubbing his surfaces to a finished sheen afforded by this medium. He began to collect and interpret images from a variety of magazines (Life, Reader’s Digest, etc). His formal inventiveness led him to create visually powerful translations of ads and illustrations. His mature work reveals a formidable intelligence and wit, seen especially in his reworked cigarette ads, as well as in ads depicting trendy clothing and lifestyle. Here his flair for shaping clear, dynamic compositions trumps his residual mimetic impulse. Arning’s deft sense of design always challenges and one-ups the images to which he responds. He flourished in this mode until 1973, when he was forced to leave his nursing home to move in with a sister. He stayed with her until his final move to another nursing home in 1977, but never drew again. He remained there until his death in 1998.
Arning’s successive projects of reconstructing memory and engaging contemporary visual culture are what drove his visual inquiry. It is exciting to point out the big moments in which he arrives at formal solutions thought to belong to earlier modernists or urban postmodernists. In charting these correspondences, why not refrain from claiming that Arning is “as good as” canonical greats? Outsiders like Arning prove that formal innovation is not the province of these few, but is in fact a potential for many.
- Jenifer P. Borum
2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
2012, Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee
2011, POP: Eddie Arning, Freddie Brice, Ray Hamilton, KS Art, New York
1985, Eddie Arning: Selected Drawings, 1964-1973, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Speed Art Museum, Louisville
Sachant, Pamela Jane. “Eddie Arning,” Raw Vision 28, Fall 1999.
Kogan, Lee. “Eddie Arning: 1898-1997.” Folk Art 22, no. 3, Fall 1997.
Paulsen, Barbara. “Eddie Arning: The Unsettling World of the Texas Folk Artist,” Texas Journal 28, #1, September 1985.