8.14.17 — Experimenting on Himself

In 1926, at the very peak of his career, Eugen Gabritschevsky reported on “Experiments in Color Changes and Gender.” He was not yet describing his art.

Back then, Gabritschevsky was a biologist, with a specialty in insects. (That 1926 paper was about spiders.) The son of a bacteriologist, he had grown up in the most elite and progressive circles of tsarist and revolutionary Russia, at home among scientists, diplomats, and Tolstoy. Eugen Gabritschevsky's Untitled (Galerie Chave, 1949)Fluent in English, he had just wrapped up his postdoc at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan, the leading geneticist of his age, and was settling into a post in Paris. In only five more years, he had lost it all to mental illness—but his greatest experiments were just beginning. For the American Folk Art Museum, through August 20, he spent the rest of his life in a “Theater of the Imperceptible.”

Insects live fast and die young. Not him. Sent to an asylum in Germany in 1931, Gabritschevsky was only slowly picking up the pieces and discovering his art. Some of it still looks like scientific illustration, including exquisite bird studies in his chosen medium, gouache on paper. Folding and blotting brings out the symmetry and segmentation of, once again, insects—if not also a Rorschach test. The show’s title brings out the parallels between his lives. He was making the imperceptible visible, just as he had behind a microscope.

Increasingly, the imperceptible belongs not to the furthest reaches of the senses, but to the mind. In his madness, he can experiment only on himself. The birds morph into faces, their color and gender no longer intact. Forms multiply, with the obsessiveness of folk art—and who is to say what is glorious and what is a nightmare? Memories of Moscow before the revolution become images of crowded theaters, but of solely the audience in fancy dress and with mere dots for eyes. Gabritschevsky’s subject has become the pageant not of art and nature, but of the perceiver.

He might have seen the changes coming as early as his stay in New York. A crowded skyline in charcoal has one foot in science fiction, with seemingly familiar towers rising a good five years before construction of the Chrysler building began. A man leans over his microscope in the laboratory, but in near darkness. Seen from the back, he is and is not the artist. Then, too, the move from hard science was never quite complete. Species other than people join the lost souls at the Last Judgment, and men with odd growth for heads could be suffering from a physical as well as mental disease.

Those crusty heads look right out of Jean Dubuffet, and Gabritschevsky’s brother wrote for encouragement. The French painter was polite but measured. Gabritschevsky, he explained, was not turning against “l’art classique” but rather “handling” it. He had done so before in charcoal, with those skyscrapers informed by Modernism—or with a ghostly man in the woods informed by Symbolism and Edvard Munch. The Last Judgment, too, is a classical subject, rendered in lush browns. Yet its god is only a small point of light, and its tiers belong just as much to the artist’s theaters of Moscow and the mind.

Maybe Gabritschevsky never had time to become an outsider or an artist, as his state of mind grew worse. Work belongs almost entirely to the 1940s, although he died only in his mid-eighties, in 1974. The museum pairs him with Carlo Zinelli, an Italian who took up art in an asylum well into his forties. Zinelli had served both in a slaughterhouse and (by devilish coincidence) in combat, he exhibited with Art Brut, and his work became more cramped, chaotic, and colorful right up to his death. Gabritschevsky, by comparison, was at least half in control of his experiments all along. They just had a way of turning on him.

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