2017-08-02 13:36:03
Art Review: Descending Into Madness, a Russian Scientist Turned to Drawing

Eugen Gabritschevsky was supposed to be a scientist. Born in 1893 to an eminent Russian bacteriologist and privately educated with his four brothers and sisters, he painted and drew compulsively even as a child, but spent the Revolution earning a biology degree at Moscow University, did postdoctoral research in Paris, New York and Edinburgh, and published widely. Altogether he spent nearly 40 years learning to impose order, in the form of names, theories, and family trees, on the chaos of the natural world.

But an escalating series of nervous breakdowns drove him, in 1931, to Munich, where his brother Georges lived, and where he spent most of the rest of his life confined to a psychiatric hospital. Unable to continue his scientific work, he poured his creative energies into painting, producing, by the time of his death in 1979, more than 3,000 arrestingly unfiltered gouaches. Their quality is mixed, but at their best, Gabritschevsky’s drawings are difficult to parse but unforgettably mesmerizing dispatches from some archetypal dream world.

His work was among the art brut “discovered” by Jean Dubuffet, and was also, thanks to the efforts of his brother, shown as early as the 1960s by the French gallerist Alphonse Chave. But “Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible,” a wide-ranging introduction to the onetime scientist’s lifelong project of intimate creative and psychological struggle, is his first retrospective. The show, which comes to the American Folk Art Museum in New York after earlier runs in Paris and Lausanne, was organized by Antoine de Galbert and Noëlig Le Roux of Paris’s Maison Rouge, Sarah Lombardi of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, and the Folk Art Museum’s Valérie Rousseau.

In two stiff charcoal and oil-pastel drawings made in the mid-1920s, while Gabritschevsky was studying the transmission of color in mimetic insects at Columbia, you can see, at least with the clarity of hindsight, the ominous fragility of his ability to organize experience coherently and the deadening effect of the attempt. One drawing shows a stand of New York skyscrapers, from their towering spires to the shadowy cars at their feet; the other shows two scientists hunched over a crowded lab table. In both drawings, the artist leans so heavily on a percussive contrast of black and white — making a column of space between two buildings leap out to strike the viewer’s eye and every beaker on the lab table glitter — that the overall compositions become almost illegible.

But once Gabritschevsky’s grip loosens and his inner chaos overflows its boundaries, the work comes alive. In one undated gouache, he delineates a formal walkway and three female figures in pinkish orange on a dark blue background decorated with a few windows of lighter blue and a series of fingernail-scratch arches. The figures are vivid but not detailed, and the scene is lucid but without perspectival depth. It doesn’t create the illusion of a space or structure that could be entered into, or even one worth peering at from closer up. Its meaning, in other words, doesn’t connect to any larger system but resides only in the point of personal encounter.

Another untitled gouache, this one from 1947, shows a broad, pinkish rectangle with rounded corners against a dark background. By painting a glassy brown eye at either side, along with crimson smears for nose and mouth and a quick white bow tie underneath, Gabritschevsky makes the translucent form into a face. But because you can still recognize the odd abstract shape underneath the added features, you can also see, and vicariously participate in, the artist’s creative act of imagination.

Two unforgettable last-judgment scenes make clear exactly what it was that Gabritschevsky was painting: a confusing but exhilarating emotional landscape in which every sensation or idea that can be conceived exists at once, each one locked in dynamic embrace with its own separate, small-scale context. One of the scenes includes, against its dense ripples and swirls of brown, a multidomed church sitting in the foreground, three serpentine faces drawn into the background, and a vast crowd of living souls marching out of it, as well as a small orange hydra, an easily overlooked God the Father, several angels with long trumpets, and a flying lion with bouffant mane and the elongated body of a heraldic leopard. In the other scene, drips and stains gallop like horsemen down interweaving rays of yellow and green toward a fiery orange phoenix, also composed of serendipitous drips.

In the museum’s adjacent gallery, by the sheer happenstance of scheduling logistics, is an eerily complementary concurrent show of work by Carlo Zinelli, an Italian who also spent his adult life in a psychiatric hospital painting beautiful gouaches. Like his Russian contemporary, Zinelli began with edge-to-edge catalogs of curious characters. But he went on to make his work ever sharper and more composed. His strange but lucid figures, shot through with circles of background color as if by an imaginary hole puncher, are amply balanced by judicious amounts of empty space. If Gabritschevsky might have made a fine Jungian analyst, Zinelli could have been an extraordinary graphic designer.