The first US monographic exhibition of works of the internationally-acclaimed Dutch artist Willem van Genk (1927-2005) will be on view from September 10 through November 30, 2014 at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square in New York City. Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic will include 43 works: 17 large-scale paintings; collages; drawings; sketches and personal notes; and a selection of the artist’s sculptures of trolleys. Additionally, an installation of twenty raincoats owned by the artist, among many others he collected throughout his lifetime, will be on view. The exhibition is organized by Dr. Valérie Rousseau, American Folk Art Museum Curator of Art of the Self-Taught and Art Brut, and by Patrick Allegaert and Yoon Hee Lamot, both Curators at the Museum Dr. Guislain, Gent, Belgium.
“We take great pride in introducing the work of Willem van Genk to American audiences,” commented Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum. “Van Genk is one of the best-known figures within the art brut pantheon, widely regarded as one of the most celebrated 20th-century self-taught artists and certainly the most important from Holland.”
All of the works on view are drawn from the Willem van Genk Foundation (which retained the largest body of the artist’s work), the De Stadshof Collection, and the Museum Dr. Guislain-which managed both of these collections, as well as Van Genk’s personal library (since 2005).
Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic will provide an overview of the artist’s oeuvre with insight into his creative processes, methods, and themes. The works on view, for the most part, depict intricately layered and densely networked urban panoramas. These are populated with richly detailed buildings such as architectural landmarks, churches, cathedrals, and city blocks; transportation systems including trains and train stations, subways, motorcycles, trolleys (the streetcars of the artist’s time, which ran along electric lines), airplanes, and tanks; bridges (including the Brooklyn Bridge); pedestrians and other people who are sometimes portrayed with exaggerated facial expressions that can recall comics and cartoons; maps; city walls and objects covered with graffiti, slogans, and inscriptions, some of which is suggestive of totalitarian regimes—specifically fascism and communism. Van Genk’s artworks usually reference interconnectivity, as he believed that all things were connected via visible and invisible networks. Van Genk, an energetic and restless stockpiler of information, factoids, and trivia, was also an “unstoppable torrent of words,” according to his former art dealer Nico van der Endt.
“From this perspective, his artworks can be seen as visualizations implemented to organize and recall information,” said Dr. Rousseau. “I interpret these imaginary landscapes as ‘memory palaces,’ which served as platforms and scaffolding that enabled Van Genk to fix, immortalize, and map hidden forces. His art becomes a sophisticated device for him to process the world around him and maintain control over his daily routine and identity.”
The youngest of ten children, and the only boy, Van Genk was born in Voorburg, Netherlands in 1927. His mother died when he was five years of age and his oldest sister stepped into her role. Van Genk demonstrated behavioral problems at an early age, which was a source of irritation to his father who upon remarrying sent the boy to boarding school for a brief time. Although he revealed remarkable affinities for writing and art, Van Genk was never able to conform to the established patterns of school and he was returned to the care of his family. As an adult—diagnosed with schizophrenia—he sought to live independently and did so for much of his later life, maintaining a cluttered apartment in The Hague, where he spent most of his time working creatively. From the 1950s until his death in 2005, Van Genk created some 160 works of art (80 two-dimensional pieces, five monochrome etchings printed in multi-colored series, and 70 trolleys). He also collected raincoats, a habit that was most likely the outcome of an incident which occurred during his adolescence.
Van Genk’s father had participated in the Dutch resistance to the Nazi invasion during WWII, offering their home as a hideout for Jewish families. When Van Genk was about 17 years of age, he was subject to an interrogation by the Gestapo during a “round-up,” a terrifying event and a scene in which (art historians have surmised) the oppressors wore full-length coats. These garments became a central image and theme for Van Genk, who collected hundreds of plastic and shiny raincoats throughout his lifetime. These he embellished with additional buttonholes and sewn-on buttons or punched-in studs. At once expressions of fear and fascination, the coats symbolize power—the power to recall a traumatic event as well as the power to protect and provide a “second skin.” Van Genk believed his raincoats were integral parts of his artistic creations. He once confided to his friend, author Dick Walda, “What now drawings and collages? These raincoats, I am much further with them…For the raincoats, people shout out at you in the streets, but not for the paintings… As long as you have many of them, then nothing can happen.” He travelled to several European cities, looking for raincoats and browsing around bookstalls.