When the Curtain Never Comes Down: An Exhibition on Performance Art and the Alter Ego; Opens March 26 at American Folk Art Museum

  • NEW YORK, New York
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  • March 16, 2015

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Photo by Stefan Hartmaier. Gustav Mesmer (1903–1994) on his flying machine, Buttenhausen, Germany 1990. © Courtesy Stefan Hartmaier/Gustav Mesmer Foundation

An exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, from March 26th through July 5th, 2015, will explore enactment, a potent aspect of self-taught art and art brut which reveals the aesthetic virtue of the intangible as opposed to the product or object. When the Curtain Never Comes Down will explore performance art by the self-taught, documenting the practices of some 27 artists from around the world (alive and deceased), spotlighting the ceremonies, rituals, and other expressive gestures and actions in which they engage. More than 275 works will be exhibited in a variety of media, including handmade clothing and costumes; mobile sculptures; ephemeral installations; photographs, video, and sound; fragments of ever-changing constructions involving movement, storytelling, and songs; and other components such as drawings, handmade books, jewelry, and mixed media instruments.

Photo by Dimitri Ganzelevich. Raimundo Borges Falcão (dates unknown) in his carnival disguise at Carnival Fantasia “Blue Shark.” Near Salvador, Bahia, Brazil 2000. Color photograph, 7 x 5". Courtesy Beate Echols

An illustrated publication, with an introductory essay by American Folk Art Museum curator of self-taught art and art brut Dr. Valérie Rousseau—the curator of the exhibition—will be available in the Museum Shop in late March. (More information about the catalog can be found at the end of this release and online at www.folkartmuseum.org.)

Commented Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director:  “The American Folk Art Museum continues its long history of introducing and championing art that is overlooked by larger and more mainstream museums.  This is our niche.  When the Curtain Never Comes Down advances this mission by displaying unparalleled and original scholarship as well as rarely exhibited documentation and forms of art.”

Performance art has become an acclaimed aspect of mainstream culture and a staple of museums worldwide. The embodiments and actions of self-taught artists, however, are just now coming to the fore as a result of increased attention to non-academic art in general.  When the Curtain Never Comes Down is the first museum exhibition to survey these works under the umbrella term “performance art.”

Overview of the Exhibition

Marie Lieb lived in a psychiatric hospital in Germany at the end of the 19th century. Repeatedly, she spread torn strips of cloth across the floor of the hospital’s communal room, arranging them into flower-like and star-shaped patterns, which changed with each “installation.” The ephemeral nature of this practice and Lieb’s status as a patient nullified the possibility that her creations could be considered “art,” not to mention the fact that canonical art history had not yet come to accept performance as a visual art form. One of the major questions raised by the exhibition is one that relates to the conceptual in art:  museums and collectors seek the tangible—the object—while the intent of many artists is specifically the ephemeral, transitory, and intangible.  Only two sepia-toned photographs of Lieb’s installations remain; projections of these will be on view in When the Curtain Never Comes Down.

Deborah Berger (1956–2005) Mask, East Windsor, New Jersey. Before 1984. Knitted orlon, 26 1/2 x 33 1/4 x 13". Collection American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, gift of the Art Council of New Orleans, FIC.2014.67. Photo by Mary Dwan. Courtesy American Visionary Art Museum

Many of the artists included in the exhibition are known; they operate or exhibit their work within the community and their presence clashes with the surrounding culture.

Antonio Barichievich (b. 1925, Zagreb; d. 2003, Montreal), for example, is a “strongman,” one of many within this Canadian folk tradition who are able to perform outstanding feats of physical prowess, such as lifting a car. Known as “The Great Antonio,” Barichievich assembled intricate self-referential and aggrandizing collages (on view in the exhibition) and distributed them as postcards to passers-by.  The Brazilian Raimundo Borges Falcao (b. 1940s, Brazil) is the embodiment of an expressive sculpture.  He travels throughout his home town on handmade roller skates during Mardi Gras, adorned in all manner of totem-like decoration and flaunting scepters—all made from textile fragments, leather, plastic, string, rope, tinsel, paper, carpeting, bubble wrap, seashells, Christmas ornaments, plastic bottles, paint, candy, and more—in homage to the Afro-Brazilian sea-goddess Yemanya.  Similarly, Eijiro Miyama (b. 1934) of Japan outfits himself in a spectacularly colorful presentation, which he displays throughout his Yokohama hometown by riding a similarly costumed bicycle.  Martial Richoz (b. 1963; still active) constructs “trolleybuses,” or pseudo-trolleys, which he ritualistically operates among Lausanne pedestrians, following routes, making stops, and interacting with passers-by. 

Other artists—Deborah Berger (b. 1956, New Jersey; d. 2005, Louisiana); Charlie Logan (1893-1984, Illinois); Melina Riccio (b. 1951, Italy); Vahan Poladian (b. 1902, Armenia;         d. 1982, France) and Rock N Roll (b. 1942, Michigan; still active) to name but a few whose works will be on view—invest clothing and garb with meaning beyond utility and aesthetics.  Elaborate masks, headwear, coats and coverings, skirts, pants, jackets, accessories, and other spectacular attire—sewn, attached, or assembled from fiber, found materials, and other media—will be included.  A film documenting the elaborate pontifical creations of Palmerino Sorgente (b. 1919, Italy; d. 2005, Canada), also known as the “Pope of Montreal,” will be shown, as will a scrapbook of his notes titled “La Nuova Santa Bibela” and drawings he made with nail polish. Astonishing ensembles (coats, sweaters, boots, hats, skirts, dresses) by Giuseppe Versino (b. 1882, d. 1963) of Torino, Italy, made from densely knitted cotton, yarns, and rags, which he wore for their protective powers, will be exhibited. Included also will be an extensive collection of crowns and headpieces by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (b. 1910, d. 1983), a Wisconsin artist who is well-known for the pseudo pin-up photographs he made of his wife, Marie, among other works.

The singing and chanting of Lonnie Holley (b. 1950, still active; Alabama), one of the most acclaimed self-taught African-American artists in the US, will be featured, as will recordings of dramatically amplified mosquitos, bees, and nature sounds assembled by Hans Krüsi (1920-1995), a Swiss artist who also made Kuhmaschines (Cow Machines), which he displayed and operated at an upscale flower market.

Joe Coleman’s (b. 1955, USA) paintings and immersive creative processes result in painstakingly rendered collections of historical events and his own personal experiences: the attributes of a dear friend, affinities with certain artists and writers, recollections of health crises, and recurrent fragments recalling his past performances—the autopsy he conducted and his 1980s exploding act as Professor Mombooze-o—for example. Three works by Coleman will be on view.

Among other themes documented in When the Curtain Never Comes Down, the idea of “superpower” permeates many of the artworks.  Bill Anhang (b. Poland, 1931), a former engineer living in Montreal, fashions armor-like garb and other sculptural forms from aluminum, outfitting them with light-emitting diodes (inserted into perforations within the metal), which he programs with microprocessors. His works then become illuminated, kinetic devices (similar to light shows). Gustav Mesmer (1903-1994, Germany), who was fascinated by flight, created flying machines. Among other highlights of this remarkable exhibition, one of six phenomenal sets of wings he constructed will be on view, along with drawings, sketches, small models, and a film documenting his attempts to become airborne.

Dr. Rousseau has written:  “All these elements have somehow been relegated to secondary importance in comparison with the more conventional self-taught art forms like painting, drawing, and sculpture. While there has been a growing interest in this area, proportional to the growing presence of performance art within art world institutions and the market, it remains little studied to date.”

Pervading the works on view are questions and ideas about conservation versus ephemerality. Fernando Oreste Nannetti (1927-1994), who lived in a psychiatric hospital in Italy, carved miniscule inscriptions and drawings in a work that completely covered the walls of the hospital’s courtyard—180 meters long by 120 cm high (roughly 590 feet long by four feet high). This extensive work will be shown in full on a touchscreen. Another compelling aspect of performative, ceremonial, and ritualistic art is the notion that it exists with or without the presence of an audience; the work of Frenchman Jean Loubressanes (dates unknown), who carved exquisite amulets and charms will document this phenomenon, as will the work of Theodor “Theo” Waggeman (1918-1998, Germany), who conducted excursions through local woods and forests where he hid small found objects he collected.

Defined by the expressive actions of the artist, and often embodied by the artist him- or herself, these works are interdisciplinary and marked by non-conformity to conventional artistic or theatrical constructs. In essence, their aesthetic power is derived from the actions of the artist, which fully constitute the work.


Major support for the exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts: Art Works. Additional support is provided by Joyce Berger Cowin, the David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

The works on view in When the Curtain Never Comes Down are drawn from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, NY, and the following prestigious organizations: American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Collection Estate of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Chicago; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan; Collection Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta; Collection Harris Family and The Saint Paul Spiritual Holy Temple, Memphis; Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil;Darling Foundry, Montréal, Canada; LaM-Art Moderne, Art Contemporain, Art Brut, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France; Collection Dr. Pailhas, Fondation du Bon Sauveur, Albi, France; Gustav Mesmer Stiftung, Kirchentellinsfurt, Germany; Collection Prinzhorn, University Hospital Heidelberg, Germany; Museo di Antropologia ed Etnografia, Turin, Italy;

Museo di Antropologia criminale Cesare Lombroso, Turin, Italy; Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, Switzerland; Archives Museum of Fine Arts, Bern, Switzerland; Kunstmuseum Thurgau, Warth, Switzerland; and from private collections in the US and abroad.


A publication titled When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego (American Folk Art Museum, 2015) will be available at the American Folk Art Museum Shop and online (www.americanfolkartmuseum.org) in late March. It includes a foreword by Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Director, American Folk Art Museum, and an essay and texts by Dr. Rousseau, as well as the editorial contributions of Savine Faupin, Curator in Chief, LaM - Musée Art Moderne, Art Contemporain, Art Brut, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Lille; Thomas J. Lax, Associate Curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director, Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Galleries, London; Michel Thévoz, former director, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne; and other scholars, curators, and collectors working around the world.

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