By now, it’s hardly surprising that the work of a freshly discovered outsider artist is usually astonishing. While Willem van Genk isn’t unknown, exactly—he’s been celebrated in Europe for years—he’s new to these shores, and so his work arrives here as if it had just been uncovered. And it is amazing.
Born in Voorburg, the Netherlands, Van Genk lived in the Hague. His life story pretty much follows the outsider script: Born the youngest of ten children and the only boy, he had behavioral problems that deepened a sense of isolation he escaped through drawing and an interest in geography.
Van Genk’s paintings also show the same outsider formula. Sourced from travel books and magazines, the compositions are busy and crammed with incident, representing fanciful flights to destinations such as New York, Prague and Moscow. His panoramic jumbles of figures, skyscrapers, bridges, planes and dirigibles are illustrated in scratchy outlines and textures that recall comic books and children’s drawings. Van Genk had a fascination with railroads and trams, the latter evidenced by a series of intricate cardboard models.
Raincoats were another fetish, occasioned by the trauma of a wartime interrogation at the hands of Gestapo agents in shiny trench coats. He collected dozens of examples, which he customized with patches and buttons. They’re hung here in two rows like a high-fashion boutique display.
Frenetic yet carefully composed, Van Genk’s scenes of the Brooklyn Bridge, say, or of a May Day Parade in Red Square, sweepingly convey the unnerving energy of modern times. He described his works as “symphonies that spring from the brain.” In that sense, he could be considered the Beethoven of self-taught art.—Howard Halle