There are big acquisitions and then there are truly gigantic acquisitions. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has just landed one of the latter, acquiring a bounty of works by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein from the estate of the late artist, whose output included campy but tender photographs of his wife, scrappy ceramics, and inventive paintings.
The museum has long had the richest collection of Von Bruenchenhein’s art in the world, with 6,000 pieces by him in its holdings. The new acquisition adds 8,300 more paintings, sculptures, and photographs by him to the collection, and the museum now is in possession of the remainder of the artist’s estate.
The Kohler Arts Center had previously mounted a show of Von Bruenchenhein’s work in 2017, and Amy Horst, an associate director at the institution, said the acquisition was a way of furthering its relationship with the estate. “During our conversations with the estate [about] our shared goals that we had to preserve his work, we developed a fantastic relationship,” she said. The acquisition allows the museum to tell the “full story” of Von Bruenchenhein’s career.
During his lifetime, Von Bruenchenhein, who also went by EVB, was not widely known as an artist, though it was not for lack of trying: he sent President John F. Kennedy one of his paintings at one point. (The Oval Office thanked the artist, who worked for years at a bakery in Milwaukee, for his gift.) Today Von Bruenchenhein is best known for his photographs of his wife, which often take the form of pinup-style images in which she is posed in various states of dishabille against floral backgrounds.
In 2010, Von Bruenchenhein’s work was the subject of a retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum. His work appeared in “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” a landmark survey which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2018, and in the Massimiliano Gioni–curated central group exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The Kohler is planning to open a show of his work at its Art Preserve space, which is set to open in the fall of 2020.
The Art Preserve presentation by Von Bruenchenhein will be an environment intended to portray the all-over display of art that hung in the couple’s house. Horst said that the environment will create the effect of “people walking into his home, and seeing every part of his life packed with his work. We want to bring visitors back to that moment.”
Asked by ARTnews why the estate decided to donate its holdings to the museum, as opposed to continue selling them on the market, Lewis Greenblatt, the estate’s director, said, “That’s where it belongs.” Greenblatt added that the Kohler could take Von Bruenchenhein’s work “to the next level.”
Reached by ARTnews, Carl Hammer, a Chicago dealer whose gallery has mounted Von Bruenchenhein’s work, said that, following the acquisition, there are “relatively few” works by the artist still available for purchase. “We don’t have much left anymore” in inventory, he said.