I absolutely loved the Unica Zürn show at the Drawing Center, which is up for a few more days. But one of the things that has really stuck with me after seeing it and reading the catalog essays, is that this is the first exhibition I can think of that attempts to simultaneously contextualize an artist both as serious sufferer of mental illness and also as a legitimate member of an avant-garde art scene, without heavily shifting the weight of the interpretation of her work to one or another camp.
It’s a tough line to walk – Zürn was hospitalized several times and diagnosed as a schizophrenic (although it bears mentioning that the terminology and methods of diagnosing patients with mental illness have changed dramatically even in just the 40 or so years after her death). Her writings clearly point to a kind of mental disturbance that was above and beyond merely dabbling with the unconscious. And yet, that’s exactly what the Surrealists – with many of whom she hung out – did: they played around with their psyches, often trying to bring about some sort of “extreme” or “pure” connection to that whole realm. So it would seem a little unfair to say that if Andre Breton scribbles on a piece of paper, it’s automatic writing, but when Unica Zürn does it, it’s… an expression of insanity?
So that’s the line that the exhibit and its catalog has to walk – on one hand, you have heaps of evidence that this woman was very sick, but on the other you can’t ignore that she was an accepted member of a smart, educated, elite group of artists and writers. And for the first time in my memory, you have an exhibit that tries to present both sides equally, neither glossing over or over-romanticizing her illness, and not hiding behind the veil of art history to explain away all those crazy doodles. In my mind, this is an exciting moment, because it’s a stretching of the definition of “insider” and “outsider” artist way more than I’ve ever seen – which is fantastic, as those terms are useless, outdated, and stupid anyway.