The combination of visionary and quotidian elements in the work of Charles Steffen attests to both a wildly poetic visual imagination and an uneventful daily life. His drawings – in graphite and colored pencil on large sheets of brown paper – possess a unique and timeless quality; they resemble pages from an idiosyncratic self-referential field guide with sunflowers, crucifixions and figures complemented by scrawled diaristic ruminations. The figures are often transparent, as if their nerve cells and fibers were on display, and surrounded by aureoles of gray light; bodies and flowers often merge into each other. A drawing of a biomorphic nude (modeled on ‘the girl next door’) in an otherworldly landscape is accompanied by text that reads “I slept well last night, eat some breakfast and worked on this drawing, had fruit loops for breakfast,” while a double portrait of his mother – a frequent subject – is accompanied by some characteristically self-deprecatory observations upon his artistic struggles: “The drawing on this side is beautiful in comparison to the other, oh well.”
The eldest son in a family of eight children, Steffen studied art at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s but his education was cut short by a mental breakdown, which resulted in a fifteen-year stay at the Elgin State hospital, where he underwent electroshock therapy for schizophrenia. It was there that he began to draw, but his prodigious early output was discarded. Upon his release, Steffen lived with his family and spent most of his time producing art. After his mother died and the family house was sold, he moved into a retirement home in Chicago, where he died, at the age of sixty-eight, in 1995.
Charles Steffen CV Highlights
Solo exhibitions of Charles Steffen’s work have taken place at the Collection de L’Art Brut, Lausanne (2013), Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York (2007, 2010), and Galerie Christian Berst, Paris (2012). His work has appeared at art fairs including the Outsider Art Fair (New York and Paris) Salon Du Dessin Contemporain (Paris), and the Armory Show (New York) and is in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum, New York, the Collection de L’Art Brut, Lausanne, The High Museum, Atlanta, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Intuit, Chicago. Charles Steffen’s art has been reviewed in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, Art in America and Art Forum.