One wintry Sunday afternoon in the mid-1980’s, some friends and I piled into a car and headed up Rte. 17 into the Catskill Mountains. In a couple of hours, we exited at Loch Sheldrake, NY, and found our way to a rural mobile home belonging to Andrew Pfriender, aka Grandpa Pfriender. He and his wife greeted us warmly; we followed them down pathways created by stacks of artwork and materials. There was just enough space to get from room to room, and evidence of the artist’s work was basically everywhere you looked or stepped.
Pfriender’s work had recently been seen by a painter friend of mine in a local thrift shop. The opportunity to look him up in person was facilitated by little labels (the free ones you get with solicitations in the mail) stuck to the back of his work.
As an outsider artist, Pfriender’s work does not have the characteristic trademark of obsession with a singular process, material, or image that often can lead to a particular kind of elegance. Instead, his work is raw and, in terms of imagery and materials, anything and everything available appears to go into it. There was no coolness or reserve that acted as a filter for his imagination. His paintings and sculptures, sometimes almost embarrassing in their goofy enthusiasm, chronicle much that interested, amused, moved him or crossed his path during his 77 years of life. The world according to Andrew Pfriender.
One of the tools Pfriender employed to tell his stories was a little “text label,” usually written in ballpoint pen (with frequent! exclamation! points!) that was sometimes attached to the front of his paintings.
These texts let us know, for example, that the Brooklyn-born Pfriender once saw Liberace getting out of a limo at Radio City Music Hall. A fantastic hot pink cape, a cerulean blue, fox fur coat, and blue and yellow uniformed police are sharp hits of saturated color against a muted backdrop of silver and grey violet. The details include tiny jewel-like pieces of shattered glass to represent rings on every single finger, as well as a delicate line drawing of Liberace’s reflection in the piano top, next to the candelabra. There is no mistaking Pfriender’s delight in Liberace, but his own brush with celebrity and his ability to immortalize their encounter through his art seems at least as important. (See the close proximity of their names on the painting.)
Pfriender also clearly revered God and the Bible (many Biblical quotations become titles of works), as well as several god-like beings: the Pope, the Kennedys, the Beatles, and Elvis. Artists, entertainers, and moments in history, both political (the bombing of London), and cultural (a sneak preview of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo at work), find their way into his work. Pfriender, in a Zelig-like projection of self, becomes a witness to history.
The material nature of much of Pfriender’s works could only be described as inclusive (imagine a salad made with all the ingredients in a salad bar). The actual art materials he used were the kind you might get at a craft store or maybe a five and dime. They suited and reinforced the vernacular of his work. Occasionally, he collaborated with his wife and incorporated small bits of her crochet work. In addition, Pfriender collected and utilized every sort of scavenged and found material – broken glass, yarn, scraps of wood, metal, and plastic, as well as random discarded hardware. In the same way that he collected experiences, he collected materials and scraps that to him were rife with potential, feeding his imagination. A broken ornate chair backing became both the stylized stormy waves of the sea and the boat that is tossed about by them. His openness and imagination were fluid, moving between form and meaning, picking up innuendo and backstory in the process.
Pfriender very rarely painted on a blank or even smooth surface. He seemed attracted to things that had a previous life or a character that helped generate his imagery and ideas. He particularly liked rough wood, often carving into it to suit his needs, or a paper surface with images already on it. At least once he worked into an existing thrift shop painting and, determining it was quite good enough already, he decided only to sign his name to it.
My general impression was that Pfriender’s awareness of art history was fairly limited, but sometimes connections to other painters appear, whether intentional or not. Are You Guys for Real?, another painting on found wood, contains mythological creatures who would be at home in a painting by Gustave Moreau. The palette of tropical colors and the flattened forms imbedded in the flow of the painting and hugging its edges are reminiscent of Bonnard or Vuillard.
Our encounter with Pfriender and his work culminated in a show called “Wild Surmise” at PS 122 in New York City in February, 1986. It featured several of Pfriender’s pieces and also work by a few of the artists, myself included, who admired his irrepressible visual imagination.
After the opening, we went out to a big Chinese restaurant, where Pfriender and his family, though somewhat flummoxed by the odd looking food, seemed delighted. He must have felt like the world was finally beginning to understand him. Perhaps he imagined that the culturally and historically significant world he mingled with in his artwork had finally entered his life in a more substantial way. (He had christened himself “Grandpa” Pfriender with a nod to the painter Grandma Moses).
In the end, I think he expected more from this moment of “fame” in the art world, and perhaps was a bit disappointed that his life was not more transformed by it. Some of us were trying to find him gallery representation with one of the outsider art dealers. However, he lived less than a year after his New York debut.
One of his paintings is of Jimmy Durante who stands in the spotlights and delivers his trademark sign off phrase: “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
As I write this now, many years later, I would like to send him a similar thought: Good night, Pfriender, wherever you are.
Ken Buhler, Shakespeare’s Garden #21, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 38 x 84 inches