Charles A. A. Dellschau, Plate 2333; Long Cross Cut on Wather on Land and up to the Clouds, 1911, pencil and watercolor on paper, 13 1/4 x 19".
A RESCUE-AND-RECOVERY NARRATIVE is fundamental to all outsider art: Revelatory works are saved from forgotten archives, abandoned apartments, and mental-hospital closets, and spirited away to museums and Park Avenue apartments. The storytelling frisson of the near miss imbues these works with an aura of serendipity as well as preciousness. Charles A. A. Dellschau, a German-immigrant butcher, spent his retirement in the first decades of the twentieth century creating a dozen densely illustrated booklike collections of airship images. After his death in Houston at age ninety-three in 1923, the tomes languished in the attic of his family’s house until the early ’60s, when a fire in another part of the building forced the removal of potentially flammable material. Deposited in the gutter, the artwork was gathered up—either from the curb or at the dump, no one quite knows—by a furniture refinisher who carelessly buried the pages under carpets in his shop until eventually someone recognized their value. Outlasting multiple threats—neglect, fire, disposal, and neglect again—Dellschau’s drawings and collages are the survivors of a cliff-hanging tale.
The work itself carries a sense of peril: The self-taught artist drew almost exclusively flying machines—elaborately detailed and sublimely jerry-rigged—that, if ever built, wouldn’t gain altitude, and if one or two did, would surely plummet soon after. Dellschau spent several years during the 1850s hanging out with the Sonora Aero Club in California, a period that provided inspiration for the balloons and steam-driven dirigibles that continued to fascinate him well after the Wright brothers’ accomplishments. (Many of his airship images have been collaged with newspaper photos and accounts of airplanes, the black-and-white materials suggesting a dire diminishment for air travel—from wondrous Klee-like contraptions to mere aerodynamics.) Circus hued, intricately drafted, these airborne objects are those that arrive in dreams, wheels and pulleys whirring musically, a great dynamo of effort that is belied by the gracefulness of flight. With its title—Long Cross Cut on Wather on Land and up to the Clouds—evoking both the engineer and the poet, the above imagining of an airship and its uniformed crew (there’s even a chef, it seems) signals the grandness of Dellschau’s vision. It might not be your preferred mode of conveyance for a flight to a family reunion in Atlanta, but if you have somewhere less routine in mind (Oz? Atlantis?), the artist invites you to climb aboard.