Where Outsider Art Got a Warm Welcome Before It Was Cool

Where Outsider Art Got a Warm Welcome Before It Was Cool

PHILADELPHIA — Eugene Von Bruenchenhein never sold a piece of his art during his lifetime, but Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz have plenty of examples of it in their home near Rittenhouse Square. Among their prized ceramics by Von Bruenchenhein are fantastical little thrones some six inches tall, constructed from chicken bones salvaged from TV dinners; dazzling crowns; and lacy, tabletop towers.

“He was a baker, so he low-fired the ceramics in his oven and then spray-painted them,” said Mrs. Bonovitz, also a ceramic artist who began making vases after living with Von Bruenchenhein’s elaborate creations. She displays her more minimalist white porcelain vessels in juxtaposition with his pieces on inset shelves.

Near the front door, as if to hail visitors, are wooden figures of a preacher and his wife, carved at three-quarters life size by the Appalachian artist S.L. Jones.

“When we moved here, we placed all the art first and then bought the furniture,” said Mrs. Bonovitz, surrounded by the work of Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, Howard Finster, Purvis Young and James Castle among other sought-after self-taught artists and some obscure ones.

“We know the field of American outsider art as well as anybody,” said Mr. Bonovitz, chairman emeritus of the law firm Duane Morris. The couple was seeking out idiosyncratic works that spoke to them long before there was an Outsider Art Fair and major museums were acquiring this kind of work.

Mrs. Bonovitz, daughter of the dealer Janet Fleischer, grew up surrounded by the eclectic tastes of her mother, whose Philadelphia gallery was one of the first in the country to show self-taught artists in the 1970s.

Do you have to agree on things?

JILL BONOVITZ Over the years, our taste has grown more similar.

MR. BONOVITZ Jill and I agree on 95 percent of the work, if not more. I’m Mr. Acquirer. I like the art of the deal. Jill doesn’t.

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