Philadelphia Wireman // New Inventory Masterworks

Philadelphia Wireman // New Inventory Masterworks

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A solo show featuring Philadelphia Wireman, and a group presentation of important 20th century self-taught artists.

About this event

Philadelphia Wireman /

New Inventory Masterworks

June 9 – August 19, 2022

Opening, Thursday June 9, 12–7pm


Fleisher/Ollman is pleased to announce two summer exhibitions: a solo presentation of Philadelphia Wireman and New Inventory Masterworks.

For Fleisher/Ollman’s first solo presentation of Philadelphia Wireman since 2006, the gallery supplements inventory holdings with pieces drawn from longstanding collections of the work, some going back as far as the first Philadelphia Wireman show in 1985. Including approximately 35 works, this is a rare opportunity for the public to experience these sculptures en masse.

Discovered in the late 1970s in trash bags on a Philadelphia alley off of South Street, these remarkable things have sparked intense speculation regarding who made them and for what purpose. As discarded items in a neighborhood undergoing development and with the failure of all attempts to locate the maker, it seems likely that the objects were thrown away after the artist died. The entire collection totals approximately 1,200 pieces (our exhibition will present about 35 works) and a few small, abstract marker drawings. The dense construction of the work, despite a modest range of scale and materials, is singularly obsessive and disciplined in design: a wire armature or exoskeleton firmly binds various found objects, including plastic, glass, product packaging, adhesive tape, rubber, batteries, pens, leather, reflectors, nuts and bolts, nails, foil, various mechanical parts, bottle caps, camera flash bulbs, coins even a feather. Several sculptures featured here appear to contain drawings on paper or masking tape presumably by the artist; it appears the Wireman occasionally embedded existing art into the wire matrices.

The Philadelphia Wireman sculptures conjure a range of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and socio-cultural interpretations and have been discussed in the context of work created to fulfill the shamanistic needs of alternative religions in American culture. Curators, collectors, and critics have variously compared certain pieces to Native American medicine bundles, African-American memory jugs, and African fetish objects. Philadelphia Wireman, whatever their identity, possessed an uncanny ability to transform ordinary materials into power objects. Over the course of the past three decades, this collection has come to be regarded as an important discovery in the field of self-taught art.

New Inventory Masterworks features an impressive roster of 20th century artists who are regarded as pioneers in the self-taught realm and are increasingly recognized for their contributions to American Modernism. Several of the artists, including William Hawkins, Frank Jones, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Nellie Mae Rowe, Bill Traylor, and Joseph Yoakum, arrived at art-making late in life. As marginalized African Americans who were poor, elderly (or at least middle-aged), displaced, or incarcerated (as in the case of Frank Jones), it was only after they could no longer work for a living that they were able to give full attention to their creative impulses. In contrast to the trajectories of this group, James Castle—who was white, born deaf and never learned to speak, sign, or write—began making art at a young age and continued with prolific zeal until his death at the age of 78. Castle, unlike the artists of color presented here, could afford to devote his entire life to his art through the support of his family.

For some, part of the attraction to self-taught art lies in the narrative of discovery (see the Philadelphia Wireman story, for example). To this day, Castle’s art is occasionally found bundled behind walls of his family home decades after his death. Even more stunning was the discovery of Pearl Blauvelt’s entire body of work, found in a wooden box in her abandoned family home as it underwent renovations in northeast Pennsylvania. As in the case of Castle, the discovery occurred years after her death (she died in 1987). Here, we present a sampling of Blauvelt’s drawings that share affinities with Castle in terms of domestic subject matter and landscape.

To enter the building, locate Fleisher/Ollman on the touchscreen intercom to the far right of the door on Percy Street. There is also an intercom and an accessible entrance on the North side of the building on Green street.

We kindly ask that visitors continue to wear masks inside the gallery.

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