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Charles Steffen

American, 20th century.
Born 1927, Chicago, Illinois; died 1995, Chicago, Illinois.


Chicago artist Charles Steffen created a remarkable body of work featuring strange figures that he depicted in pencil and colored pencil on large sheets of brown butcher paper and other surfaces — some as large as eight feet in height. He completed thousands of works of art while living with his mother and two siblings from 1963 to his death in 1995, however, only those made from 1989 on have survived.

Steffen's subject matter consists of self-portraits, portraits of his mother and other people, botanical subjects, religious works and nudes. Early drawings of figures are fairly realistic, yet a strange webbed netting of lines upon their skins give them an outlandish, scaly appearance. Many of his later figures depart dramatically from this approach and take on a highly stylized, peculiar and idiosyncratic quality that borrows elements from sources as disparate as French symbolist Odilon Redon and American newspaper cartoonist Fred Lasswell's "Snuffy Smith" character. Eventually, these evolve into surrealistic hybrids of humans and sunflowers.

As a young man, the artist was employed for several years as a draftsman for a design firm and briefly attended the Chicago Institute of Design, but suffered a mental breakdown. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent 13 years in a psychiatric hospital where he first began making crayon drawings of the men on his ward. He continued to make art — often as many as three drawings a day — after he was released and back home living with his family. Almost all of his works also include written texts describing his daily activities and thoughts about his life. 

Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery


Selected Solo Exhibitions

2012, Charles Steffen, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne

2013, Charles Steffen, Galerie Christian Berst, Paris

2010, Charles Steffen: Drawing Nudes Is Like Saying a Prayer, Amen, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

2008, Charles Steffen: Nudes/Portraits/Flowers, Russell Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago

Selected Group Exhibitions

2009, In Through the Out Door, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

2009, In the No, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

2009, Art Brussels, Andrew Edlin Gallery, Brussels

2009, Salon du Dessin Contemporain, Andrew Edlin Gallery, Paris

Selected Collections

High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Selected Bibliography

"Review: Charles Steffen," New Yorker, February 15, 2010.

Johnson, Ken, "Art in Review," New York Times, January 29, 2010.

Bonesteel, Michael, "Alligator People, One-Eyed Nudes and the Creation of Cartoon Brut," Raw Vision, Spring 2008.

Stillman, Nick, "Charles Steffen," Art Forum, Summer 2007.

Glueck, Grace, "Art in Review," New York Times, January 26, 2007.

McKinnon, John, "Charles Steffen," TimeOut Chicago, 2006.

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