Hell on earth: The artist termed his work “The Richard Saholt Story”
By Michael Bonesteel
To paraphrase the words of the Howard Beale character in the 1976 film Network, Richard Saholt (1924-2014) was mad as hell, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. Why was he so angry? Two catastrophes occurred in his life. The first involved his upbringing; the second was his participation in World War II. Of the first, all we have are Saholt’s own memories, and, because he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, we cannot be sure if they were accurate. But, as his art so passionately verifies, we are absolutely convinced he felt his memories to be true.
On a personal note, let me say I am not really sure Richard Saholt’s work is art at all—or at least art in the traditional sense. Like much Art Brut work that has entered the cultural mainstream over the past 150 years, Saholt’s astonishing creations force us to broaden our definition of, and perhaps even redefine (if it can really be defined at all), what art actually is. I have always been awed by the best of Saholt’s collages, yet I’ve never been tempted to own one of them. I possess the collection of work in the Intuit exhibition, “Mad as Hell: The Collages of Richard Saholt,” because he bequeathed them to me upon his death. Like the most extremely violent carbon-traced watercolor drawings of Henry Darger (or, for that matter, certain extreme pieces by Francisco Goya, Otto Dix or Joe Coleman), I am hesitant to hang Saholt’s work in my home, as many are too disturbing to confront on a daily basis. But with this distinction: Darger’s (and Goya’s, Dix’s and Coleman’s) extreme work is disturbing because of the violent depiction of human mutilation; Saholt’s extreme work is disturbing because of the rage and psychological pain he inflicts upon the viewer through the combination of unsettling words and images. It is a different kind of violence, to be sure, but it is violence, nonetheless.
But let us be brave and try to understand this man and his work.
Inborn errors of metabolism!
A Saholt masterpiece titled Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde may be his definitive psychological self-portrait. It contains four photographs of the artist in his later years, an assemblage of images of monsters from movie stills and magazine illustrations, as well as male and female faces betraying various states of anxiety and fear. He is not only picturing himself and the dark, monstrous side of his own personality, but he is projecting the vision to include others, men and women like ourselves, thereby pulling us, his viewers, into the nightmare. Images are juxtaposed with words and phrases appropriated from newspapers, magazines and other sources: “madness,” “painful,” “rage,” “depression,” “violence,” “suicide,” “psychosis,” “crazy!” “disturbed minds,” “the torment of a schizophrenic,” “the victim cycle,” “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”
The effect is like concrete poetry that has been cemented together with images that interpret the text. More than that, Saholt demonstrates how effective the interweaving of image and text can be. While he sometimes includes longer paragraphs clipped from newspaper stories, it is really the shorter words and phrases that pack the biggest punch, because they are most immediately communicated and, thus, accost the viewer most potently.
If it were not for the complex and intricate lyrical design and placement of his pictorial and verbal configurations, it would indeed be difficult to look at Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. As it is, the onslaught of volatile information is not only made tolerable, but it is quite skillfully and beautifully arranged. Still, as if this were not enough, Saholt covers the entire verso side of the work with hand-written messages: “The whole family relationship was extremely and highly disturbed from beginning to end! My Dad and two sisters and brother were schizophrenic! Everybody suffered from inborn errors of metabolism! My Dad and one sister were violent and they were trouble from day one! My mother was blacking out all the time! Dad was to blame for this! There was schizophrenia on my mother’s side! Mother was destroyed by this insane, deranged bastard!”*
“This can be passed on to kids of combat veterans! My sister Ginny and I got it the worst! My Dad never recovered from World War I! The war turned him into a deadly monster! He was the Father from Hell! The whole family was devastated by this! I was destroyed by two wars!”
The messages on the verso side elaborate somewhat more intellectually the raw emotional information on the recto side. The former are very much like the smaller works Saholt has created that contain far fewer collaged images and more hand-written text. These, in turn, are invariably almost identical to the many urgent letters he sent off over the years, punctuated by exclamation points and underlined words, repeatedly asking the receiver to hear the tragic story of his life—what he came to call in his artworks “The Richard Saholt Story.” While this title appears embedded in various collages, the work that officially claims The Richard Saholt Story and embodies it most spectacularly is a large, appropriated textbook (A Psychiatrist for a Troubled World by William Claire Menninger) with approximately half of its pages covered with collaged words and images. The obsessive approach that usually unfolds across his larger collaged works is here confined to page after page of dense, unrelenting, almost claustrophobic illustrated narrative.
Because of Saholt’s own mental illness, we must take everything he communicates within that context. Whether true or not, it is—again—obvious he believed what he was saying was true. Throughout his life, he railed against his father, who, he reported, was an undertaker who also taught mortuary science at the University of Minnesota. Among other things, his father forced him to be right-handed despite his natural proclivity to be a lefty. The father wanted his sons, Richard and Robert, to follow in his footsteps but, apparently, took sadistic glee in terrifying them as young children by exposing them to dead bodies hanging from meat hooks in the University of Minnesota’s morgue.
According to Saholt, his father once forced him to dress the cadaver of a young boy his own age in a funeral outfit and, another time, to gather up in a bushel basket the dismembered body parts of a man who had been hit by a train. Saholt maintained his father repeatedly sexually molested his own daughter, Saholt’s sister, as well as his grandchildren. And he frequently threatened the members of his family with a loaded gun if they did not comply with his every need.
Father and war became his bitter enemies
During World War II, the already psychologically damaged and stammering 18-year-old Saholt enlisted in the U.S. Army’s elite 85th Mountain Ski Troop Division. On more than one occasion, he claimed the voices in his head saved his life. They screamed “Duck!” at one point, and, when he raised himself up, he found that the heads of the infantrymen around him had been blown off by mortar fire. Then, as he and his comrades approached a fortification near Castel d’Aiono, Italy, on April 15, 1945, the voices yelled “Charge!”, and he, armed with a rifle, bayonet and hand grenades, attacked the compound and caused the surrender of 13 enemy soldiers.
Although he received a Bronze Star for his heroic actions, the Veterans Administration refused to award him disability payments for his back and leg injuries, his blackouts stemming from concussions, or his mounting post-traumatic stress disorder. After decades of writing letters, hiring lawyers and losing court cases, he finally discovered in 1969 that upon enlistment he had been diagnosed with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia and labeled “one of the most bizarre and genuinely crazy” people to be admitted into the military. There was no reason why he should ever have been admitted in the first place. At long last in 1974, he was given a small monthly stipend and three years back pay, but Saholt continued to battle with the VA to the end of his life for financial restitution of the preceding 29 years he went without any financial remuneration for disability.
The trauma he experienced from his father was added to the trauma he underwent during World War II, so both father and war became his bitter enemies, the perpetrators of his psychological torture. In fact, the majority of his works may be divided into those dealing with schizophrenia and those dealing with war. A smaller number address other subjects.
“See, in 1964 I went back out to the Veteran’s Administration because I’d been trying to get service-connected disability since WWII. The head of the VFW at the time listened to my story. And he said, ‘Dick what I want you to do is, I want you to go back home and I want you to start putting this—what you’re telling me—on paper.’ And I thought to myself: ‘You’ve already got it all in the records, and I’ve been fighting you guys since WWII and I’ve been documenting everything!’ So I knew I was just getting another massive snowjob. But I couldn’t articulate with him. So I went back home and I started putting it together. But first I went to my mother’s place. She had a big trunk that she had all my stuff in that I’d saved from the Army. I pulled out everything and brought everything back here. And that’s when I started to do the collages.” (From the recto side of the small collage titled A brain that doesn’t work right. Schizophrenia.)
Ten years into his experiments in collage, Saholt met cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan: “The University of Minnesota knew that McLuhan used a lot of montage art work in all of his books & this was the reason they sent me up to meet with Marshall. Marshall saw me twice at his home on the campus [of the University of Toronto] & treated me great! I spent two weeks in Toronto. I brought some of my art work with me. MacLuhan called my art work brilliant & on a genius level! He offered to write my book but he died!” (Excerpted from a letter by Saholt dated Feb. 17, 2012.) Saholt said that MacLuhan suggested he work larger, so, after 1974, the size of his collages increased dramatically.
War was certainly hell for Saholt. Next to the phrase “World War II,” the word “hell” is probably the most frequently repeated text in his collages. Note how often it appears in the following titles: Hell, the Onslaught, Night Never Ending; Wild Hell Assault Company; and Up from Never, War Hell Soldier. (Nearly all of Saholt’s works are untitled, but I have taken the liberty of giving them titles derived from the most prominent words in his compositions. In the end, however, these titles are somewhat arbitrary.) Other words that appear frequently are “kill,” death,” “onslaught” and “The Gothic Line.”
The war pieces, like his work in other genres, tend to be arranged symmetrically, with a main image and/or group of words occupying the center of the composition surrounded by other images and words fanning out or otherwise proceeding away from the center. For example, in World War II Terror!, the components are designed in a rough sort of symmetry, with figures on the left all generally facing right and vice-versa on the right. The letters of the central word “Terror!” are blood red and dripping as if lifted from the title of a horror movie. A jigsaw puzzle of various-sized, round-cornered geometric and organic shapes are set against a black background, providing a dramatic framing device for each component and lending to an overall effect of looking at a stained glass window.
The larger collaged shapes fit around one another with the help of smaller images that tie them together visually. There are numerous skulls, swastikas, swords, crosses, guns, and soldiers in American and Nazi uniforms. A variety of styles and mediums are presented here, from war scenes slickly painted in vibrant color derived from men’s adventure magazine covers, to black–and-white reproductions of dry-point etchings and expressionist pen-and-ink drawings, as well as documentary photographs from the Second World War. World War II Terror! contains fewer words than many of Saholt’s other compositions, but the minimal words can have a more hard-hitting impact than his wordy collages.
Although there is almost always a centralized configuration of elements, a number of his collages are designed more asymmetrically, with hundreds of small components packed chock-a-block together. When this occurs, and it is composed of largely black-and-white words and images with only occasional random accents of red and yellow color—as it is in Hell, the Onslaught, Night Never Ending and Wild Hell Assault Company—Saholt achieves an overwhelming grimness that is highly evocative of his experiences in the mountain ski patrol. In such works, he has symbolically reduced his palette to the bare essentials: black for night, white for snow, and red for blood.
Obsessed by his own victimization
Saholt’s interest in other subjects tended toward dramatic events involving political, religious and Hollywood figures. There are works devoted to Nixon and Watergate, Natalie Wood’s controversial death, assassination attempts on Anwar Sadat and Pope John Paul, and John Belushi’s fatal drug overdose. One subject he profiled several times was serial killer John Wayne Gacy. A smaller work titled Bizarre: John Wayne Gacy contains photographs of Gacy with second wife, Carole Hoff, on their wedding day surrounded by the words “loving family man,” mug shots of Gacy after his arrest for raping and murdering 33 young men, a rendering of Gacy’s suburban home covered in blood, plus the words “psycho,” “the massacre,” “blood thirsty butcher” and “After the boy’s hands were fastened behind his back, John didn’t have to make soothing noises anymore.” A larger work, Every Mother’s Fear: Abduction, features the reproduction of a signed photograph by First Lady Rosalynn Carter picturing her with Gacy two years before his arrest, as well as newspaper articles about Gacy wanting Rod Steiger to play him in a movie, and Gacy selling three of his four paintings in a prisoners’ art sale.
Most of the above collages deal with tragedies and atrocities of one sort or another, and this was precisely why Saholt memorialized them. He was obsessed by his own victimization by forces over which he had no control, and, therefore, related easily to others who were similarly caught in a web of darkness and death. This is not to say he did not occasionally create collages on positive subjects. He made numerous works dedicated to secular and non-secular holidays, among other subjects. Most of these were designed in a straightforward manner and without much complexity. One is on the topic of America’s patriotic heritage and another celebrates Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding day. Curiously, he did not do a follow-up on Princess Diana’s ultimate demise.
In his personal life, the ravages of Saholt’s mental illness took its toll in other ways over the years. A number of well-intentioned friends and acquaintances tried to serve as his agent or spokesperson, but the artist, whose paranoia would inevitably make him suspicious of what he saw as their ulterior motives, eventually turned against them all. The only person who remained close to him and earned his unwavering trust was his wife of nearly 60 years, Doris, whom he met just after his discharge from the Army in a class in which he was taking voice lessons for his stuttering. She nursed him though the side effects of anti-psychotic medications that, he said, made him feel as if he were buried alive in a coffin. She stood by him through his bouts with self-medicating alcoholism. She protected him from doctors who wanted to treat his illness with electro-shock therapy and a lobotomy. She earned a living for both of them, because he could not hold down a job. When I met her in 2001, she looked as if she had been through a war. No doubt, she had. Doris—his buffer against the world and against his own worst nature—died in 2011. Within three years, he would follow her.
Richard Saholt died at age 89 on Jan. 12, 2014, at Providence Place nursing home in Minneapolis. The cause of his death was basil cell carcinoma (multiple sites). The secondary cause of his death was listed as schizophrenia.
No longer a victim
Whether or not Richard Saholt’s magnificent creations are art or not is not what is important. What is significant is that his work has something real and honest to say about the experience of being schizophrenic and about the experience of being traumatized by war, and these feelings are rarely said in such a direct and powerful way. Unlike much art today that is primarily intellectual and conceptual, intuitive art like Saholt’s springs from the primal necessities of the maker, from the needs of the artist’s innermost psyche.
In the process of making his collages, Saholt externalized his pain and suffering. He wrestled with his internal demons in an objective fashion and forced them to conform to his need for order amid the schizophrenic chaos. For a short time, his pain and suffering were not controlling him; he was controlling them. He was no longer a victim. He became the master of his pain and suffering. This had to provide a sense of gratification and accomplishment, perhaps even a sort of closure. Sadly, the process had to be repeated over and over again with each new collage. But, at least for the time he was working on his art, it was enough to get him through another day.
Michael Bonesteel is an art historian with expertise in the field of self-taught, visionary and intuitive art in America, England and Europe. He is an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of numerous book, newspaper and magazine articles, and catalog essays. His book, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings (Rizzoli International) was the first definitive publication in English on that artist.
*Note: boldface type is underlined in original artwork.