Philadelphia Wireman

The Philadelphia Wireman is the working name given to an unknown outsider artist responsible for approximately 1,200 small-scale wire-frame sculptures that were found abandoned on a street outside a transient home in Philadelphia in 1982. The artist is assumed to be male due to the strength required to bend some of the heavy-gauge wire in the sculptures; it is hypothesised that the sculptures were abandoned after their creator's death. Nothing is known about the artist's motives.

According to the Fleisher-Ollman Gallery, which now holds some of the work, the wire frames include plastic, glass, McDonald's packaging, umbrella parts, batteries, pens, leather, reflectors, nuts and bolts, nails, foil, coins, toys, watches, eyeglasses, tools and jewelry, bound to the structures by rubber bands and tape.

The artist's unusual, possibly monomanical devotion to the particular demands of his chosen form has led to comparisons with artist Henry Darger.


The Philadelphia Wireman sculptures were found abandoned in an alley off Philadelphia’s South Street on trash night in 1982. Their discovery in a rapidly-changing neighborhood undergoing extensive renovation, compounded with the failure of all attempts to locate the artist, suggests that the works may have been discarded after the maker’s death. The entire collection totals approximately 1200 pieces (and a few small, abstract marker drawings, reminiscent both of Mark Tobey and J.B. Murry) and appears to be the creation of one male artist, due to the strength involved in manipulating often quite heavy-gauge wire into such tightly-wound nuggets. 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 a bricolage of found objects including plastic, glass, food packaging, umbrella parts, tape, rubber, batteries, pens, leather, reflectors, nuts and bolts, nails, foil, coins, toys, watches, eyeglasses, tools, and jewelry. Heavy with associations—anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and socio-cultural responses to wrapped detritus—the totemic sculptures by Philadelphia Wireman 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 sculpture from Classical antiquity, Native American medicine bundles, African-American memory jugs, and African fetish objects. Reflecting the artist’s prolific and incredibly focused scavenging impulse, and despite—or perhaps enhanced by—their anonymity, these enigmatic objects function as urban artifacts and arbiters of power, though their origin and purpose is unknown. Philadelphia Wireman, whatever his identity, possessed an astonishing ability to isolate and communicate the concepts of power and energy through the selection and transformation of ordinary materials. Over the course of the past two decades, this collection has come to be regarded as an important discovery in the field of self-taught art.


       A comic book series has been developed by children's author, Sue Stauffacher which is loosely based on the story of the Philadelphia Wireman story. More can be found out about the project at

                         SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

2006 “Rock Paper Scissors: American Collage Now,” Fleisher/Ollman Gallery,

                   Philadelphia, PA
2006 “Philadelphia Wireman,” Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, NY 2003 “50th Anniversary,” Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia, PA 2002 “The Miniature Show”, Graystone, San Francisco, CA 2001 “10th Anniversary Exhibition”, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, NY “Sight/Site: Objects Subject to Change”, Institute of Contemporary Art,
                  Philadelphia, PA
2000 “Without Ego: Anonymous Works”, Intuit, Chicago, IL 1995 “Lives of Invention and Imagery: Self-Taught Artists”, The Society for Contemporary Crafts”, Pittsburgh, PA “Specimens”, Art in City Hall, Philadelphia, PA 1994 “Assemblage: Reordering Chaos - Sculpture by Self-Taught Artists”, American Primitive Gallery, New York, NY “Dream Singers, Story Tellers: An African-American Presence”, Fukui Fine Arts Museum, Japan. (travelling exhibition: The Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Otani Memorial Art Museum, New Jersey State Museum) 1993 “Face of The Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas”, The Museum for African Art, New York, NY 1992 "Philadelphia Wireman and Hawkins Bolden", Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, WI "Henry Ray Clark, Philadelphia Wireman, Purvis Young", Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, PA "Messaging the Spirit World", Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, WI "Revolving Techniques", James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA 1991 "Outsiders", Eugene Binder Gallery, Cologne, WG "American Outsiders: Visionaries", Davis McClain Gallery, Houston, TX 1990 "Art of Healing; Objects of Magic", Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, PA "Even the Deep Things of God", Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh, PA (catalogue) 1989 Two Person Exhibition, Gallery 1709, St. Louis, MO "A Density of Passion", New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ (catalogue) "Obsessive & Accumulative Art", American Primitive Gallery, New York, NY 1988 "Material Obsessions (Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Wireman & Anonymous Artists), Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, IL 1987 "The Naive Figure:Eccentric Visions", Robeson Center Gallery, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ (catalogue) "Narrative Images", The Crescent Gallery, Dallas, TX (traveling exhibition; Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, TX;San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, San Angelo, TX) "American Outsiders", Galleri Wallner, Malmo, Sweden "American Mysteries: The Rediscovery of Outside Art", Art Commission Gallery, San Francisco, CA "Materializers: Outsider & Visionary Sculptors", Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, PA 1987 "Folk Art, The Ties that Bind in Contemporary American Culture" The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH (travelling exhibition: Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI: North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, ND; San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA, catalogue) Three Person Exhibition, Oscarsson Siegeltuch Gallery, New York, NY 1986 Cavin Morris Inc., New York, NY "Small Sculpture", Acme Art, San Francisco, CA "Outside Sculpture", Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, PA "Extraordinary Visions", Lawrence Hail Gallery, Rosemont College, Rosemont, PA 1985 Inaugural Exhibition, Cavin Morris Inc., New York, NY "Masterpieces of Folk Art", Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

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