Hans Burkhardt (1904 – 1994) was a Modernist and Abstract Expressionist painter whose energetic, evocative, and emotionally-based paintings often anticipated the work of his contemporaries and reveal a diverse and exploratory career.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, and emigrating to New York in 1924, Burkhardt became associated with Arshile Gorky, Willem De Kooning, and other members of the New York School before relocating to Los Angeles in 1937.
While Burkhardt is most notable for powerful figurative works in Abstract Expressionism, and for his poignancy on the subject of human conflict, with works expressing the horror of war, over the course of his long career he was also involved in other art movements including California Light, Hard Edge, Minimalism, and Pop Art.
Burkhardt’s works are included in the collections of the British Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Palace of the Legion Honor, the Santa Barbara Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others, and in 1992, Burkhardt was honored in New York by the American Academy of Art for his lifetime achievement.
Hans Burkhardt migrates to New York in 1924, working in a furniture factory during the day while taking art classes at night.
Burkhardt establishes a close relationship with Arshile Gorky, sharing his studio in Manhattan, painting on weeknights and Saturdays. As Gorky trains him in the styles of cubism, surrealism, and abstraction, the two artists collaborate, producing paintings such as Abstraction (Conflicting Emotions) (1936-37) and Circus (Composition) (1936), alluding to their overlapping styles.
In 1937 Burkhardt moves to Los Angeles and continues to paint surreal/expressionist abstractions. In 1939 the artist has his first solo exhibition at Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, arranged by Lorser Feitelson, and, in response to the Spanish Civil War, he paints his first anti-war works. In these years Burkhardt develops a stance and expressive style uniquely his own, separating him from other Abstract Expressionist artists in New York. His paintings take a gruesome turn, incorporating muddied colors, bright pops of bloody red, skulls and bones, and monstrous bodies with ghoulish faces painted with broad, thickly-applied and heavily-layered brushstrokes in order to communicate the atrocities of war. Notable works from this period include The Cry (1939), The Parting (1939), War, Agony in Death (1939-40), Death of Hitler (1939), and Concentration Camp (1942).
In 1945, Burkhardt has a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, gaining critical acclaim. His works continue to respond to WWII, employing sharper angles than before with an emphasis on the vertical. Most of his works during this period are painted with fiery hues, where red bleeds into black and hardly any blue tones are present. His paintings are critical of the contemporary climate of war, but he balances this feeling of desolation with works reminiscent of those painted in Gorky’s studio but with muddier colors, such as One World (1945). Despite his rising fame in the Los Angeles area, Burkhardt endures censorship due to the proliferation of McCarthyism. The Los Angeles County Museum purchases a larger version of One Way Road in 1946 but quickly removes it due to communist associations with its red color. In 1949 Red Christ, also considered too provocative, is removed.
During this decade, coined Burkhardt’s “Mexican Period,” the artist takes advantage of the GI Bill by making frequent visits to Mexico. Burkhardt’s works are deeply colored by his interpretation of and experience in Mexico, inspired by the culture’s celebration of death. His fascination with Mexico coincides with the aftermath of Gorky’s suicide in 1948. Burkhardt delves into his grief and celebration of Gorky’s life with his Burial and Journey into the Unknown series, creating several versions of Burial of Gorky. During this period, Burkhardt plays with the idea of synesthesia in his paintings, depicting the sounds of Mexico in visual, expressive form. His paintings are notably more vibrant and lighter in color, utilizing cool, bright blue tones, greens, yellows, reds, sometimes without instances of black at all. Examples of Burkhardt’s synesthetic period include Silent Sounds (1958); Sounds of Sunrise (1960); and Sounds of San Miguel (1960). He enjoys a growing reputation as an established artist, with 23 solo exhibitions in Los Angeles and Mexico, including a ten-year retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). He also participates in group shows at more than thirty museums, including the Third International Biennial in Sao Paolo, and is included in four of the Whitney Museum’s Biennials between 1951-1958.
During this decade, Burkhardt responds to the crisis in Vietnam, developing his style and breaking conceptual boundaries by introducing assemblage with human skulls to his paintings in order to illustrate the devastating catastrophe of the war. Burkhardt creates monumental canvases of multi-layered dark, expressive brushstrokes of grays, browns, blacks, and reds with human skulls protruding from the canvas demonstrating the carnage of Vietnam. Art historian Donald Kuspit states, “Burkhardt is a master—indeed, the inventor—of the abstract momento mori.” Notable paintings include Last Judgment, Dark Shadows, The Burial of my Enemies (1966), Lang Vei (1967-68), and My Lai (1968).
Burkhardt continues his anti-war paintings during 1970s, but simultaneously creates paintings of celebration and hope during his summer visits to his hometown, Basel, Switzerland, depicting abstractions of merging lovers and cityscapes. Burkhardt further develops his assemblage technique creating his first spike painting, Finale, in 1974, in which wooden spikes protrude from the canvas. In 1979, Burkhardt incorporates aspects of Pop Art into his abstract expressionism in his Small Print series protesting smoking. These canvases position geometric shapes of bright, rainbow hues and sketchy human skulls in black and gray backgrounds, echoing the scattered but organized composition of Finale (1974).
Burkhardt’s City paintings—inspired by the streets of Basel depicting signs and traffic lights in bright, vivid colors, collected into one singular abstract mass—evolve into his Graffiti series by 1981, rendering the wall markings throughout the city prompted by social revolt and protests in Basel at the time, a sensation not yet seen in the U.S. He gathers various symbols, words, and images seen on the city walls into scattered compositions of bright colors placed on cool-toned blue/gray backgrounds of expressive brushstrokes—exemplified in Basel (1981)—a response to the rapidly developing world of popular art in Europe. Burkhardt continues his spike paintings in the 1980s, resulting in So Near, So Far (1987), which consists of an assembled antique crucifixion inspired by one of the artist’s favorite paintings, Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of Death. In 1987 Burkhardt begins the Northridge Series, of apocalyptic imagery in viscous reds, blacks, and grays, and with the assemblage of burlap, clothing, and spikes. Untitled (1988) is exemplary of the violence rendered in the Northridge Series, depicting a putrid shirt stretched across the canvas with a long dagger striking where the heart would be in the left breast, with blood dripping from the wound.
In 1990 Burkhardt begins the Desert Storms series in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in which he depicts the American flag discolored, darkened, and decomposed into simple, abstract shapes. Notably, the paintings are titled before the Bush Administration labels the war “Desert Storm.” Interestingly, this series is the first set of paintings by Burkhardt for which there are no studies or preparatory drawings. The series is shown in 1991 at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, with an accompanying catalogue by Peter Selz, who speaks of the importance of Burkhardt’s works at a presentation at the International Congress of Art Critics Conference (ICACCA).
1993 marks the last year of Burkhardt’s career, during which he created his final series, Black Rain. Culminating this series is The Extra Stripe (1993), a painting in which the American flag is disorientated with an extra white stripe at the bottom. Burkhardt explained that “the extra stripe is for hope.” Despite the pain and hardship channeled through this body of work, viewers are left with this symbolic beacon of hope, wishing for a better future for humanity.
Hans Burkhardt died in Los Angeles in 1994.
Selected Major Collections
- British Museum
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Kunsthalle Basel
- Whitney Museum of American Art
- Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
- Norton Simon Museum
- Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
- Ahmanson Collection
- Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
- California State University, Northridge
- Coca Cola Collection
- Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina
- Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Detroit Institute of Arts
- Downey Art Museum, Downey, California
- Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts
- The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
- Hirshhorn Collection, Washington, D.C.
- Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
- Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon
- Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland
- Laguna Beach Museum of Art, California
- Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, California
- Emily and Joe Lowe Gallery, University of Miami, Florida
- Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
- Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California
- Pasadena Art Museum, California
- Norton Simon Museum
- Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine
- San Diego Museum of Art, California
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California
- Security Pacific Bank Collection. Security Pacific Bank
- Skirball Museum, Los Angeles, California
- Tamarind Institute, University of New Mexico. Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of Greensboro. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina