1923 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
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geometric abstraction painting, automatic drawing
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|Biography from David Hall Fine Art, LLC:|
|Ralph Coburn was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1923. His
father was a professor of romance languages at the University of
Minnesota. In the late 1920s, the family moved to Miami, Florida, where
his parents founded a private school. The Coburn School was run by
Ralph’s father, who spoke six languages, while his British-born mother,
who had lived in Paris and Tunisia, taught French. Ralph grew up in a
home on Miami Beach, and from an early age was keenly aware of a
landscape comprised of horizontal bands of land, ocean and sky.
In recent interviews, Coburn explained this further. He states
that when viewing the world around him, the major forms and elements in
his field of vision have always been presented in a subtle yet
noticeable geometric arrangement.|
In 1941, acknowledging his
parents’ wishes to learn a practical skill, Ralph enrolled in MIT’s
five-year School of Architecture. Once on campus, Coburn was
drawn to several pockets of avant-garde thinking, and it is here his
artistic development began. Ralph was predisposed to a modern
architectural aesthetic, having witnessed the construction of numerous
Art Deco hotels and contemporary residences built along Miami Beach in
the late 1930s. He assisted an upper classman, Walter Netsch, who
introduced Coburn to modern design and avant-garde music. Netsch,
one of the more progressive thinkers and advanced architectural
students at MIT, later became a partner at Skidmore, Owings &
Merrill. He would develop an architectural aesthetic that rotated
basic squares into complex geometric components.
studies, Coburn was also introduced to the work of Mondrian by a
professor of architecture, Bill Brown. According to Coburn,
Mondrian’s influence upon his thinking was profound. This
occurred while Coburn was attending lectures at Harvard University by
the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, department chair of Harvard’s
School of Architecture. The idea of combining the structured
two-dimensional imagery of Mondrian with the formal elements of an
architectural plan provided Coburn with numerous ideas for image
making. This interest in making pictures was further reinforced
through collaborative projects involving Coburn and students from the
School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Coburn spent many
years drawing from the model at classes in Boston and Paris, but his
time at MIT studying architecture and abstract design would have the
greatest influence on the way he would compose images throughout his
After two years at MIT, Coburn was called to register for
military service, but problems with his eyesight prevented him from
enlisting. He soon found employment working as a draftsman for
the Air Force at the Miami Air Depot. After the war, he moved
back to Boston and planned to return to MIT as a student of
architecture. He stayed with relatives in Wellesley Hills and
worked as a draftsman for a local architect. Six months later,
Ralph returned to MIT. After reacquainting himself with several
art students at the Museum School, Coburn decided to leave MIT and
pursue a career in painting. He was employed part time at the
Institute of Modern Art in Boston working with his friend Hyman
Swetzoff. He then followed Swetzoff to the Boris Mirski Gallery
located on Newbury Street in Boston, where Swetzoff had been hired as
the gallery director.
About this time Coburn began a lifelong
friendship with Ellsworth Kelly, who had been a student at the Museum
School. In 1948, he arranged for Kelly’s work to be included in
group shows at the Mirski Gallery. This was Kelly’s first career
exhibition. Later that year, Kelly moved to France, and was
joined by Coburn in June of 1949. Coburn would visit France four
times between 1949 and 1956. These trips (1949-50, 1951-52,
1954-55 and 1956) ranged from six months to over a year. During this
formative period he and Kelly discussed, explored and collaborated on
numerous concepts hoping to resolve them into a visual language.
Initially they planned to promote their work and ideas through a self-
published journal titled “Concrete.” (1)
“Kelly’s friend Coburn
arrived in Paris in spring 1949. Together they visited galleries
and museums and became interested in the Surrealists’ practice of
making drawings generated or governed by chance operations in order to
emphasize the role of the unconscious in the creative process.
Kelly and Coburn collaborated on making the Surrealist drawings of
chance known as cadavres exquis (“exquisite corpses”) …
On July 4, 1949 Kelly and Coburn took a trip to Brittany and stopped
about halfway, in Le Mans to see the stained-glass windows of the
cathedral. It was in the cathedral square of the Le Mans that Kelly
drew Stacked Tables. When they arrived at the coast of
Brittany, they stayed on Belle-Ile for only a few days before Kelly
decided to spend the summer there and returned to Paris to close up his
room at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Coburn accompanied him back to
Paris, and the two visited Gertrude Stein’s companion, Alice B.
Toklas. Kelly returned to Belle-Ile in August. During the summer
and afterward, when Coburn went to the south of France, they
corresponded and exchanged ideas about their work. In the dialogue that
ensued, many of the concepts essential to Kelly’s later work began to
“Something happened during the summer of 1949,
however, that had a liberating effect on Kelly. Ralph Coburn, a
friend from Boston, came over to France in June for a vacation.
Coburn, now a painter and a designer for MIT in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, had heard about automatism and various other devices
that had become popular among avant-garde artists in New York.
Kelly was intrigued by Coburn’s demonstration of automatic drawing, and
during the summer of 1949 they both practiced it. Several such
drawings appear in Kelly’s sketch books from this period.” (3)
and Kelly’s time in France was one of extraordinary development for
each artist. Both men would choose markedly different directions
in their career paths, while continuing to explore ideas acquired
during this period. In 1949 and 1950, Coburn and Kelly visited
with Alice Toklas, Hans Arp, John Cage and other creative
intellectuals. In the early 1950s, Coburn composed images using
Arp’s arranged-by-chance ideas, and then in the 1960s, he began to
modify their outcome by creating variations based upon his own
arithmetical equations. This process allowed him to compose
visual images using either great control or randomly generated
sequences of patterned color and form. While Hans Arp’s
arranged-by-chance imagery provided material for Ralph, he found the
two-dimensional quality of Sophie Tauber Arp’s work more important due
to his strong interest in flat color and form.
Why have these
early drawings, collages and paintings remained beyond the reach of
curators and the art world for so long? Much of the answer lies
in the temperament of the artist. Apart from one or two
exhibitions at the Mirski Gallery in the early 1950s and an exhibition
at MIT’s Hayden Gallery in 1954 titled “Four Americans,” which
presented Ralph’s work along with that of David Park, T. Lux Feininger
and Emerson Woeffler, Ralph has chosen to keep this work to
himself. He is described by his closest friends as being fiercely
independent and private, modest to a fault and only interested in the
intellectual ideas behind the image. One of these friends, the
painter and Yale University art professor, Bernard Chaet, who has known
Coburn since the 1940s, explained Ralph’s artistic anonymity this way:
“Becoming a successful artist simply didn’t matter to Ralph. It was
always about the exploration and execution of ideas, nothing more.”
the 1970s, Coburn began exhibiting his systematic, mathematical
compositions created at that time, but the earlier pictures remained
tucked away in flat files and closets. In 2002, two early oils
were included in the exhibition held at Boston University and in the
book titled The Visionary Decade—New Voices in Art in 1940s Boston. One of these oils, Black Abstraction, 1949/50
was then acquired by Ellsworth Kelly and donated by Kelly to the Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston. This painting records Coburn’s early
interest in “do-it-yourself” art. Apart from the solid black
background, the “colors” of the painting as seen through the forms cut
out of the canvas can be controlled by the viewer, who is able to
modify the painting’s appearance through the choice of wall color upon
which the painting hangs. Coburn would create a series of
do-it-yourself works that explored a wider range of image-making
choices in the 1960s and 1970s.
Coburn continued to explore the
possibilities of systematic grid based images in the nineteen eighties
and nineties. His compositions were created using either circles,
squares or triangular forms. By the late nineties these forms
became less formal and more painterly. These works exhibit
Coburn's formal and contained understructure but color and atmosphere
are primary and the grid, is now, barely noticeable.
1941 - 1943
MIT, School of Architecture.
1944 - 1945
Called to register for military service then discharged due to poor vision. Works as a draftsman at the Miami Air Deport.
1945 - 1948
to MIT to continue architectural studies. Withdraws to pursue a
career in painting. Studies painting and life drawing.
Develops friendships with Boston artists John Wilson, Reed Kay, Esther
Geller, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, Jason Berger, Jack Kramer, Bernard
Chaet, Ninon Lacey (Chaet), Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Polonsky and many
others. Works at the Institute of Modern Art, Boston and later at the
Mirski Gallery, Boston.
Arrives in Paris, visits
Ellsworth Kelly; travels to Brittany with Kelly. Meets John Cage with
Kelly and visits Alice B. Toklas with Kelly.
Moves to Sanary for the Winter. February, visits Jean Arp's studio with Kelly. They begin making chance collages.
Exhibits at Salon Nouvelles Realites, Paris.
In June, Coburn and Kelly along with Jack Youngerman visit Jean Arp for a second time.
Collaborates with Kelly on surrealist "exquisite corpse" drawings.
Art Classes at Academie Julian, Paris.
Sanary with Kelly
Exhibits paintings in Caracas, Venezuala with Kelly. Paintings are lost.
1954, 1955, 1956
Returned to Sanary and Paris to paint and construct collages.
Hired by MIT to design publications and posters in their newly formed Office of Publications.
the 1960s after working as a graphic designer at MIT, became influenced
by the ideas of Swiss Design being promoted by Max Bill, Karl Gerstner,
Josef Muller Brockmann as well as Joseph Albers.
Begins exhibiting his grid based paintings and collages at the Alpha Gallery in Boston.
Retires from the Office of Publications, MIT.
Two early works included in the exhibition and book The Visionary Decade: New Voices in Art in 1940's Boston. Boston University.
Ellsworth Kelly donates Coburn's Black Abstraction, 1949 - 50 to the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Artwork in the following Museum Collections:
Boston Public Library
Brockton Art Museum
Cape Ann Historical Museum
Chase Manhattan Bank
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Museum of Modern Art Caracas, Venezuela;
Stedlijk Museum Amsterdam
Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948 - 1955, (Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museum, 1999), 18
Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, (New York, Guggenheim Museum, 1996), 19 - 20
E. C. Goossen Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art, (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 19
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