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Ralph Coburn

 (born 1923)
Ralph Coburn is active/lives in Massachusetts, Florida, Minnesota.  Ralph Coburn is known for geometric abstraction painting, automatic drawing.

Ralph Coburn

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.

Through his 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 life.

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 form." (2)

"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)

Coburn 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."

In 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
Returns 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.

June 1949
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.

In 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

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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About  Ralph Coburn

Born:  1923 - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Known for:  geometric abstraction painting, automatic drawing