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Hans Gustav Burkhardt

 (1904 - 1994)
Hans Gustav Burkhardt was active/lived in New York, California.  Hans Burkhardt is known for cubist figure-still life, non objective painting.

Hans Gustav Burkhardt

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Basel, Switzerland, Hans Burkhardt was an artist who created assemblage and used other modernist techniques to make statements about modern society and particularly to express his anti war beliefs. He lived to be ninety years old and made paintings in response to most of the wars of the 20th century. The day following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he began a series of Gulf War painting, which he continued throughout the war and its aftermath.

Desecrated American flags are frequent symbols in his work, and he also did figure and still life subjects.

Emigrating from Switzerland as a young man, he became a United States citizen, and from 1925 to 1928, studied at Cooper Union followed by a year at the Grand Central School of Art. From 1929 to 1936, he worked in the the studio of Arshile Gorky.

In 1959, he began a long-time teaching career in California, first as professor of painting and drawing at the University of Southern California, then at the University of California at Los Angeles, 1961 to 63, and from 1963 to retirement at California State University at Northridge.

His primary media were oil, pastel, and linocut, and his style was abstract using heavy paint application.

Born in Basel, Switzerland, Burkhardt emigrated to New York when he was twenty years old. He began studies at the Grand Central School of Art, studying under, and eventually sharing a studio with, Arshile Gorky, who as Burkhardt recalled, stated "'Hans, out of all the young artists I have faith in just two". "That was de Kooning and myself."

In 1937, Burkhardt moved to Los Angeles where he came into contact with the surrealists, including Man Ray, Knud Merrild and Eugene Berman. Burkhardt continued working in Los Angeles for almost sixty years, and has been described as Goya's spiritual heir.

The John Stewart Gallery

Biography from the Archives of askART
Born in Basel, Switzerland on Dec. 20, 1904.  Arriving in NYC in 1924, Burkhardt became a student of Arshile Gorky at the Grand Central School of Arts and involved with a group of European émigrés who espoused Abstract Expressionism.  When he relocated to Los Angeles in 1937, he became a vital link between the avant garde movements on both coasts.

In 1991 the city of Los Angeles honored the artist by proclaiming Hans Burkhardt Week. He continued to live and work in Los Angeles until his demise on April 22, 1994.

Exh (solos): Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1939; LACMA, 1945; Calif. WC Society, 1945-47; Univ. of Oregon, 1947; UCLA, 1953; Pasadena Art Museum, 1957; Santa Barbara Museum, 1961, 1977; Fresno Art Center, 1962; Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1964; Laguna Beach AA, 1966; San Diego Museum, 1968; Portland (OR) Museum, 1990; CGA, 1994. In: Palm Springs, La Jolla, Long Beach, Downey, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Oakland Art Museums; CGA; Worcester (MA) Art Museum; Norton Simon Museum.

Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Journal of the Print World, Summer 1994; SF Examiner, 4-24-1994 (obituary).

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries

Hans Burkhardt (1904-1994)

An extremely prolific artist, Hans Burkhardt remained relatively silent in the Los Angeles art world, choosing to let his artworks express his feelings and thoughts.  A forerunner of abstracted, expressionist painting, particularly amid the more conservative Los Angeles figurative painters in the late 1930s, Burkhardt nonetheless based his experimentation on a solid artistic foundation.  The order and balance in Burkhardt's compositions derive from his training as a draughtsman and his belief in the importance of underpinning painting with strong drawing skills.  Following the advice of his mentor, Arshile Gorky, who had often directed the young artist, "painting is not more than drawing with paint," Burkhardt always created sketches in pencil, pastel, or ink before beginning a canvas in oil.  As a result, his compositions exhibit a strong sense of structure and design, even in their abstraction.

Burkhardt drew motifs from nature, internalizing them and creating a highly personal, abstract realization of the scene or event.  In a 1974 interview for the Archives of American Art, the artist explained that for him paintings evolve out of emotions and ideas—a process not unlike the Surrealist's conception of the genesis of creative thought. Burkhardt recognized associations to things and people in nature.  In his canvases, objects became symbols (for example, two nails transformed into lovers under a moonlit sky.)  The symbolic and expressive content of these motifs derives from the artist's deeply felt humanism and compassion.

Born in 1904, in Basel, Switzerland, Burkhardt grew up in an orphanage.  In 1924 he wrote to his father, who had immigrated to the U.S., and that same year he immigrated to America, finding work in the furniture factory where his father was employed.  During the evenings Burkhardt studied art at Cooper Union.  After a year at Cooper Union, in 1928, Burkhardt left to attend the new Grand Central School of Art, where he met Arshile Gorky.  At this time, Gorky only had four pupils, one of whom was Willem de Kooning.  Burkhardt and his mentor Gorky formed a fast friendship and the two later shared a studio for almost a decade.  To support himself and his family during the lean Depression years, Burkhardt continued to work as a furniture finisher.  After a nasty battle with his ex-wife, Burkhardt relocated to Southern California in 1937.  There he worked for a defense plant during World War II and for MGM studios. 

During this time, Burkhardt's thoughts focused heavily on the ongoing war and he created numerous anti-war paintings and works dealing with the horror of the concentration camps, which might have reminded Burkhardt of his time spent as youth in the city ward.  Throughout his career, the artist's commitment to decrying the evils of war continued, with paintings devoted to the Korean War, Vietnam, and even 1991's Desert Storm.  Frequently missiles and bombs, bloodied bodies, and ravaged landscapes referenced the "collateral damage" that results from war.  Burkhardt's numerous anti-war paintings are among his most critically celebrated works. However, following the war, the artist's outlook changed, and a new optimism engendered paintings that visualized the "dream of one world." 

These years also brought Burkhardt considerable acclaim.  Despite the lack of a cohesive artistic community (the artist lamented the close knit art circle he left behind in New York), he became involved with several community arts organizations in California. One such group was Artist's Equity, an organization that gathered under the premise of uniting artists across the United States.  He also came into contact with a group of transplanted surrealists, such as Man Ray, Knud Merrild, and Eugene Berman. These artists no doubt encouraged Burkhardt's expressive sensibilities.  During this period, the artist began to gain commercial support. He received his first one-man exhibition in 1939 at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, an event that was followed by yearly solo shows at the Circle Gallery, Los Angeles from 1940-1945.  In 1945, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave him a purchase award for his contribution to the museum's annual exhibition.

With the resources gleaned from years of working in and owning his own furniture manufacturing business, in 1948 Burkhardt left for Mexico for two years to paint.  There, inspired by the poverty that abounded and the religious landscape of churches and graveyards, he created "body and soul" paintings. Burkhardt explained how he adopted motifs from the outside world and translated them into his personal expressive idiom: "I didn't want to paint the churches the way they were.  I created my own churches in their style." (1)

Although Burkhardt never graduated from college, on the recommendation of his friend Frances de Erdely, he was asked to teach art classes at California State University at Long Beach in 1958.  From then on Burkhardt made a significant impact on developing California artists.  He held regular teaching positions at University of Southern California, University of California Los Angeles, Otis College of Art and Design, and California State University at Northridge, among others.

In the late 1960s, Burkhardt's paintings took on more built up surfaces, creating the effects of scarring and wounding.  He also began to add man-made objects to his canvases, fragments from the outside world.  Some of these works, which included embedded skulls, were eloquent assemblages that called for social and political reform. In the seventies and eighties he had several one man shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1976-77 and at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Maine in 1985. After a long, fruitful career, Burkhardt died in Los Angeles in 1994.

Throughout his career, Burkhardt remained a curious hybrid—a representational abstract painter, a draughtsman, and a committed humanist.  His work appears in the collections of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the British Museum, London; the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Kunstmuseum, Basel; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles; and the Portland Museum of Art, Oregon.

1. Interview with Hans Burkhardt Conducted by Paul J. Karlstrom at the Artist's home in Los Angeles, CA, November 25, 1974 (Smithsonian Archives of American Art).

Biography from The Caldwell Gallery
Hans Burkhardt was born December 20th, 1904 in Basel Switzerland. His artwork has gone through several important changes from early pastel nudes to Arshille Gorky's influence and finally to his collage style skull paintings of the 1980s. Burkhardt truly carries Modernism to a new level of profound psychological character through the means of fragmentation and amazing depth of composition. However, to understand the reach that Burkhardt's work has had on Post-Modern art, we must examine the artist's varied and experimental career.

Hans' early childhood was spent in an orphanage, apprenticing with a gardener for which he was never paid. In 1924, Hans wrote to his father who had moved to the U.S. and begged for his help. Six months afterward, he also immigrated to America and found work in the furniture factory where his father was employed. During his first year there he attended night classes at Copper Union, winning first prize ($20 gold coin) for period decoration. The following year, 1927, Burkhardt enrolled full time at Grand Central School of Art at 42nd Street. This was a pivotal point in Burkhardt's early work because it was here that he met his life-long friend and mentor Arshille Gorky.

Burkhardt was in Gorky's life drawing class and learned about Cubism, Cezanne, Miro and "how to put paint on". He also attended private classes on Saturdays at Gorky's studio.

Burkhardt's early pastels and chalk drawings showed his struggle with abstract motion and self generated line through their intuitive conception. He did no preliminary sketches for these types of work and just went straight for the end result. It has been said that these pieces are a synthesis of Matisse's gestural line and Picasso's conceptual organic construction. The female nudes usually appear in groups of three as if muses in a progression of style, rough to complex. They are rendered not as how they were seen but as they would be touched and felt. The line both describes the form as it breaks away from the body in schematized color and bold backgrounds. Burkhardt's work resembled Gorky's style in its fluid, vertical movement from abstract to figurative and through it's sensuous, gestural color application. However, it becomes much more densely composed with intense and empathetic color. There is a clear difference between the draftsman-like work of 1934 and the much more Modern, experimental work in 1938.

In 1939, Burkhardt held his first one-man show at the Stendhal Gallery in Los Angeles, set up by the artist Lorser Feitelson. After his move out West, Burkhardt never returned permanently to New York and would no longer be recognized by the East Coast. Throughout the '50s and '60s, Burkhardt lived in virtual isolation from the prominent art world of New York and Europe. At this point his work became more reflective of current political strife, in particular the Spanish Civil War. In 1944 Burkhardt showed "War - Agony of Death" at the Circle Gallery, where it was attacked by a woman with a cane. His original interest in war and death was reinvented into the theme of tragic isolation in life.

The final realization of his ideas emerged in his skull paintings, begun in the 1960s. A new aesthetic of beauty arose though the surface drama of skulls in his collage work used to literalize the power of gesture. The morbidity of the relief work reveals density with physiognomic power.

Surprised by Gorky's death in 1948, Burkhardt paints three versions of "The Burial of Gorky" in the following two years, which are then shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. He later exhibited "The Studio of Gorky" at the Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC) and received strong critical acclaim. However, he rejected several offers of representation from galleries in New York, preferring to exhibit on his own. Burkhardt remained quite active as he took on a full time position teaching at the University of Southern California in 1959, three years after a 10 year retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum.

"Last Judgment, Dark Shadows - The Burial of my Enemies" was completed in 1966 and was Burkhardt's first time using actual skulls in his paintings. His work evolved around themes of trying to break away from regiment and hope for peace. Another painting revolving around World War II, entitled "Horror Never Happens Again", shows a circular border or arms and hands around an iridescent figure which represents protection and safety. Burkhardt was highly praised for his mature work both in ArtNews and by critic Hilton Kramer in The New York Times.

By the 1980s, Burkhardt's work had reached its fullest potential, turning from images of imbalance to tragedy. As the post-painterly Abstract Expressionist artists sought to expel this tragedy, Burkhardt embraced it. He continues to live and work in California while making occasional trips to Guadalajara, Mexico. Burkhardt's delve into the depths of human tragedy produces beauty and understanding unparalleled in Post-Modern art.

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About  Hans Gustav Burkhardt

Born:  1904 - Basel, Switzerland
Died:   1994 - Los Angeles, California
Known for:  cubist figure-still life, non objective painting

Essays referring to
Hans Gustav Burkhardt

Abstract Expressionism