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 Byron Leslie Burford, Jr  (1920 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: Iowa/Mississippi      Known for: modernist circus figure and genre painting, graphics, teaching

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Byron Leslie Jr Burford
from Auction House Records.
Penelope and Her Cat
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Byron Leslie Burford (1920- ) was born and raised in Mississippi but adopted the Midwest as his lifelong home after attending college at the University of Iowa. Soon after graduation, he accepted an invitation from department chairman Grant Wood to join the faculty, where he became head of Painting until his retirement in 1985.

Although influenced by the Midwest Regionalist* movement, Burford essentially is a figurative* artist with a distinct and recognizable realist style that often places his subjects in their own defining context: circus performers at work, beachcombers gazing out to sea, explorers at leisure in their cramped cabin, jazz musicians with their instruments, a publisher picking through the ruins of his letter press after a mob has destroyed it, etc.

A prolific oil painter, he has also worked in a wide variety of other media from limited edition prints and engravings to acrylic and even hot wax on canvas.  The size of his works has been equally varied, ranging from huge, double-panel oils to tiny miniatures.

Over a long and productive life, the sense and subject matter of his works have varied, as well.  His earliest drawings, silk screens*, stone lithographs*, and oils include what might be termed a "Mississippi protest" period peopled by ordinary but oppressed African-Americans, of which few drawings and prints are believed to have survived; and a "blue period" characterized by a variety of shades of blue and purple that often cast a dark and somber mood.  Later periods include a miniature period of very small paintings; his notable "Antarctic explorer" series of paintings and prints about boyhood hero Robert Scott; the "Jazz" series of musicians and orchestras; and the well known and widely exhibited "Circus" paintings and prints, inspired by Burford's summer travels with a regional circus (with whom he sometimes performed, himself, as the circus band's drummer.)

After retirement as an art professor, perhaps in an unconscious counterpoint to his early "blue period," Burford began creating a series of oils, acrylics, and prints suffused with bright reds, oranges, pinks, yellows, and greens.

Byron Burford has received multiple prestigious awards and grants, including from these Sources include: American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Awards; Tamarind Fellowship; National Endowment for the Arts Grant; Yaddo* Fellowship; American Federation of Arts Grant; National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant 1972; J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship; Ford Foundation Award; and the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship*.

His works are included in many U.S. and foreign collections open to the public. In the U.S. this includes the National Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Walker Art Museum (Minneapolis), the Nelson Gallery (Kansas City), the Guggenheim Foundation (New York), the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Des Moines Art Center, the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha), the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, Eastman House (Rochester, NY), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (Lincoln) and the University of Iowa Art Gallery.

Submitted November 2003 by John Barrett who wrote: "I have collected a few Burford works over the years and knew one of his daughters 40 years ago.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist:

Byron Burford, Artist of Circus Life, Dies at 90
Published: June 26, 2011

Byron Burford, a figurative artist who attracted a broad following, particularly in the Midwest, with vivid images of athletes, soldiers, factory workers, jazz musicians and a panoply of circus people, died on June 17 at his home in Iowa City. He was 90.

He died of natural causes, his granddaughter, Madeline Burford, said.

Working mostly in oil — but also in prints, engravings, acrylics and even hot wax on canvas — Mr. Burford suffused his creations with sometimes muted shades but more often with glowing colors. He focused on poignant moments: Southern blacks toiling in the fields; beachcombers gazing into the distance; jazz musicians reaching for high notes; a World War I soldier recovering in the hospital; a forlorn bicyclist standing by the side of the road, out of the race.

But Mr. Burford was perhaps best known for depicting circus life. Among his many works are whip-cracking lion tamers, midflight trapeze artists, feather-bedecked ladies riding high on elephants, and sideshow attractions like the tattooed man, the bearded lady and the two-headed dog.

When some of Mr. Burford’s paintings were shown at a gallery in Manhattan in 1966, Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times that “motifs drawn from carnival and circus life, from popular culture and nostalgic glimpses of forgotten wars are transformed into graphic symbols of a notable complexity.” He added, “There is no mistaking the fact that a genuine and interesting imagination has been engaged.”

Mr. Burford’s works are in the collections of, among other institutions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the University of Iowa Art Gallery.

Byron Leslie Burford Jr. was born in Jackson, Miss., on July 12, 1920, to Byron and Floy Smith Burford, and grew up in Greenville, Miss. His father, who was director of the local Y.M.C.A., booked the circuses and carnivals that came to town. Byron Jr. combined his artistic talent with a fascination with those unusual performers and, at 14, went on the road with the Tom Mix Circus, hauling and painting.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Burford enrolled at the University of Iowa, where his mentor was Grant Wood, the famous painter of rural America. He graduated in 1942, served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and returned to the University of Iowa, where he received a master’s in fine arts in 1947. At Mr. Wood’s behest, he was hired to teach painting at the university, which he did for 38 years.

In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. Burford is survived by his son, Kevin, and two daughters, Nana Burford and Kathy Burford Lewis. His wife of 65 years, the former Kathleen Kane, died in 2009.

During summer recesses throughout his academic career, Mr. Burford would go on the road with traveling circuses, playing drums in the band and, of course, painting.

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