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Brushes With Death

Hans Burkhardt's Works on Destruction and Redemption Make for a Potent yet Oppressive Exhibition


FULLERTON — Like fellow Los Angeles resident and bleakly visionary artist Ed Kienholtz, Hans Burkhardt--the Swiss-born Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 1994 at the age of 89--received little recognition in Southern California for the bulk of his career. And little wonder, perhaps: Despite the airy seductions of climate and landscape, Burkhardt persistently invoked the heavy-duty themes of death, destruction and redemption.

When I visited Burkhardt's charmingly hand-built home in Laurel Canyon to interview him for an art magazine a couple of years before his death, he acted more like a venerable folk artist than a grand old man of modern art, despite having been a student and friend of New York School painter Arshile Gorky and having mastered the formal elements of Abstract Expressionism.

Mumbling a few stock phrases about his hatred of war, Burkhardt hauled out canvases incorporating such objects as bits of burlap and wood, old nails and even skulls, in addition to repeated invocations of crosses, blood, conflagration and darkness.

These images pervade "Death as a Creative Force: The Physical to the Spiritual," a sampler of 60 years of Burkhardt's output, at the Fullerton College Art Gallery through April 4. By choosing to focus exclusively on Burkhardt's paintings of death and transfiguration, however, gallery director Kate Johnson unfortunately demonstrates how repetitive and bombastic the artist could be.

Burkhardt did pursue other themes over the years, notably the natural world that gave him much personal happiness. He had a lyrical gift that can be seen in many of his works on paper and in his brilliantly colored, Mexico-inspired paintings of the 1950s.

But in this exhibition there is little antidote to Burkhardt's heavy-handed message-mongering. Seen en masse, these works lose whatever righteous fervor they may possess individually. As Shakespeare wisely knew, in art, tragedy unrelieved by lighter moments is too overbearing.


In the context of this show, a folkloric assemblage, "Earthly Remains" (a crucifix deftly fashioned from a wooden mask, a piece of driftwood and scraps of pipe, wire netting and rusty nails) is a breath of fresh air, with its roughhewn, scavenger's approach.

Similarly, in the Crucifixion painting, "So Near, So Far," Burkhardt's transmutation of the bodies of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus into dancing "ghost figures" fashioned from bits of burlap offers a rare glimpse of imaginative fancy.

Burkhardt was a 20-year-old gardener's apprentice when he left Berne for New York in 1924 and began working as a cabinetmaker for his emigre father. Captivated by Germanic art of the distant and recent past, he began dabbling in art in his spare time while learning how to decorate furniture in antique styles. He became foreman of the furniture company's decorating department and eventually founded his own firm.


Studies with Gorky began in 1927, when the older artist had not yet discovered abstraction. A Crucifixion that Burkhardt painted in 1928--with a spray of red light breaking through the gloom--announced a theme he would pursue for decades.

Indeed, he was obsessed with the human figure throughout his lifetime, taking life-drawing classes even after retiring from a tenured teaching position at Cal State Northridge in the '70s.

A bitter divorce propelled him to Los Angeles in 1937, before his mentor had hit upon his famous calligraphic style of the '40s. The Spanish Civil War was the first of many wars and other tragedies and conflicts that would absorb Burkhardt's passionate energies.

But passion needs to be combined with stylistic originality to produce major art. It took Burkhardt a while to find his own voice. For "Spain," a painting from 1938, Burkhardt borrowed the reaching arms of a dying figure from Picasso's "Guernica." The bony, machine-like figure and the blackened sun were the legacy of Surrealism.

Another antiwar painting, "Beyond Endurance," from 1945, turns the legacy of Renaissance painting into a form of hyperbolic art that seems closer to a pulp-fiction jacket cover than, say, German Expressionism. Was it mere coincidence that he was working in the scene-painting department of Metro Goldwyn Mayer at the time?

Burkhardt entered a new phase with "The Burial of Gorky," Burkhardt's stylized 1950 homage to his mentor. The dark canvas shows slab-like pallbearers supporting an elongated, angular figure made of interlocking abstract parts. Burkhardt couldn't resist adding a whimsical red heart to the stiff corpse.

Fifteen years later, in "Gray Christ/Mexico" Burkhardt produced an elegantly restrained abstraction of the Resurrection, in which we seem to be simultaneously looking down at the empty grave and up at the top of the cross. Using a much lighter paint application than usual and a delicate gray tonality, Burkhardt communicated a sense of mystery and awe lacking from his turgid works.

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