The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Hans Burkhardt exhibit makes an impression

California has its share of abstract expressionists: Dennis Beall, George Miyasaki, James Kelley; all of which are remarkable, but none emanate dramatic bones such as Hans Burkhardt (1904-1994).

His move to Los Angeles in the late 1930s was met without much reception. Gradually, though, he brought avant-garde modernism to the West Coast with paintings that were a humanist response to those who suffer.

In celebration of CSUN’s 50th Anniversary, the Art Department is showcasing selected pieces from its own Burkhardt collection. During his 30 years teaching CSUN students, he donated over 1,000 paintings, drawings, and prints to the school’s art institution.

‘After he stopped teaching in 1972, he continued giving life art classes for free, supplying students with live models and everything,’ said exhibit curator and Art History professor Betty Ann Brown at the reception held Sept. 5.

Thematically, the exhibit hits five earmarks in Burkhardt’s career: his early abstract work (similar to Picasso); political protest and anti-war pieces; sketches derived from the human figure; excursions into Mexico; and graffiti/anarchist paintings.

Viewers in the gallery met his work with little guff, and offered more than the standard 30-seconds to deduce an opinion.

Meanwhile, a documentary played in a sequestered area of the gallery, and in one scene an older Burkhardt referred to his disturbing depictions of war: ‘Either we work for peace, or this is what’s going to happen.’

In ‘V-E Day’ (1954), Burkhardt portrayed Europe’s WWII victory with a surreal, red and black swirl showing the carnage and sacrifice of war. Springing away from this mulch of terror are dancers in the center, as a cause for hope.

‘ ‘Burkhardt had no desire for religious structure,’ gallerist and 35-year-long friend Jack Rutberg said. ‘But he was deeply spiritual and empathetic.’

In an untitled 1948 lithograph, he was one of the earlier artists to respond to nuclear proliferation, centering ballet dancers amid ruble from a bomb’mdash;their heads angled down like the bent stem on a rose.

‘Hans came from depravation, poverty, and living in an orphanage. In the meantime, he was working as a gardener surrounded by flowers,’ Rutberg explained. Critics believe this contradiction fabricated Burkhardt’s duality.

Born in Basel, Switzerland, Burkhardt grew-up in an orphanage alongside his two sisters until he moved to America at age 17. Living in New York, he found tutelage under abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky, whom he shared a Manhattan studio with from 1928-1937.

‘The Dance’ (1981) marked Burkhardt’s return to Basel when he entered the once pristine buildings, now set for demolition. He found broken glass and graffiti with the initials ‘AJZ’, which, in German, meant Autonomous Youth Center. From the wreckage and twisted wire he drew beauty, and celebrated it on canvas with more dancing figures.

But his work us is not all dance and hope against gloomy settings.

Burkhardt vacationed to Mexico for over 15 years starting in the 1950s, collecting human skulls he would later put in paintings.

‘Mexico represented something he could relate to,’ said Rutberg after schmoozing with groups of acquaintances. ‘A journey into the earthly remains where death and life come close together.’

‘Struggle for Peace’ (1964) has no actual skulls, but does feature sorrowful, bone-like apparitions carrying a balcony-shaped casket through a village. Each step seems weighted and the decorative ironwork of the balcony accentuates the hand-tooled homes of the village that were loved by the people.

Although it’s been said that L.A.’s art scene is na’iuml;ve and unsophisticated, it does love those artists that grace it.

‘His years at CSUN were engaging for him’mdash;giving back to America by teaching students,’ said Rutberg. ‘He had the outward simplicity of a folk artist but the wisdom of a shaman.’
The reception for the exhibit was filled with many people who had first-hand accounts with Burkhardt. They ran into each other and reminisced.

‘He’s an artist I miss a great deal,’ said long-time friend and printmaker Tom Fricano. He spoke about a picture he has of Burkhardt posing with several artists in his studio, ‘Every morning I get up, and I wave to him, ‘Hi Hans!’ ‘

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