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
"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
Biography from The