Monday, September 1st, 2003

Requiem For War: Paintings by Hans Burkhardt

Jack Rutberg Fine Arts
357 North La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles
323 938-5222

July 11 to October 25, 2003

Hans Burkhardt War, Agony in Death 1939-1940 oil on canvas, 78 x 114 inches
Hans Burkhardt, War, Agony in Death 1939-1940 oil on canvas, 78 x 114 inches

Hans Burkhardt responds to war with deep felt feelings of rage, horror, and disgust. Moreover, he expresses these feelings with a sure hand that takes us to the brink of annihilation and back. It’s an exhausting process because Burkhardt’s catharsis is our catharsis, his redemption, of himself, of mankind, is ours, too.

Born in 1904 in Basel, Switzerland, he moved to New York in 1924 and to Los Angeles in 1937. As he told Colin Gardner in a 1984 interview, he wasn’t especially political; his responses to war came from what he heard and read in the media. Hans Burkhardt died in 1994.

In 1940 he painted War, Agony in Death. Painted with gooey oil on a large canvas of 78 x 114 inches, illuminated by a throbbing, about-to-wane Aztec sun and constructed of wild and abrupt angles that catapult one into the pictorial space, the piece looks like some diabolical cyclotron has hurled everything against the surface of the picture plane. Eerily-prescient intimations of post-AbEx Philip Guston (cowled heads with slits for eyes that are more likely turret openings in tanks, but still…) and Francis Bacon (bloody, disembodied teeth) combine with a tank seen in profile, a bundle of crosses, forms that can be missiles or houses or people on some manner of Calvary in the middle ground to form a tableau of a world not going quietly into the good night. In fact, as crowded as the picture is, there is a startling empty space in the middle of the image that recedes from the foreground all the way back into a limitless horizon, like a mannerist painting by Pontormo, creating a vortex drawing all into and down some nauseous spiral.

He uses the same empty-center composition in 1954’s Bikini (Hydrogen Bomb), one of the more abstract paintings in this show. An incandescent light source shines from somewhere off in the recesses of the upper right corner. This light source melts the shapes and shimmers the surface. The result is neither an implosion nor an explosion but a centrifugal force that vaporizes solid form with cataclysmic fury and radiates outward. Whatever constitutes the red and orange sinews that claw the picture plane are pressed up against the pictorial plane from the implied depth of the picture against some imaginary window. Indeed, there exists the sense that something structural has been turned to mist, remnants of a center that will not hold, in Yeats’ oracular phrase.

Burkhardt’s paintings resonate with perpetual relevance. A non-combattant, he nonetheless produced metaphors .of an all-too-human institution that one way or another will continue to affect every single person on the planet. Forever.