Part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, “Hans Burkhardt: Within & Beyond the Mainstream” features paintings spanning over six decades, that collectively demonstrate the artist’s technical evolution and commitment to a distinct style of political expressionism. The Swiss-born artist immigrated to New York in 1924, and spent 12 years there before moving to Los Angeles in 1936. Perhaps best known as a “disciple” of Arshile Gorky–the 10 years he spent with the Armenian artist as both student and collaborator overlapped with de Kooning’s–the works assembled here provide a compelling argument for advancing the artist’s recognition beyond this early association. The earliest pieces in this exhibition, such as Day and Night (1937-38), date to Burkhardt’s first years in Los Angeles and reveal the dual influences of Cubism and Surrealism. The artist’s final work–The Extra Stripe (1993), an assemblage set against an uncharacteristically stark background–demonstrates Burkhardt’s personal commitment to both technical innovation and political concerns remained an essential component of his practice throughout his life.
Throughout the exhibition, Burkhardt’s work revolves around the poignant themes life and death, the ecstasy of love and the bitterness of the recurrent wars that defined the 20th century. In his paintings during the WWII era, such as One Way Road (1945), Burkhardt fractures the human figure into angular distortions rendered in black, slate gray and blood red, representing the pain and suffering of war. Burkhardt’s use of the symbolic crimson hue during this period fed into the paranoia of the era and resulted in the artist’s censorship. This, however, did not quell his preoccupation with finding increasingly acute methods to express the angst of war, as seen in the Vietnam paintings of the late ’60s, in which Burkhardt embedded actual human skulls onto the canvas, combining the ultimate symbol of abjection against a turbulent AbEx background. Contrasting these works are Burkhardt’s lush and sensual abstractions, such as Tropical Landscape (1958) and his later graffiti paintings, among the earliest examples of street art finding its way onto a canvas. Inspired by the artist’s trip in the early ’80s to his native country, Burkhardt found inspiration in the tags and symbols covering the abandoned buildings where others saw decay. Individually, the paintings are masterful examples of craftsmanship and compassion. But the true power of this exhibition comes from the collective whole and reveals the essence of Burkhardt: a visionary artist who could not ignore the suffering of war, but who also sought to find beauty in the world.