Requiem For War:
Paintings by Hans Burkhardt
Jack Rutberg Fine Arts
357 North La Brea Avenue
July 11 to October 25, 2003
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