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An extremely prolific artist, Hans Burkhardt remained relatively silent in the Los Angeles art world, choosing to let his artworks express his feelings and thoughts (although the artist often lamented the close knit circle he left in New York). A forerunner of abstracted, expressionist painting, unusual amid the more conservative Los Angeles figurative painters in the late 1930s, Burkhardt based his experimentation on a solid artistic foundation. Following the advice of his mentor, Arshile Gorky, who had often directed the young artist, “painting is not more than drawing with paint,” Burkhardt created sketches in pencil, pastel, or ink before beginning a canvas. As a result, his compositions exhibit a strong sense of structure and design, even in their abstraction.
In a 1974 interview for the Archives of American Art, the artist explained that for him paintings evolve out of emotions and ideas—a process not unlike the Surrealist’s conception of the genesis of creative thought. Objects become symbols (for example, two nails transformed into lovers under a moonlit sky.) The symbolic and expressive content of these motifs derives from the artist’s deeply felt humanism and compassion.
Born in 1904, in Basel, Switzerland, Burkhardt grew up in an orphanage. In 1924 he wrote to his father, who had immigrated to the U.S., and that same year joined him, finding work in the furniture factory where his father was employed. During the evenings Burkhardt studied art at Cooper Union. After a year there, in 1928 Burkhardt left to attend the new Grand Central School of Art where he met Arshile Gorky. Gorky only had four pupils, one of whom was Willem de Kooning. Burkhardt and his mentor formed a fast friendship; the two shared a studio in the mod 1930s for almost a decade. To support himself during the lean Depression years, Burkhardt continued to work as a furniture finisher. Burkhardt finally relocated to Southern California in 1937 where he worked for a defense plant during World War II, and for MGM studios.
Burkhardt focused on the war, creating numerous anti-war paintings dealing with the horror of the concentration camps. Throughout his career, the artist decried the evils of war with paintings devoted to the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam, even as late as Desert Storm in the 1990s. Missiles, bombs, bloodied bodies, and ravaged landscapes referenced “collateral damage." Burkhardt’s numerous anti-war paintings are among his most critically celebrated works. Eventually the artist’s outlook changed to a new optimism that engendered paintings visualizing the “dream of one world.”
Despite the lack of a cohesive artistic community in Southern California, he became involved with several community arts organizations in the state, also coming into contact with a group of transplanted surrealists that included Man Ray, Knud Merrild, and Eugene Berman who no doubt encouraged Burkhardt’s expressive sensibilities.
He began to gain commercial support with his first one-man exhibition in 1939 at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles, an event followed by yearly solo shows at the Circle Gallery, Los Angeles from 1940-1945. In 1945, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave him a purchase award .
Although Burkhardt never graduated from college, he was asked to teach art classes at California State University at Long Beach in 1958. From then on he had a significant impact on developing California artists, with regular teaching positions at University of Southern California, University of California Los Angeles, Otis College of Art and Design, and California State University at Northridge.
His work is in the collections of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the British Museum; the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Guggenheim Museum; the Kunstmuseum, Basel; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles; and the Portland Museum of Art, Oregon.