"To Be or Not To Be", 1946 | 22.5”x29” - oil and casein on art board
Paul Burlin absorbed the tenets of Modernism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism he saw while living and painting in Europe, and incorporated them into his own original paintings. "To Be or Not To Be", with its Shakespearan reference, is divided into three passages. Burlin applies the paint thickly in portions and thinly in other areas. This painting is a superb example of Abstract Expressionism. The forms are original shapes combined to give a sense of energy, movement, pleasure, excitement---all communicated by the choice of explosive bursts of primary colors.
Born Isadore Berlin to a German mother and an English father, Burlin received his early education in New York and England. Leaving home at sixteen, he studied part-time at the National Academy of Art and the New York Art Students League from 1900 to 1912, changing his name to Harry Paul Burlin. (In 1916 he shortened it to Paul Burlin by which he is best known.) He also worked briefly as an illustrator for the Delineator, a woman’s fashion magazine. He frequented Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” Art Gallery in Manhattan where he developed a taste for Picasso’s “primitive” artwork, leading him to study African tribal art and, later, the art and culture of the Indian pueblos in American Southwest. There he encountered the forceful geometry and brilliant color of American Indian decoration that later influenced his own work.
He visited New Mexico for the first time in 1910 and his paintings from that trip were exhibited the following year at the Daniel Gallery in New York. Their warm reception resulted in an invitation from William Glackens to participate – as the youngest artist at age twenty-six -- in the now-famous 1913 New York Armory Show that introduced modern art to the United States and stimulated the development of modernism in America. In an interview for the Archives of American art (1962) he recalled being most impressed by the structure of Cézanne’s An Old Woman with a Rosary and Duchamp‘s Nude Descending a Staircase included in that ground-breaking show.
Following the Armory Show he returned to New Mexico, becoming a Santa Fe resident until 1920. As the first modernist painter in the state, according to Sharon Udall, he had a “pivotal role in introducing fauvist and expressionist styles” to its art communities. There he met his future wife, Natalie Curtis (1876-1921) -- a distinguished American ethnomusicologist who authored the Indian Book, a classic study of Native American music and poetry -- whom he married in 1917. She also did some marine painting early in her career. While living in Santa Fe Burlin periodically sent his paintings for exhibition to the Daniel Gallery.
In 1916 he traveled up to Pueblo, Colorado, to paint the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company’s steel mill owned by John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould’s financial heirs. He later wrote of the experience: “I instinctively made an abstract collage of machinery. I realized that the force, the smooth beauty and terror of the machine could only be expressed in abstract terms.” As noted by Irving Sandler in his 1962 essay for the American Federation of Arts, “Burlin did not become an abstract artist at this time, but the possibility of creating such art was not lost on him.”
In 1921, as a result of the bitter reaction in America against modern art immediately after World War I, he and his wife joined a number of creative American artists as expatriates in the more sympathetic milieu of Paris. Shortly after their arrival Natalie was killed in an automotive accident. In 1924 he married Margaret Koop with whom he had a daughter; they divorced in 1936. Remaining in Paris, he actively participated in its international art community, studied European abstraction, and shared a studio for a time with cubist, Albert Gleizes. The Fauvists’ powerful use of intense color which he saw in Paris liberated him from the tonalities and nuances of color he previously employed in his work. He also associated with fellow American artist, Vaclav Vytlacil, and befriended Leo Stein, who wrote the introductory statement for one of Burlin’s projected shows in Paris.
Feeling that he would always be an alien in Europe as an expatriate, Burlin returned with his family to the United States in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, basing himself in New York where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1936 he became involved in the Federal Project of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the American Artists’ Congress. That same year he taught at the newly-inaugurated Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center whose opening week in April featured Alexander Calder’s stage design for Erik Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate, Martha Graham’s barefoot interpretations of esoteric modern dance, and an exhibition of French paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger and Van Gogh. Burlin, who experimented at that time with political and urban themes, painted The Ghost City, a Colorado mining town, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Among his students at the Fine Arts Center was John O’Neil, later Professor of Painting at the University of Oklahoma (1939-1965).
By the late 1930s Burlin abandoned social realism, feeling that it “involved a false social responsibility that had little to do with painting.” He also reacted against the attempts of various WPA-era programs to dictate form and content in art. In 1942 he opened a school for painters in New York. During that decade his work became less dependent on subject matter and more concerned with the expressive possibilities of shape and color. He began developing his characteristic style of merging abstraction expressionist forms with metaphysical subjects and ideas that dominated his creative output by the 1950s.
Beginning in the late 1940s, he accepted visiting artist appointments at various American institutions starting with the University of Minnesota (1948-49). In the summer of 1951 the University of Colorado at Boulder invited him to teach graduate oil painting and advanced second year oil painting (figure painting and landscape composition). In this connection he discussed Americans’ suspicions about modern art in a Boulder Daily Camera article, “Creative Arts Should be the Core of Living.” He noted that Americans say, “If you can’t explain it [modern art], to hell with it…But does the individual really try to understand it?” He pointed out that artists can copy flowers or tell a story, but this kind of work expresses nothing of their inner selves. He also believed that “Americans are guilty of placing creative arts on the outer realm of their existence. ‘We can live without it,’ is their attitude whereas older civilizations made creative arts the core of their living….We don’t give art a chance because it needs leisure and thought. However, we shouldn’t be too intellectual about it because it is more interesting than that.”
After Boulder, Burlin was a visiting artist at the University of Wyoming (1952), University of Southern California, Los Angeles (1954); Union College, Schenectady, New York (1954-55); and the Art Institute of Chicago School (1960). He also was active in the Provincetown Art Colony and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Although he began losing his eyesight in the 1950s, his paintings from the last decades of his life are filled with “energy and movement, restlessness and cacophony, balanced with technical mastery and clarity of vision.” They exemplify his overall approach to his work: “My point of departure is a step by step organization of shape and color into a unity of design. And these shapes and colors are like floats on a limitless space because I preoccupy myself with making them exist in a two-dimensional world – not in a world of perspective, but in an infinity of space. This is no mere technical performance. It is an act of creation.”
Solo Exhibitions: Daniel Gallery, New York (1911); Kraushaar Art Gallery, New York (1926, 1927); Westheim Gallery, Berlin, Germany (1927); Associated American Artists, New York (1942 -1944); Vincent Price Gallery, Los Angeles (1946); Downtown Gallery, New York (1946, 1949, 1952-1953); Washington University, St. Louis (1954); Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1954); Poindexter Gallery, New York (1956-1959); Art Institute of Chicago (1960); and the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York (1981). He was honored with a retrospective exhibition (1962) circulated by the American Federation of the Arts.
Museum Collections: Brooklyn Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Museum of Modern Art, New York; Newark Museum, New Jersey; Wichita Art Museum, Kansas; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe; Tel Aviv Museum,-Israel.