Hans Burkhardt (Biographical details)

Hans Burkhardt (printmaker; painter/draughtsman; collector; Swiss; American (USA); Male; 1904 - 1994)

Also known as

Burkhardt, Hans; Burkhardt, Hans Gustav


Burkhardt was born in Basel, Switzerland. After his father left the family for America and his mother died a few years later, he was brought up in a Basel orphanage. In 1924 he emigrated to New York and was reunited with his father, a foreman in a furniture factory, where Burkhardt was taken on to paint period decoration, a skill he also formally studied at the Cooper Union, New York. In 1928 he attended the life class taught by Arshile Gorky at the Grand Central School of Art. Gorky became a mentor, introducing him to Cubism and abstraction and giving him private tuition in his studio, where Willem de Kooning was also a visitor. During the Depression years Burkhardt was a relatively well-paid foreman in the furniture company and supported the impoverished Gorky, with whom he collaborated on two paintings in 1936-7.

In 1937 Burkhardt moved to Los Angeles, where he finished furniture while continuing to paint surrealist abstractions. He had his first solo exhibition at the Stendhal Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1939. From the late 1930s he began to produce apocalyptic anti-war compositions, a theme which became particularly pronounced in an abstract expressionist style after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. In 1950 he gave away his furniture business and went to paint in Mexico, where he was strongly influenced by Mexican attitudes towards the dead. He produced a series of paintings, including The Burial of Gorky, provoked by his mentor's suicide. During the 1950s he lived half the year in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the other half in Los Angeles. In the 1960s he produced paintings in protest against the Vietnam War, some of which incorporated the human skulls he had collected from Mexican graveyards. In 1964 he returned to Basel for the first time in forty years, and from 1966 began making annual summer visits where he became a friend of Mark Tobey.

Burkhardt first took up printmaking in 1947, when he produced a small group of lithographs in Los Angeles with Lynton Kistler, then the only lithographic printer in Southern California. Although his experimentation with lithography was short-lived, he returned to printmaking in the 1960s when he was professor at California State University, Northridge, where he started to make etchings with the help of Tom Fricano, who taught printmaking there. Around 1969 he took up linocut, which he produced by etching the block with oven cleaner and then inking the block with several colours. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s Burkhardt made many prints. His final works were a series of paintings entitled Desert Storms produced in 1991 in response to the First Gulf War.


David Acton, 'The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints', 2001, (for biography of Burkhardt, see p. 64)
Jack V. Rutberg, 'Hans Burkhardt: The War Paintings. A Catalogue Raisonné', with an interview by Colin Gardner, California State University, Northbridge: Santa Susanna Press, 1984