Michael D. Hall's New Book on Emerson Burkhart

Michael D. Hall's new monograph published by Scala.

My last story
for the Lantern is a preview of a book presentation by Michael D. Hall, the  Columbus Museum of Art's adjunct curator of folk art. Hall has spent the last ten years developing a book on Emerson Burkhart, an odd local/regional figure who didn't "fit" into the larger themes of the art world of his time. By all accounts he was flagrantly egotistical, arrogant, and stubborn. Also, a 20 year-old prostitute was the last person to talk to him before he fell into a coma and died in 1969. So, apparently, a personable gent. This info is a little annoying to know - I used to revel in Burkhart's paintings while in high school. He painted obnoxiously thick, something I was obsessed with at the time. His palette centered on hyper pastels, another tic I cultivated without regard for my teachers' eyesight. I stopped searching his work out when I stopped painting in oils but a recent visit to the Convention Center renewed my interest. His mural there, "Music," is really beautiful - though Hall and a few other commentators online seem to dismiss it as derivative - which it is - but so is his whole oeuvre. After all, he was a Columbus artist.

"Music" at the Convention Center. History of the piece here.

An MP3 of my interview with Hall here.
My story
plus more of Burkhart's paintings after "the jump."

Emmy got that Trotsky thing going.

Emerson Burkhart might be Columbus’ best kept secret – as far as eccentric painters go.

Burkhart, who attended Ohio State and painted the large mural in Stillman Hall, was a prolific and well-regarded artist in Columbus before his death in 1969.

The operative phrase in that sentence being “in Columbus.”

But a new book by Michael D. Hall, adjunct curator of folk art for the Columbus Museum of Art, might finally bring the elusive national spotlight to the artist.

Titled “Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself,” the monograph is the first major publication on Burkhart in over 35 years. The book will have an international distribution that is indicative of the scope of the renewed interest in the artist.

Hall’s own interest in Burkhart was piqued twenty years ago. While working on another project at the museum, Hall stumbled upon a Burkhart painting and asked how he didn’t already know the artist.

The answer to that question ended up being a bit complicated.

“There are reasons why he was not nationally known and they have nothing to do with whether or not he had talent,” Hall said.

Those reasons include belittling fellow artists and refusing to work with an art dealer.

“He challenged the critics, he challenged the curators and he challenged the museum directors. He had an aggressive style, which locked him out,” Hall said.

To make matters more difficult for himself, Burkhart was not a trendy painter. While most of the arts world in the 40s and 50s revolved around the abstract expressionist style typified by Jackson Pollock, Burkhart painted portraits and still-lifes.

“He disliked modern art,” Hall said. “He was consistently out of step. It was how he positioned himself in the currents of the art river of his time.”

Burkhart wasn’t just personally controversial - a 70-foot mural he painted during the depression for the Works Progress Administration was censored for being “too sexy.”

The mural, titled “Music,” was installed in 1934 above an auditorium stage at Central High School.

By 1938 the principal, Harold C. Emswiler, had the mural painted over. It was covered until 1998 when an effort to restore it began. Today it hangs in the Greater Columbus Convention Center downtown.

Because of Emswiler, Burkhart became a figure in the national debate on art and censorship that was going on in the 30s and 40s, Hall said.

However, Burkhart is known more for his painstaking portraits than his murals. The Columbus Museum of Art owns one of these, entitled “The Confused Process of Being.”
It pictures the artist Roman Johnson. On the back of the painting, Burkhart tallied each time Johnson sat for the portrait – 45 sessions.

The painting is an important part of the museum’s American Early Modernism collection that also features Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield and fellow buckeye George Bellows.

If Hall gets his way, Burkhart’s paintings might start showing up in other museums’ collections outside of Ohio.

“Do I believe this book will change the world’s idea of this artist? No. Will this book add a footnote to the history of American painting, particularly of the 30s and 40s? I think it will. I think he deserves a better shot,” Hall said.

Though the book will not be officially released until January, there will be copies for sale at Hall’s lecture on Burkhart’s work at the Columbus Museum of Art. The talk is on Dec.12 at 1:30.

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