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Then there were giants

2/19/2014

Cornelis Ruhtenberg’s “Life, Earth,” acrylic on canvas (60 x 90 inches) is currently among other local art on display at Olson-Larsen Galleries.

Cornelis Ruhtenberg’s “Life, Earth,” acrylic on canvas (60 x 90 inches) is currently among other local art on display at Olson-Larsen Galleries.

Olson-Larsen Galleries’ current exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints by Byron Burford, Jules Kirschenbaum and Cornelis Ruhtenberg is a homage to three of Iowa’s greatest painters of the 20th century. Walking through this show on opening night, I overheard a wistful conversation that ended: “They don’t make painters like them anymore.” I hope that is not true, but those three had more in common with each other than they had with the younger generations of Iowa painters.

I read about Burford’s passing in 2011 in a 10-paragraph story by Dennis Hevesi in the New York Times. “He focused on poignant moments: Southern blacks toiling in the fields; beachcombers gazing into the distance; jazz musicians reaching for high notes; a World War I soldier recovering in the hospital; a forlorn bicyclist standing by the side of the road, out of the race,” Hevesi began a summary of Burford’s career. That story quoted Hilton Kramer’s 1966 review of a Burford exhibition in Manhattan. “There is no mistaking the fact that a genuine and interesting imagination has been engaged.”

Burford lived and painted a dream life. At age 14, he left his Greenville, Miss., home to run away with the Tom Mix Circus. After studying with Grant Wood while still in his teens, he joined the Army Air Corps in World War II.  After the war, like Wood and Philip Guston, Burford moved to Iowa to teach at the University of Iowa. Those were still the early days of academic art departments, before theorists and deconstructionists dominated them. Burford never really left the circus. He hit the road with touring shows during summer recesses from the university. He was still working on paintings of circus performers when he died at age 90.

Cornelis Ruhtenberg also won the praise of the New York City art literati before moving to Iowa. The New York Times began sending first-string art critics to review the Latvian-born painter’s exhibitions in the 1940s. Her work was exhibited at the Met, MOMA, the Corcoran and other heavyweight museums before the Eisenhower era ended. She invented a figurative style that never quite fit within any modern art movements. Critics called it: 1. a cross between Sung Dynasty landscape painting and German Expressionism; 2. “chiaroscuro, in a full spectrum of colors” and 3. “music-made-visible.”

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Ruhtenberg’s subtle inventions served the spiritual mood of her paintings better than the techniques of contemporary “spiritual art.”  She used glazes almost invisibly, to modify and merge colors, rather than glossing or embellishing them. In several of the larger canvasses in the current show — “Life: Earth,” “Green Couple Sitting” and “Death: Fire” — that creates the effect of observing another person’s dreams.

Jules Kirschenbaum was the most influential central Iowa painter of his generation, inspiring two future generations of artists as a professor at Drake University and as a thoughtful stylist who was ahead of his time. Like Burford, Kirschenbaum was more apt to talk and teach about literature, philosophy, religion and psychology than art theory. He despised such clichés, but he was indeed a modern Renaissance man. He cleaned his brushes in the same macabre subject matter as Damien Hurst and his British clan. Hurst’s burst to superstardom made Kirschenbaum’s work more valuable. Very few of his paintings remain on the open market. The drawings and prints in this show demonstrate the larger body of work well. This show plays through April 5. 

Touts Moberg Gallery’s Figurative exhibition brings works of 20 artists including several better known for working in other genres. Collectively, nudes and creepy people engage and disturb us in equal measures. Through March 15… Jay Vigon is exhibiting his seven-year project, “Swimming Upstream,” at his new Studio Gallery (323 E. Walnut St.). Two dozen free line drawings in the series reveal a complex journey through Days of the Dead, Mardi Gras, Hollywood and an engaging imagination. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987. 

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