Tom Burckhardt, “God Made the Land for Use” (2022), ink and collage on book page, 9 x 6 inches (all images courtesy High Noon Gallery)

Since 1992, when Tom Burckhardt began exhibiting his art, he has made many strong and diverse bodies of work, each of which has been true to the materials he uses. His installations include “FULL STOP” (2005–6), a meticulously created homage and elegy to the postwar artist’s studio, using only black paint, cardboard, wood, and hot glue. The walk-through environment included all the paraphernalia typically found in an artist’s studio, often with art historical references: Edward Hopper’s potbellied stove; Jackson Pollock’s shoes; Jasper Johns’s Savarin can. In 2008, Burckhardt used cardboard and paint to make SLUMP, an exhibition composed entirely of curved paintings resting on trompe l’œil paint cans, slumped against the wall. 

Whereas many other artists have made entire careers by rejecting painting or by filling a grid with color, Burckhardt has had a more complicated and nuanced response to art history and its retelling. In “FULL STOP,” surrounded by all the things one needs to make art, from paint cans and tubes to saws and hammers to art books arranged on shelves, he placed a blank canvas on an easel in the center of the room, essentially asking: Where do I go from here? 

Since that breakthrough body of work, Burckhardt has made abstract paintings on molded plastic supports with uneven surfaces and observational paintings based on different signs he’s seen in rural Maine. Throughout all the shifts and turns he has taken, he has remained true to the humbleness of his materials. By refusing to preserve his objects in bronze or some other permanent material, he has rigorously pushed back against the high modernist ideal of oil paint on canvas, while simultaneously criticizing the postmodern celebration of glitzy materiality and high-end replication of ordinary things. Rejecting both the romantic and entrepreneurial view of the artist, the bohemian and the corporate, he has defined a generative position that has never been fully recognized. And, perhaps to further confound the viewer, he has also made beautiful abstract paintings on canvas. 

Installation view of Tom Burckhardt: How We Got Into It at High Noon Gallery

Thinking of Burckhardt’s bodies of work, I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s useful insight into productivity:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has little to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood” — Is it so bad to be misunderstood? 

For nearly 35 years, Burckhardt has worked with old and discarded books, using the inside pages for drawings. An admittedly frugal artist, he decided to do something with the book covers. The lingua franca of self help and history books is one focus of the exhibition Tom Burckhardt: How We Got Into It at High Noon Gallery, but not the only one. According to the press release, “353 collaged found book pages” are installed along the gallery’s three walls, on which Burckhardt has “made a deconstructed grid” in red and blue chalk, a la Sol LeWitt. It is both an installation and an efficient way to display so many works in the gallery’s long, narrow space. 

Tom Burckhardt, “Nuptial Flight of New Sperm-Cells” (2022), ink and collage on book page, 8 x 8.5 inches

Working with ink and collage, Burckhardt preserves the words he has found, and adds a patterned cutout abstract shape against a gradient ground. At once dramatic and withholding, funny and absurd, unsettling and apocalyptic, the phrases are “poetic” in both an elusive and kitschy sense: “NUPTIAL FLIGHT OF NEW SPERM CELLS”; “I PASSED AS A TEENAGER”; “TO THOSE WHO WILL KEEP THE STAUNCH HEART OF AMERICA ALIVE”; “THOSE WHO WERE NOT BORN THERE.”

I love the ambiguous, weird, disturbing, nutty, and tender titles and phrases that Burckhardt has brought into his artwork. It was impossible to guess the context of some phrases, and trying to do so becomes part of the viewer’s aesthetic engagement with the pieces. The constants running through all of the artist’s work are that he is not a literalist, he does not make big claims for his art, he doesn’t coax the viewer in any direction, and he rejects the use of expensive materials and fabrication costs. 

Burckhardt has continually resisted making artworks as products, while exploring different materials. He is a conceptual artist who has never defined himself as one because he knows the label is limiting. In fact, it occurred to me that Burckhardt is implicitly skeptical of the claims of an original conceptual artist, Mel Bochner. Over the past 30 years, Burckhardt has never come off as superior to his viewers, nor developed a practice geared toward flabby, consumer-oriented production. Each work in How We Got Into It is an original. 

Tom Burckhardt, “Those Who Were Not Born There” (2023), ink and collage on book page, 8.75 x 5.75 inches

Tom Burckhardt: How We Got Into It continues at High Noon Gallery (124 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 20. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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