Paul Burlin, American (1886 - 1969)

Paul Burlin

Paul Burlin was born in New York City in 1886. He received his early education in England, but returned to the United States soon after completing his studies. In the early 1900s, he worked as an editor and illustrator for Delineator, a women’s fashion magazine, along with Theodore Dreiser. Burlin was strongly involved with the Progressive movement and associated with its artistic counterpart, the Ashcan School, amongst whom he made his artistic debut at the age of 27 at the 1913 Armory Show. This groundbreaking exhibition, which also featured work from many of the European avant-gardes such as Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, freed Burlin’s already adventurous approach to art, and he soon abandoned the urban-realist style in favor of more modernist, abstract tendencies.

Shortly after the Armory Show, Burlin took a trip to the Southwest (long before the Taos and other art colonies established there). The region’s dramatic landscapes of vast, open spaces had a profound effect on the artist, and he remained there until 1920. During this time, like many of his New York counterparts (with whom he continued to keep in contact despite the long distance, showing periodically at the Daniel Gallery), he became deeply involved with primitive, particularly Native American art, an interest that his wife Natalie Curtis, the music and ethnologist of native desert populations and author of the book Indian Book (1907) encouraged further.

Burlin had a profound and bitter reaction towards both World War I and the art created immediately after it, prompting him to suddenly move to Paris in 1921. While this move was first an escape from what he believed to be a “palsy of the [American] spirit,” (1) it soon became a twelve year pilgrimage during which he participated in the city’s exciting and experimental art scene; he shared a studio with cubist Albert Gleizes and befriended Leo Stein, for example. Burlin never felt truly accepted in this milieu, however, and returned to America in 1932, right at the height of the Great Depression and its accompanying propagandistic Social-Realist art.

Upon his return, Burlin participated in the Social-Realist scene, but was soon frustrated with what he believed to be its narrowness and false sense of social responsibility, and he completely abandoned the style in the late 1930s. By the mid-1940s, Burlin began to pay less attention to subject matter, turning instead to themes from mythology, drawing inspiration from Kandinsky’s early improvisations and Picasso’s abstracted explorations of the human figure. By the 1950s, Burlin’s expression carried into abstraction, causing many to situate him within the prevalent Abstract Expressionist movement, although he was much older than the artists of the New York School; he was approaching 70. Despite this advanced age, however, his work remained youthful, a reflection of his constant forward-thinking spirit and free of any artistic constraints. Burlin continued to work in this innovative and exploratory manner until his death in 1969.

1. Irving Sandler, Paul Burlin. New York: The American Federation of Arts New York, 1962, p.7.


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