WASHINGTON, DC — At the heart of Diane Burko’s retrospective exhibition at the American University Museum, in Washington, DC, is a painting titled “Unprecedented” (2021). Eight feet tall and 15 wide, it is filled with swollen expanses of white, black, and red. Punctuating these clouds of color are disks of varying sizes, floating shapes that suggest planets with complex orbits. The scale of this painting is vast – and familiar, as Burko’s “Unprecedented” is in the company of Barnett Newman’s “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (1950-1951), the dominating slabs of dark pigment by Clyfford Still and others large paintings in the heroic tradition of abstract expressionism. . Yet Burko’s painting is not entirely comfortable in this endeavor.
Still once wrote to a friend: “When I exhibit a picture, I make it say, ‘Here I am; it is my feeling, my presence, myself. Along the same lines, Newman said his subject was “the self, terrible and constant.” Their art, as they saw it, was all about them. Burko’s art speaks of us, rather of the environmental disaster in which we are all engulfed. The title of her retrospective, curated by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, is See climate change. The Tories might as well have called it Feel the climate change, for Burko’s images of melting glaciers and dying coral reefs are not only pictorially impressive; they have a strong emotional impact.
By contrasting Burko with the Abstract Expressionists who claimed to straddle art history with self-referential arrogance, I don’t mean that she is shy, as a person or as an artist. When she decided, in 2006, to fight against climate change, she did not content herself with reviewing the vocation of the landscape paintings she had been producing since the 1970s. She undertook to form a new group of colleagues, some of whom became collaborators. Among them is Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, who provided him with photographs documenting the abrupt melting of glaciers – images that Burko transposed into painting. While a photograph has the power to tell the raw truth about a landscape, a painting of the same subject infuses it with the feelings that guide – that animate – the painter’s brush. Burko’s works bring his values to the fore. Horrified by environmental degradation, she feels compelled to illuminate our wounded world with images that will inspire us to action. As she said in a recent interview, “I can’t go on painting the landscape I love without doing something about it.”
The landscape painters who emerged in the early Renaissance felt no need to do anything about their subject, which was called Nature. They viewed rivers and mountains, forests and plains as the work of God, changing with the seasons but never in danger of permanent alteration. Nature held on and it was the artist’s job to celebrate it. Burko’s earlier work continues this tradition in the secular mode that first appeared in some seventeenth-century Dutch landscape paintings. Whether majestic subjects (the Grand Canyon) or intimate subjects (Claude Monet’s gardens at Givenchy), she lovingly takes care of the details of scenes that seem to ask nothing of her or anyone. Of course, scientists at fossil fuel companies and elsewhere have known for half a century that the environment is deeply damaged and in desperate need of rescue. When Burko understood this, it changed his art in a way that changed his life.
Since 2006, she has corresponded with scientists from the US Geological Survey, Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, and other institutions whose documentation and data she incorporates into paintings that bring to life the disappearance of glaciers and shrinking ice caps. Additionally, she photographed the crisis up close during trips to Antarctica, the Arctic islands of Svalbard, Greenland and other icy regions of the globe. In the tropics, she has visited and documented distressed coral reefs off the coasts of Australia and the islands of Hawaii. These trips led Burko to a new role: public speaker. She has spoken at conferences organized by the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union, and is the only painter to become an associate of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. By redefining her art to deal with the effects of climate change, she has also redefined our idea of what an artist can be.
Artists have made a subject of these effects since the 1980s. However, as Mary D. Garrard notes in her immensely helpful catalog essay, this has generally resulted in a kind of mimicry of science: imagery and even the climate research apparatus are moved from the field to the gallery. While it’s undeniable that we all have much to learn about the environment and its immediate prospects, the results of much environmental art tend to be didactic. Burko, too, confronts us with alarming information. However, she remains a painter and her loyalty to the medium gives her work a unique power. This is not because there is anything inherently superior to pigment on canvas, but rather because Burko has found ways to make the most of our sensitivity to this medium. After all, we are the heirs of centuries of observation and reflection on form, color and texture applied with a brush. Most of us find meaning in what we see, which, if we look at one of Burko’s greatest paintings, can overwhelm us with the force of the tides.
To generate this force, she reorganized her process. In 2016, for example, she covered 10 x 10 inch panels with flecks of white crackle paint, a material that produces an uncanny resemblance to disintegrating ice fields as it dries – an effect reinforced by the flecks of blue. marine the underpainting that she lets show through the gaps in the cracks. Scanned and reworked with Photoshop, these images include the large inkjet prints of the Elegy series. Thus a landscape painter becomes the creator of imaginary places afflicted by real disasters. Burko’s recent work does not so much document climate change as it makes it intensely imaginable.
In his reef paintings of the past five years, swirls and currents of dark blue, aquamarine, yellow and orange flow over large areas. The artist set these colors in motion with an air compressor, spreading them in waves on horizontal canvases. As tempting as it is for our vision to sink into these images, minding only its own pleasure, the allusions to the oceans are inescapable and the faint outlines of the Hawaiian Islands and Pacific atolls remind us of the real world. and its issues. Alerted to the artist’s concerns and our own concerns, we are likely to read the areas of yellow and white as maps of coral reefs in various stages of bleaching, that is, destruction.
When Burko makes a large painting, she often reserves a strip along the top edge for maps with laconic and disturbing annotations; in “The Coral Triangle” (2020), a sentence placed afloat on a field of color informs us that 85% of the reefs in this part of the Pacific Ocean are threatened. Burko always stays on target, never letting viewers drift into a narrowly aesthetic appreciation of his gorgeous imagery. the Reef Map (2019) consists of three paintings and, on the right, a narrow wooden panel painted in a deep blue-green. In the center of this panel, the artist has affixed a branch of bone-white coral. With its wide palette of warm colors, it evokes the immensity of the oceans and the gravity of their afflictions; then, with the dead coral, it highlights one of these afflictions.
In a 2021 interview with Burko, JD Talasek, director of cultural programs at the National Academy of Sciences, described her as an effective “communicator.” Inevitably, the work of climatologists circulates mainly in their professional sphere. By contrast, Talasek said, Burko’s art brings relevant information “out of storage” and makes it “personally relevant”. Since the advent of Romanticism, works of the imagination have striven to be relevant. The question is always: relevant for whom? As the examples of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still suggest, the answer to this question often finds its origins in the doctrines of romantic individualism, according to which art matters first to the artist and, secondly, to those who admire – and can identify with – the artist. posture of absolute self-sufficiency. The grandeur of Burko’s recent work qualifies it as a version of the sublime equal to earlier versions of the Abstract Expressionists or, for that matter, JMW Turner. However, his answer to the question of relevance is different from theirs. Addressing her work to the environmental crisis facing everyone on earth, she intends it matters to us all — not, needless to say, in the hope of an exalted place in art history. , but because, unable to ignore the crisis, she is determined to do “something about it”.
Diane Burko: seeing climate change continues at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center (4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC) through December 12. The exhibition was curated by Mary D. Garrard and Norma Broude.