Sheldon Berlyn (1929-2020), Homage to Caravaggio, 1996; acrylic on canvas, 90 x 66 inches; Burchfield Penney Art Center, Collectors Club Fund, 2001

Sheldon Berlyn (1929-2020), Homage to Caravaggio, 1996; acrylic on canvas, 90 x 66 inches; Burchfield Penney Art Center, Collectors Club Fund, 2001

Remembering Sheldon Berlyn (1929-2020)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Sheldon Berlyn was a dynamic abstract expressionist artist and influential educator. “Color and geometric form are the center of Sheldon Berlyn’s painting,” wrote Curator Joan Vita Marotta in 2002. “Basing his work in part on the writings of colorists such as M.E. Chevreul and Faber Birren and the theory of Abstract-Constructivism, Berlyn creates abstract images with the optical effects of color combinations.” His works created with brilliant colors, confident squeegee strokes, and flamboyant gesture truly reflect his passionate personality.

After teaching for 42 years, Berlyn retired as a professor of art and director of the graduate art program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and is remembered as a demanding, but supportive instructor and advisor. He remained active as an artist in Penn Yan, where he lived with his wife, Diane, an art conservator.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1929, Berlyn studied at the Worcester Art Museum School, receiving his certificated in 1951, and he attended Yale’s Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art. At the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he studied with Herbert P. Barnett (1910-1972), who was inspired by Marsden Hartley and Ralph Waldo Emerson and produced representational landscapes and figure paintings that incorporated abstract structure and gestural techniques.

Drafted into the Korean War in 1951, Berlyn served as a clerk in a non-combat zone where Korean prisoners of war were held. He made empathetic ink drawings of them and civilians in the nearby village. Originally interested in producing realistic, figurative art, Berlyn changed direction when he moved to Buffalo in 1958 to teach at the (then-named) University of Buffalo. Seeing the collection of the (then-named) Albright Art Gallery, he became inspired by abstract expressionists, such as Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky, and began producing geometric abstractions. Years later, his work became more vigorous, literally combining planned and unpredictable results based on gesture, color, and texture.

In this region, Berlyn’s art was often selected for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Western New York Exhibitions and won awards during the late 1950s and 1960s. Notably, his work was included in seminal exhibitions, such as The Wayward Muse: A Historical Survey of Painting in Buffalo (1987) at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Gateways: Space, Place and the Transformative (2008), the inaugural exhibition of the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s new building. Twenty years ago, the UB Poetry/Rare Books Collection presented a retrospective of works dating from 1958 to 1990 in its gallery space. Significant solo exhibitions were held simultaneously in 1997 at the Castellani Art Museum and the University at Buffalo Gallery in the Center for the Arts. The latter highlighted stunning large-scale masterworks that almost seemed counterintuitive, as they were inspired by Italian Renaissance painters. Take for example, the work illustrated on the cover of the exhibition catalogue: Homage to Caravaggio (1996), an acrylic on canvas painting measuring 90 by 66 inches which the Burchfield Penney Art Center purchased in 2001 with funds from its Collectors Club. The composition is an abstraction of the forms in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio. About his series Caravaggiana, Berlyn stated:

I have long identified with Caravaggio’s aesthetic temperament without yearning to emulate his style. Like Caravaggio, I strive to engage the viewer through charged, dramatic movement, light and color which leaps out of the painting to command the gaze and the senses. Unlike Caravaggio, I flatten all form and space while quoting the underlying structure of his work.

In 2007, Berlyn received the Bellinger Memorial Award in Painting from the Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts. His work was also exhibited at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts; the Rodman Art Center in Ontario, Canada; and the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, among others. 

In addition to Homage to Caravaggio, the Burchfield Penney Art Center owns two non-objective acrylic on paper paintings from 1996 and later, a 1966 charcoal drawing of abstracted figural and organic forms, and a 1955 drawing of two figures dedicated to architect Robert Traynham Coles, whom we also lost in 2020.

—Nancy Weekly
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
& Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo State College