Bruce Kurland (1938-2013), Killdeer, 1981; oil on panel, 10 x 7 7/8 inches (Frame: 15 3/8 x 13 3/8 inches); Estate of Dr. Edna M. Lindemann, 2007
Scott Propeack Reflects on Bruce Kurland (1938-2013)
Sunday, January 5, 2014
I always introduce Bruce Kuland’s works as those of a painter’s painter: meaning that many of us may be content with a nice composition or a good idea, but the person who fully understands the complexity of working with a material will expect more and offer more. Of all of the painters and artists with whom I have spoken, all have been in awe of his skill and ideas. He was a great and dedicated artist. One that everyone should know more about him.
I first met Bruce in early 1989 (or thereabout), not through a museum or at an exhibition, but rather through his daughter, Yetta. Yetta had asked if we might stop by to see her dad—nothing that would take long—she just needed to say a brief hello. At the time Bruce was living in an apartment in the Allentown neighborhood in Buffalo. We walked up what seemed liked four floors in an impressive Victorian building. The building was what we take for granted in Buffalo, ornate and beautiful. Upon entering his apartment it was immediately evident that whoever was living here probably did not have his jodhpurs on for an afternoon ride, but may have his shotgun loaded for fowl. As Nancy Parisi reminded me, it was like a cabin. The space was filled with all sorts of organic materials, and I am pretty sure a couple of either stuffed or not so gingerly handled animals. Nothing completely macabre, more like one part biological study space, and four parts artist studio and this is how and where I met Bruce.
Our paths did not cross again for years, Bruce moved to Oakland then to Ireland and only later quietly returning to Buffalo. During that time I hadn’t thought much of the artist, until I started working at the Burchfield Penney. Up until this point, if I thought of Bruce at all, it was as the father of someone I no longer knew, not the extraordinary artist he was. While going through collections I came across his paintings. Frankly, I was shocked that more had not been made of him and his work. Yes, the Smithsonian, Burchfield Penney and other museums had collected, exhibited and written about his work, but not nearly enough. At this point our exhibition was a decade in the past, and I was yet to understand the pace that these revolutions occur in museum time. I learned about Bruce from our archives—including the friendship he had with Wendy and Murray Warner and the connection between him and Thomas Aquinas Daly. I started to better understand a person that I had met only in passing, only slightly more personal than the relationship we have with historic figures. In 1999, however, our paths crossed again, this time because of Nancy Parisi and her annual Red Party. It was not some arranged meeting or studio visit, just people hanging out at a party looking for a place to smoke. I knew who he was, and rightly so, he had no memory of me.
We spoke for a few hours that night about artwork, art markets and mostly art history. Not identifying as an artist, I have always been most interested in how artists perceive their community, their place and the larger world. Bruce surprised me with his knowledge, it was one thing to know that he could paint the way that he did, and it was another to listen to someone understand himself so well. He told me more about the development of the arts than any professor, but did not reside in the past of the artists who inspired him. He was able to negotiate, if not appreciate the art world of that moment. Not once during our conversation did he speak about his own work, unless I brought it up. He used the work of others to make a point, not doing what is normally the easier route, to reference oneself. It was at this point, that all of my reading was bested by direct interaction with an artist. I asked Bruce about seeing his work, and he told me he did not have anything he wanted to show. He was working, but would let me know if and when I could visit him. He told me that when he is not completely satisfied, he paints over or destroys what he has been working on and was in the process of creating some new things. Knowing what I did of his work, this shocked and saddened me. It wasn’t as if the works that the Burchfield Penney has or other works I have seen in other places were made by someone who created thousands of throw-away pieces and only a few gems. It is unfortunate to know that his standard was so far above ours that there are many works we will never see.
Over the past decade, I would occasionally run into Bruce. There were the multiple times that he visited in 2007 to see an exhibition of Thomas Aquinas Daly. He was there to enjoy paintings, simply to look at study and appreciate the work. He did not come around to be seen and seemed a bit apprehensive when I discovered him looking. As always, I would let him know that I wanted to see what he was up to—ask him what he was working on—and he would say he would let me know. In 2008, when we opened the new Burchfield Penney, his work was installed in a public space and remained on display for 3 years. Occasionally, he stopped in to look at the paintings, something I would only hear about after he had left the building. I am sure it wasn’t to bask in glory, but to continue to consider work that he had created almost 30 years before.
The last time that I saw Bruce was early in 2013, he had just gotten out of the hospital and I said that we really wanted to show his work; I had figured out a time for an exhibition. As always, he would talk about when he might be ready to let me look at work. Sadly, that visit never occurred. When Tony Bannon came back to the Burchfield as Director he asked what artists and patrons he should visit with—who should he reconnect with—who is still here. In July I told him about wanting to mount an exhibition of Bruce’s work, and Tony said how much he wanted to stop by and visit with him. Once again, it never occurred. Bruce painted for himself, not the praise of some curators, maybe the appreciation of fellow artists. It is unfortunate, not that we were unable to exhibit his work before he passed—it will be shown beyond all of our lifetimes, but that he did not understand that what we learn from directly interacting with each other will always trump what is left in an archival record.
—Scott Propeack, associate director, chief curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center