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Bruce Kurland (1938-2013), Self Portrait, 1972; oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches (Frame: 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches); Given in Memory of Joseph T. Suchan by his Mother, 1996

Bruce Kurland (1938-2013), Self Portrait, 1972; oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches (Frame: 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches); Given in Memory of Joseph T. Suchan by his Mother, 1996

Tony Bannon Remembers Bruce Kurland (1938-2013)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Kurland was a dark presence, down toward the end of the Hall, the first hall that connected artists’ studios and supplied the walls for Hallwalls, which now is a venerable artist-run alternative space in a different building in Buffalo. It was alright that many did not notice him over there. He was older.

Kurland also could be found toward the end of the gallery space Ran Webber operated 40 years ago at the high end of the funky area called Allentown, closer to downtown Buffalo. Webber’s place was called Gallery Wilde. Ran was aware of the double meaning.

The two spaces—Hallwalls and Wilde—were much different. That is a part of Kurland’s measure, that he sat at both places. Kurland was different, too. People were attracted to him because he was a rough enigma, quiet and handsome, compelling, unknowable, sitting there with his wine and cigarettes.

Death hung over him. So did life, but dangerously. He didn’t speak a lot. But the people knew he was very smart about art. People knew he had done well in New York City, and for some reason now he chose to live up here, out in the country, outside of Arcade, in a hamlet called Curriers. Not many had seen his work. People said he painted still lives.

Ran Webber’s place was not as aesthetically dangerous as Hallwalls, which was very much a part of the new way of thinking about art that was called post-modernism. Webber’s place played to Buffalo artists. Hallwalls played to the world. Most Hallwalls artists were students, or just had been.

Kurland sat back there upon a wooden folding chair, as if he was the memory of James Dean at a high school dance. Kurland was 17 when Dean starred in Rebel without a Cause, released in the year of the actor’s death, 1955. Dean was older than Kurland, by eight years, a vanguard.

Hallwalls established in 1974. Its founders—the estimable Charles Clough, Robert Longo, Diane Bertolo, Nancy Dwyer, Cindy Sherman, Michael Zwack—were in their early 20s. Kurland was in his mid-30s. He was older than Paul Sharits, who had just turned 30 the year before. Only Hollis Frampton was older still, and he by just two years.

Bruce Kurland has died (December 11, 2013). He was 75 years old.

Kurland had his first retrospective at the Burchfield Art Center, before it was Burchfield Penney. He was 45 years old. Twenty years before that, he had his first one-person exhibition in New York City, at Barzansky Gallery, and ten years later another one at Washburn Gallery. Kurland had been to sea, with the Coast Guard, right after high school. Upon return, he studied at the Art Students League of New York, and the National Academy School of Fine Arts, and he won a lot of prizes right away, among them prestigious awards from the Salmagundi Club and several from the National Academy of Design, as well as from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation.

Except for this flourish, though, he never really seized his time. He never owned it. He liked to say that “you have to ride a few horses at the same time.” And he tried. And then decided against it, at least in regard to those horses that lived in the art world. With his new wife he left New York and settled in her hometown - Couriers.

Kurland had lived several different kinds of time.

He left New York and settled in Curriers and dropped in on Gallery Wilde and Hallwalls. That was one brand of time. It was a getting-ready-for-the-retrospective time. It was a time for finding a Balance in the reckless practice of meaning called art, an art drawn from nature, from the mostly dead things he found or caught and killed. Several friends, particularly the artist Thomas Aquinas Daly, learned a lot about art from Kurland and shared a lot about wildlife with him. Over decades, Kurland and Daly reached back and forth toward each other, across divides in time and arguments and memorable conversations. There were other men who shared time with them, fishing the Wiscoy, which flows into the Genesee, and other men who also worked Spring Creek in Caledonia. These groups observed that different clock, which only a handful of artists understood. Charles Burchfield would have understood. Kurland knew that, and spoke of his affection for Burchfield to the handful of artists who lived in the country and who knew Burchfield, among them Bob Blair, Wendy Warner, Joe Orffeo, and the friend and patron to them all, Peter Vogt.

Peter Vogt was the lead sponsor of the retrospective exhibition of 76 small paintings at the Burchfield. They were staggering images, particularly for someone open to see such things. The paintings presumed to have deep meaning, core significance - life, decay and death. Kurland maintained the watch over these matters, kept the vigil, told the story, searching for the precarious values; for instance, where a knife balances at the edge of a glass, having cut the lemon; where a rabbit is pinned to the wall, drained of its blood.

Kurland knew these things as the propositions at the center of art—magical ideas, really, these pictorial notions of representation: a sorcerer’s task—mysterious, even occult, always dangling at the edge of soul, working through the puzzle of how in the world to speak about things essential.

Many were stunned by Kurland’s show at the Burchfield. These were the people who could handle the footwork of Fluxus, or the wise guy contretemps of conceptual art, or surely the emergence of what was being hatched in Buffalo, bringing on a wrap up to modernism. But here was Kurland who was going back to Leonardo. He was as if a visitor from another time. And soon he disappeared.

We learned later that he went to Oakland . His marriage fell apart, so he left Curriers and went West, living alone in the Chinese area of the city, out of touch—a ghost, he said. He liked that the people, in fact, called him a ghost, and that he was considered an outsider. The people were cordial, but unengaged, without commitment, even interest, in him. The clock had stopped—or close to it. He regretted that he couldn’t sustain it and stay the ghost. He said he knew that this time was finished after an Oakland merchant invited him for a family dinner in the merchant’s home. That was just too close. So Kurland left; he went to Ireland. He told friends he wanted to experience the light there and make art with it. Friends think he spent more time fishing. And after a bit, then he returned to Buffalo.

Bruce Kurland crossed over time, just as he crossed over to different groups of people. He and Daly would buy Chinese in Arcade and stay up all night talking—drawing out the intersections of their art with ideas about fly fishing, observing together the intersections of their vocation in art. Kurland had shared his work in the most important places – the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American Art and the National Academy of Design among them. And then he wouldn’t show any work for years at a time. One takes the measure:

-The Albright-Knox Art Gallery selected Kurland’s work as among the most important ever created in the Western part of New York State.

Dr. William H. Gerdts, the renowned art historian, whose books on American Impressionism and American Regionalism establish the paradigm, collects Kurland and about him said, famously: “I still consider him among the best.”John Canaday, the New York Times critic, said of Kurland’s inaugural showing: “This is a first one-man show of a very strong talent sprouting fresh and unblemished from an academic tradition, and it should get high priority visit.”

And then the time came when there were none: No shows, no visits. An on-line search from an artist and curator in England, writing into an art sourcing network, asked just recently: “I would like to hear from anyone who could put me in touch with the artist Bruce Kurland.”

The inquiry went unanswered.

Writing in Art in America, in July of 1991, the critic Carl Little praised Kurland’s small still lives, seen in an exhibition in Victoria Munroe Gallery in New York. His paintings bring “new mystery” to the genre called “nature morte,” wrote Little.

Twenty years earlier, Buffalo News Art Critic Jean Reeves interviewed Kurland in his country home. Kurland had only been on the Niagara Frontier for five years at this time, and had just learned some of its woodlands and fishing streams, particularly the Wiscoy in Pike. He also had just learned the sprung rhythms of finding fish with a fly rod and lure fit for the particular water and its light and temperature and depth.

Kurland told Reeves the light outdoors is “too general, too broad, not specific enough,” and the landscape itself doesn’t “hold the drama I’m looking for.” His light, his drama, was to be his own, lights and dramas that he controlled, in his own time. By way of example, a painting by Charles Burchfield has the artist’s controls all through it, he said. He told Reeves, dramatically:

“You find he left his personality, his footprint, on it.”

Back there in the smoke of Gallery Wilde and Hallwalls, some people knew that Kurland had a special wisdom, and that he was working on the sorcery, the guile of depiction. He had met the magicians from the past centuries and studied their pigments. Now, he announced to Reeves, “I came here to find out what was really important about painting and what was important to me.”

The people had a sense, back then, that he was on to something. And the people have the confidence now that his work will out, that it will win the hours, although in its own time, and to its own beat.

—Anthony Bannon, executive director, Burchfield Penney Art Center