EMERSON BURKHART is as fine a monograph of an artist's life and work as has been created - given that the artist is essentially unknown to the general public. And we have Michael D. Hall to thank for this introduction of a Regional Artist from Ohio, an artist whose works from the 1920s to the early 1960s were painted more out of dreams of celebrity than actually setting himself on a course destined for a secure place in the art history of America. The book is written in a near-conversational style, a compositional decision quite in keeping with the subject of an artist who, though while significantly gifted in technique, suffered from a general lack of finding his niche in the art world that would assure his success.
Without repeating the very fine biography Hall has so carefully prepared and documented, suffice it to say that the artist who emerges here was a somewhat asocial outsider, a man who struggled in the shadow of the greats of the time (such as Grant Wood, George W. Bellows, and Marsden Hartley), survived the Great Depression with significantly adding to the art heritage that era produced, who fought the political climate both vocally and with his brush, and who had near delusions of grandeur while being forced to face the fact that he would be forever known as an Ohio regionalist painter - this despite his later trips abroad intended to expand his art horizons but produced almost nothing of significance artistically.
If all of the above sounds like a negative life spent by a man with inherent gifts never appreciated in his lifetime, then the point of Hall's book is not understood. Hall, himself an artist and art historian and art collector, understands this enigmatic and at times acerbic artist and embellishes portions of Burkhart's biography with sufficient concurrent art history making this book become nearly indispensable in understanding American art of the first half of the 20th century. Throughout this monograph Hall has placed images of artists who either influenced Burkhart or who were successfully addressing issues that eluded Burkhart's imagination and grasp of the world he observed. At the same time Hall brings us many examples of his subject's output. For this reader the emphasis on self-portraits is the most fascinating part of the study, a veritable running film of an artist in development and in decline. From the luminously beautiful 'Self Portrait, Circa 1925' on page 33 - one of the most sensitive manipulations of light on the skin of the face suggests that the 'portrait of the artist as a young man' showed great potential - to the crusty and quite unflattering 'The animal nature of man' of 1947 -to the 1956 'Self Portrait with mouth open arguing' (a window into Burkhart's personality bruised by the times) - these all show the various periods of brush technique and the dark aspects of his subject matter. Burkhart seems most successful in his harsh brush technique and murky color palette of his junkyard cars and neglected haystacks and it is here that a case for neglected significance in the history of American art seems most evident. Time, more exposure, and this book will decide his destiny.
But Hall delivers the information in a way that refuses to ignore the ugly aspects of this artist's personality without simultaneously evaluating Burkhart's output in a positive critical light, and that is what makes this monograph finer than most other books of this nature. He borrows from Walt Whitman in his subtitle of the book - AN OHIO PAINTER'S SONG OF HIMSELF - and it is only after reading Hall's words that the irony of his subtitle can be appreciated. The design layout of the book is excellent: little things such as listing the titles of the illustrated paintings in a block-like sans serif type not unlike the manner of Burkhart's signature on his paintings make an artistic statement on their own (the body of the writing is in serif font). This is a very beautifully presented book about an artist who may remain in the art world shadows, but if he does it is not because of Michael D Hall's evaluation and consideration. Grady Harp, July 10