The Return of Philip Burke
by Buck Quigley
A few weeks prior to his exhibit entitled The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke, which opens on Friday (4/10) at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Burke met with Artvoice at the office of L.B. Madison Fine Art near his home in Niagara Falls, NY, where much of the work for the upcoming show was being gathered in preparation for display at the gallery.
Moving quickly around a small, sunny room crowded with canvases stacked several deep against the walls, it’s clear that Burke is enthusiastic about his upcoming exhibit—the largest of his career. He points out some early works of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, commissioned for Vanity Fair magazine when it resumed publishing in 1983. The works are smaller—maybe 2 feet by 3 feet—done on cardboard canvasses. “You can see I was poor,” he laughs, “Not that I’m rich now.”
Then he pulls out some larger pieces. A three-by-four-foot portrait of Kurt Cobain with tortured eyes staring out from behind grungy locks of hair, with small, smoldering wings rising above the green cardigan sweater draping his shoulders, above a blood-red hand, dated April 25, 1994—just three weeks after the Nirvana front man was found dead, an apparent suicide, in Seattle. It’s one of the many images of famous musicians that Burke painted for the table of contents page of Rolling Stone magazine for many years, beginning in 1989. Next to that he points out a portrait of Neil Young painted on a similar white canvas—one of nine he did last year for the German edition of Rolling Stone. “What was cool about it was that I had total freedom, which is what I used to have back at the contents page of Rolling Stone,” he adds, “Where they don’t need to see a sketch and I can just do whatever I want.”
There was a period in the 1990s when it seemed you could not open magazines like the New Yorker, Time, Vogue, GQ, the New York Observer and others without seeing an example of Burke’s work. His vivid use of color and knack for caricature made for eye-catching illustrations of celebrities of all types: musicians, entertainers, sports stars, writers, and politicians. His images are conversation starters. Some pieces are more sympathetic to their subjects than others.
He shows off a tasteful, personal portrait he did of his twin brother’s daughter—which is fairly unique because it was done from life. Ordinarily his famous subjects aren’t available for private sittings, so he works from photographs. He notes how much easier it is to find images of famous people today through internet outlets like Getty Images or even YouTube, than it was when he started out. He then recalls another example of an early portrait he did using a live subject and sorts through a stack of canvasses to find it.
“Andy Warhol sat for me,” he explains, holding up a portrait of the famous artist. “There’s no date on it, but I left New York in ’83, so this is about that time.”
Was that experience intimidating?
He smiles, eyes lighting up. “Oh, my gosh, yes! I was a nervous wreck. Thankfully my wife was with me and she talked to him the whole time. And he was wonderful. Not at all what I expected. I told him it would take two hours, and then after two hours I was really nervous because I kept forgetting to put my brush into the oil and turpentine, so I felt like I was getting stuck in the mud. I asked him for a little more time and he just relaxed into it. So, it was four hours.”
As he continues to sift through various paintings, he says that a brief timeline of his successful commercial work would begin with the images he did for Vanity Fair, consistently for about two years. Then there was what he calls a “real blank spot” that coincided with his return to Buffalo in 1983, where he lived on College Street in Allentown on the corner of Arlington Park. It was during this period that he married his wife Geri, began practicing Buddhism, and had a son. That was home until 1993.
From 1989 to 1996 was the period where his works appeared on the contents page of every issue of Rolling Stone—which meant every other week. As a result of that high-profile placement, he was getting “tons and tons of work.” A few years after the steady Rolling Stone gig ended, he began doing the monthly covers for the New York Observer. Among those subjects were George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. That continued for 15 years.
He pulls out a 1990 portrait of Kurt Vonnegut that was done for Entertainment Weekly and won an award from the Society of Illustrators. Right behind that, a painting of Joey Ramone done in 2002, with “Gabba Gabba Hey” scrawled in the lower left corner. Not far away, a different six-by-four-foot portrait of Cobain. “Kurt’s one of my favorite people to do,” he says. Why? “’Cause I love his music, and I just really relate to what he was all about. I think John Lennon was my favorite until he came along. Not necessarily just the music, but, you know, the fiercely independent artist.”
Burke comes from a large, strict Roman Catholic Buffalo family. His father’s uncle was once Bishop of the city. He is a graduate of Calasanctius Preparatory School, where he first began doodling and drawing. By 1974, he was contributing caricatures to the student paper at the University of Toronto, but wasn’t much interested in his studies and left there after two years. When he returned home, he was “kind of kicked out of the house.” He then got a bus ticket to New York City and determined he’d make a go of it—sink or swim. When he arrived, in 1977, New York’s punk music scene was at its peak. It was also a good time and place to become an illustrator. He flopped on people’s floors, and got on with following his dream.
“It was so easy to get work,” he recalls. “You’d just go to a magazine shop, open a magazine, you know, in the Village let’s say...open the magazine, look for the art director’s name, and you could call him up and have an appointment within a week to show him your portfolio.”
But that changed pretty quickly, he recalls: “Within five or ten years there was a drop-off date at most magazines. You dropped your portfolio off and you didn’t see anybody. So ‘77 was a nice time to get started in that way.” Burke thinks that part of the reason for that industry-wide change in publishing was the fact that art schools were suddenly featuring illustration departments in the early 1980s, and the increased volume of submissions from new graduates swamped the art departments of magazines.
Though he describes his pen and ink work of the period as “very primitive,” he got work immediately at the New York Times, Time magazine, and Fortune. It wasn’t regular work, but enough to create a foothold. Word spread about this new, young illustrator whose stuff looked a little like David Levine’s and Ralph Stedman’s, but had its own thing going on. That led to regular work at the Village Voice.
Over the years, Burke has built a process in approaching his art. Typically, he works from a series of sketches to learn the contours of his subjects’ faces—a series of profiles at varying degrees building to a straight-on view—before he ever approaches the canvas. From there he starts with a drawing on the full sized canvas called a “cartoon,” which is a term borrowed from fresco painting.
“The sketches are extremely realistic, very studied,” he says. “They’re painstakingly studied drawings so that I know exactly how the facial features are related, before I start to stretch and pull.” That process of “stretching and pulling” on the canvas he likens to jumping off a cliff. “It’s somewhere between freefalling and dancing,” he says. Sometimes there are missteps. He points to a portrait of tennis star Rafael Nadal, where you can see an area that got out of hand—all that remains of this detour in the finished work is a faint pink shadow.
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
“For rock music, Philip has been a sort of visual historian in a sense,” says Brian Grunert, guest curator of the exhibit and head of White Bicycle Design Studio. “These aren’t just generalized sorts of portraits of rock stars, but musicians at very particular times in their careers—you can sort of sense where they are in their career arc—whether they’re going through awesome times with great records, or downslopes, or coming out the other end of band breakups, or whatever. The perfect example would be the Cobain with wings. That sort of thing, for me, being a big music fan—that was how I got to know Philip’s work. I had no idea he was from Buffalo.”
“His work looks so good in here. The minute we brought the paintings in, you could see. But I think there’s this other aspect of it, too. In the other building there was a Tom Toles exhibition. So, to have a collection of political cartoons in a museum space is, I think, kind of cool. Not like completely unexpected but a little daring and a little unusual to put that in a fine art context.”
The scale of Burke’s original works often surprise people who are only familiar with seeing them sitting on the page of a magazine.
“When you see the reproduction, you can’t possibly appreciate the technique,” Gunnert adds. “You can dine on a little corner of a painting and it’s got an entire little universe of color and line that is both emotive but also just sort of abstract and interesting to look at.”
“There was a show in here maybe two years ago, the Spain Rodriguez show. He was a graphic artist who straddles that line between art and literature, comic book, pop, illustration—whatever tags you want to put on it—but when you put it in a space like this it gives it a different framing. And that’s the explicit hope with this exhibition. To say, ‘Yeah, people might relate to it because they saw it published and consider it illustration.’ But to give people an opportunity to stand in front of the paintings—it’s just art. You don’t need to try to label it in some way. It’s just portraits. And that may be what fueled the title of the exhibition, that it’s less about the subject and more about this sort of collection of humanity that has a bigger or deeper story to tell if you’re interested in looking for it or interpreting it.”
A DEEPER ASPECT
“The theme of the show ‘The Likeness of Being’ which is a play on Milan Kundera’s novel—The Unbearable Lightness of Being—is about the deeper aspect or the spiritual aspect of what I’m trying to do. The change that’s apparent by looking at the artwork over the years as a result of my Buddhist practice,” Burke says.
How does it affect his approach to his art and life?
“When I started drawing I was fifteen. When I started painting I was 25. And on the superficial level when I started painting it was a direct result of beginning to practice Buddhism. ‘Cause when I had been drawing and living in New York and getting work in the first several years it was pen and ink or colored pencil. It was all drawings. Then, when I was around 24 or 25 I was looking at a lot of Picasso’s work—and getting really frustrated because I knew I wanted to paint but I was afraid. Afraid I would fail at painting. When I started chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, one of the immediate benefits of the practice was a sense of freedom—absolute freedom—complete freedom in every aspect of my life. Without fear I just jumped into the oil paints.”
ABOUT THE PRACTICE
“It’s called True Buddhism, because it’s the true practice for this time period. This is the practice of today that is directly connected to the intention of the Buddha. A very, very simplistic way to say it is Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the Buddha in terms of the law. The daily practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo in the morning and in the evening, as the Buddha taught, to the true object of worship, allows anyone, regardless of age or intelligence or race or gender, to fuse with the enlightenment of the Buddha and manifest or awaken the Buddha inherent within our own life and attain enlightenment as we are in our present form. So, on a practical level, when we start and end the day fusing with the enlightenment of the Buddha we can live our daily life in a way that we bring out our deepest, purest qualities—which is our Buddha-nature. Qualities like compassion, forbearance, wisdom, purity, true happiness, joy.”
“It’s because of this practice of True Buddhism that I’m here. I grew up in Buffalo. When I left at the age of 21 I was absolutely convinced I would never be back. But when New York got to be too much for me I thought I would go to California or Europe, but never Buffalo. But at that time, when I was 25 years old and hitting a wall in New York—not business-wise because my work was exploding—but spiritually inside I was feeling very hollow. Extremely hopeless. I had left Buffalo with no spirituality of any kind, just really angry, hated my parents and everything having to do with the establishment. When I went to New York I think the closest thing I had to a philosophy was punk. No rules. No future. I was definitely not a hippie.”
“A lot of my political work was really caustic, really nasty. It was like I was slicing people with my pen. But at the same time I was actually getting an ulcer. The anger was eating me up from the inside. It was the Reagan years, and I think there was a feeling at that time—at least living in New York City, anyway, like ‘Well, at least I’m living in New York, and so we’ll be the first ones to be hit by the nuclear bomb. Like, FLASH!”
“It was right at that time that I came back to Buffalo to just chill out and crash. And that’s when I met Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, and took to it immediately. From day one the hopelessness disappeared. Instantaneously I felt my life open up to the life around me. From then on I didn’t look back. Before I started practicing Buddhism, art was the center of my life. But from the time I met this practice it was like night and day. It was like I had been asleep, and now I was awake. I was awake to a reality I didn’t know existed, and I was awake to a kind of freedom to open my life to the world around me. And from that time and since then the driving force in my life is the practice of Buddhism. What makes this practice a true practice is because the intention of the Buddha was that you practice for your own enlightenment, and teach others to the best of your ability. The Bodhisattva practice, where you help other people learn how they can reach their own enlightenment—that’s the intention of the Buddha.”
“After meeting Buddhism here, I went back to New York. I waited for Geri, my wife. At that time it wasn’t just this kind of awakening, but simultaneously it was love at first sight with the person who was teaching me,” Burke remembers.
So was Geri somehow the embodiment of the practice to him?
“That’s an interesting question. I have to say that her behavior was what immediately made me realize: This Is True. Because the way she was acting with other people on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, was how I thought I was. Like, that’s the kind of person I pictured myself as. But when I saw it in reality I realized ‘I’m not that way at all!’ This is a human being. If she’s that way, I can be that way. So yeah, it was her behavior that made it real. I mean, I loved chanting from the start—just the way it sounded, the way it felt inside, chanting with other people, it was a new world within the world. But in terms of what anyone needs for proof—to do it, to go for it—beyond, like, a nice exercise? It was her behavior.”
Due to economic forces, work for most illustrators dried up during the period when Burke was still doing regular covers for the New York Observer. When business started to pick up again, he was not the first to be called because the nature of his large canvasses made them more expensive for print outlets that were in a financial squeeze. Also, the wildness of his work made cautious art directors and editors a little leery.
“It was really humbling,” Burke recalls. “I was a little freaked out because I wondered if I was going to be able to do art for the rest of my life. But it made me have a lot more determination.”
Enter Niagara Falls attorney John Bartolomei. “The timing was really good. John could see I was going nuts not having work, and he created a situation where he would hire me, I would do paintings, and we would co-own them. This was looking down the line to where we would be selling reproductions,” says Burke. He likens it to a Ted Conference he heard given by cyberpunk author William Gibson. Speaking to the obstacles that musicians face today in making money for their work, Gibson theorized that artists in the future would survive through patronage, like in the Middle Ages. “So, this isn’t exactly that, but it has that kind of feeling,” he says.
Burke’s relationship with Bartolomei began in 2001, and it’s been a slow, methodical process. There have been gallery shows here and there, but much of the intervening work has been spent preserving many of Burke’s canvasses that were falling prey to mold. They had to be kept in a “blue room” with ultraviolet light to arrest the problem. Over the many years his images appeared on the pages of magazines, Burke still maintained ownership of the original works, so collecting and cataloguing the thousands and thousands of sketches, paintings, slides and other works has taken years. According to Bartolomei, they have over 100 different fields in which to cross-reference each piece according to subject, date, medium, place of publication and so on. There are probably 25,000 individual pieces.
Bartolomei is also instrumental in protecting his partner’s intellectual property. One case in particular involved a challenge from the estate of Miles Davis, seeking compensation for selling Burke’s interpretation of the jazz great. In the end, there was no case to be had because the number of unique artistic elements present in Burke’s work made it far and away an original creation when compared with any photograph. “After several months, their lawyers came back and said: ‘You’re right. He (Burke) is ALL artistic elements,” Bartolomei remembers with a smile.
“How can you not like Philip’s work?” He asks. “We did a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We went there, we took a bunch of paintings to their conference room, and at the end of the presentation they said: ‘You don’t have to sell us on Philip’s artwork. We love it!”
Along the way there have been several commissioned pieces sold to private collectors. During the financial crash and recession, all of the work was essentially put on ice. But now, with more exhibits being planned, things are beginning to heat up. Burke’s work is moving into the limelight again.
Merchandising is a big part of the equation. Prints on paper, cards, posters, and full sized reproductions using Giclée printing (a technique that reproduces original canvas paintings with startling accuracy) are available for purchase.
Sara Head is the Director of Marketing and Sales for L.B. Madison Fine Art, which is the exclusive dealer for all of Burke’s art. “An original ranges from $50,000 to $90,000,” she estimates, “At first we did reproductions at a ten-percent price of the original, but now I would say a full-sized, Giclée print, embellished and re-signed by Philip, would be $3,500. And then we have the smaller art paper, signed and embellished by Philip, for as little as $600. It’s really whatever you want. But the prints are limited editions.”
In many ways, Burke’s career seems poised for another act. He was recently tapped again by Rolling Stone magazine to do a series of illustrations. In the weeks before his show at the Burchfield Penney, he was busy in his studio, brush in hand, listening to music as he usually does, working intensely on a large portrait of Conan O’Brien for an upcoming issue. The fresh four by five foot painting will be among the many on display at the exhibit, which will reach back to show some of his earliest work.
“The art reflects I think, how my life has changed. It’s a gradual process, but it’s very real. If you look at the early work, and you look at the later work, and you look at the middle work, I think you can see a life that’s grown,” he says, with a contented smile. “I’m very excited about this show.”
The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke opens Friday (4/10) at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Avenue. Opening Celebration from 5:30-7:30pm. Visit burchfieldpenney.org for info.blog comments powered by Disqus
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v14n14 (Week of Thursday, April 9) > The Return of Philip Burke
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds