Visualizing Climate Change Through Abstract Expressionism

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Visualizing Climate Change Through Abstract Expressionism

WASHINGTON, DC — At the heart of Diane Burko’s retrospective exhibition at the American University Museum, in Washington, D.C., is a painting entitled “Unprecedented” (2021).  Eight feet high and 15 wide, it is filled with billowing expanses of white, black, and red. Punctuating these clouds of color are discs of various sizes, floating forms that suggest planets in complex orbits. Scale in this painting is vast — and familiar, for Burko’s “Unprecedented” belongs in the company of Barnett Newman’s “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (1950–51), Clyfford Still’s overbearing slabs of dark pigment, and other big paintings in Abstract Expressionism’s heroic tradition. Yet Burko’s painting is not entirely at home in that company.

Still once wrote to a friend, “When I expose a painting I would have it say: ‘Here I am; this is my feeling, my presence, myself.’” In the same spirit, Newman declared that his subject was “the self, terrible and constant.” Their art, as they saw it, was all about them. Burko’s art is about us — rather, about the environmental disaster we are all spiraling into. The title of her retrospective, curated by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, is Seeing Climate Change.  The curators could just as well have called it Feeling Climate Change, for Burko’s images of melting glaciers and dying coral reefs are not just pictorially impressive; they have strong emotional impact.

Diane Burko, “Reef Map 1” (2019), mixed media, 50 x 88 inches 

In contrasting Burko to Abstract Expressionists who presumed to stand astride art history with self-referential arrogance, I don’t mean to suggest that she is diffident, as a person or an artist. When she decided, in 2006, to grapple with climate change, she didn’t just revise the purpose of the landscape paintings she had been making since the 1970s.  She set about acquiring a new set of colleagues, some of whom became collaborators. Among them is Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, who supplied her with photographs documenting precipitous glacier melt — imagery that Burko transposed into paint. While a photograph has the power to tell the blunt truth about a landscape, a painting of the same subject infuses it with the feelings that guide — that drive — the painter’s brush. Burko’s works put her values up front. Horrified by environmental degradation, she feels an obligation to illuminate our wounded world with images that will stir us to action. As she said in a recent interview, “I can’t keep making paintings about the landscape I love without doing something about it.”

The landscape painters who emerged early in the Renaissance did not feel the need to do anything about their subject, which went by the name Nature. They saw rivers and mountains, forests and plains, as the work of god, changing seasonally but never in any danger of permanent alteration. Nature abided and it was the artist’s task to celebrate it. Burko’s earlier work continues this tradition in the secular mode that appeared first in certain Dutch landscape paintings of the 17th century. Whether her subject was majestic (the Grand Canyon) or intimate (Claude Monet’s gardens at Givenchy), she attended lovingly to the details of scenes that seem to ask nothing of her or of anyone else. Of course, scientists at fossil-fuel companies and elsewhere have known for half a century that the environment is deeply damaged and in desperate need of rescue. When Burko came to understand this, it changed her art in ways that changed her life.

Diane Burko, “Elegy for Pine Island Glacier” (2015), archival inkjet print, 30 x 30 inches

Since 2006, she has corresponded with scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, and other institutions whose documentation and data she incorporates into paintings that make vivid the disappearance of glaciers and the shrinking of ice sheets. Moreover, she has photographed the crisis up close on trips to Antarctica, the Arctic islands of Svalbard, Greenland, and other icy regions of the globe. In the tropics, she visited and documented distressed coral reefs off the shores of Australia and the islands of Hawaii. These travels led Burko to a new role: public speaker. She has addressed conferences organized by the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union, and is the only painter to become an associate of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. In redefining her art to confront the effects of climate change, she has redefined, as well, our idea of what an artist can be.

Artists have made a subject of these effects since the 1980s. However, as Mary D. Garrard notes in her immensely helpful catalogue essay, this has usually entailed a kind of mimicry of science: the imagery and even the apparatus of climate research is displaced from the field to the gallery. Though there is no denying that we all have much to learn about the environment and its immediate prospects, the results of much environmental art tend to be didactic. Burko, too, confronts us with alarming information. Yet she remains a painter and her loyalty to the medium gives her work a unique power. This is not because there is anything inherently superior about pigment on canvas but, rather, because Burko has found ways to make the most of our susceptibility to this medium. After all, we are heirs to centuries of looking at and thinking about form, color, and texture laid on with a brush. Most of us find meaning in what we see, which, if we are looking at one of Burko’s larger paintings, can sweep over us with tidal force.  

Diane Burko, “Postscript” (2019), mixed media: bleached coral mounted on wood, 50 x 25 inches

To generate that force, she revamped her process. In 2016, for example, she covered 10-by-10-inch panels with splotches of white crackle paint, a material that generates, as it dries, an uncanny resemblance to disintegrating ice fields — an effect enhanced by the patches of sea-blue under-paint she allows to show through gaps in the crackling. Scanned and reworked with Photoshop, these images comprise the large inkjet prints of the Elegy series. Thus a landscape painter becomes the creator of imaginary places afflicted by real catastrophes. Burko’s recent work does not document climate change so much as render it intensely imaginable.

In her reef paintings of the past five years, swirls and currents of dark blue, aquamarine, yellow, and orange flow over large surfaces. The artist set these colors in motion with an air compressor, spreading them in waves across horizontal canvases. As tempting as it is for our vision to sink into these images, attending only to its own pleasure, allusions to oceans are unmissable and faint outlines of Hawaiian islands and Pacific atolls remind us of the real world and what is at stake. Alerted to the artist’s and our own concerns, we are likely to read areas of yellow and white as maps of coral reefs in various stages of bleaching — that is, destruction.  

Diane Burko, “Summer Heat 1 and 2” (2020), acrylic and oil, 84 x 162 inches

When Burko makes a big painting, she often reserves a strip along the upper edge for maps with terse and unsettling annotations; in “The Coral Triangle” (2020), a sentence set afloat on a field of color informs us that 85 percent of the reefs in that part of the Pacific Ocean are threatened. Burko always stays on target, never letting viewers drift into a narrowly aesthetic appreciation of her gorgeous imagery. The Reef Map series (2019) consists of three paintings and, on the right, a narrow wooden panel painted a deep blue-green. At this panel’s center point, the artist affixed a branch of bone-white coral. With her wide array of hot colors, she evokes the immensity of the oceans and the gravity of their afflictions; then, with the dead coral, she brings one of those afflictions into stark focus.

In a 2021 interview with Burko, J. D. Talasek, Director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Scientists, described her as an effective “communicator.” Inevitably, the work of climate scientists circulates mainly in their professional sphere. By contrast, said Talasek, Burko’s art brings relevant information “out of storage” and makes it “personally relevant.” Ever since the advent of Romanticism, works of the imagination have strived for personal relevance. The question is always: relevant to whom? As the examples of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still suggest, the answer to this question often originates in doctrines of Romantic individualism, according to which art matters first to the artist and, second, to those who admire — and may identify themselves with — the artist’s posture of absolute self-sufficiency. The grandeur of Burko’s recent work qualifies it as a version of the sublime equal to previous versions by the Abstract Expressionists or, for that matter, J. M. W. Turner.  Nonetheless, her answer to the question of relevance is different from theirs. Addressing her work to the environmental crisis that confronts everyone on earth, she intends it to matter to all of us — not, it should go without saying, in the hope of an exalted place in art history, but because, unable to ignore the crisis, she is relentlessly determined to do “something about it.”  

Diane Burko: Seeing Climate Change continues at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center (4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, D.C.) through December 12. The exhibition was curated by Mary D. Garrard and Norma Broude.

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