Tom Burckhardt’s Painterly Plein Air Chops

Road sign paintings from a summer in Maine

Featured Image:Tom Burckhardt, Slow/Squiggle, 2021, oil on panel, 7 x 10 inches

We fell in love with Tom Burckhardt’s new series of road sign paintings completed last summer in mid-coastal Maine. Happily, they are on view in our current exhibition ALL SMALL. The plein air paintings are a departure from his ongoing work in abstraction, so we asked Tom to tell us more about the road sign project. Here is what he wrote:

I have spent almost every summer in Maine since I was born. Back before I had much of a choice in the matter, I was there with my artist parents, who were participating in the old art tradition of leaving New York City for the country. My folks’ friends were artists like Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Neil Welliver, and Rackstraw Downes. I absorbed their painterly realism through osmosis, and once I went to art school, tried my hand at painting outdoors, and then, with occasional relapses, made abstract work. It never seemed to me like there was a huge difference: it’s abstract thinking and concrete observation at the same time. I’ve made a wide range of work over the past 35 years, always just trying to keep myself excited. I married another artist, had kids, and kept right on going up to Maine during the warmer months.

I absorbed their painterly realism through osmosis, and once I went to art school, tried my hand at painting outdoors, and then, with occasional relapses, made abstract work. It never seemed to me like there was a huge difference: it’s abstract thinking and concrete observation at the same time. I’ve made a wide range of work over the past 35 years, always just trying to keep myself excited. I married another artist, had kids, and kept right on going up to Maine during the warmer months.

Tom Burckhardt

This summer I became obsessed with painting signs. I was fascinated by the contrast between artificial human safety colors and the organic greens of Maine; the way the symbols on signs are barely read–more like subliminally absorbed–and the strange poetry/command of some of the language: Yield, Blind Drive, No Outlet.

The first was a yellow sign with the squiggle shape of “winding road ahead”. Now, that was funny–the flat synthetic color and edges of the sign and the verdant chaos of leaves and branches behind it. Something started clicking, and after cutting up a batch of small masonite panels, I started heading out in search of others. Often I’d take notes during bike rides of signs to return to and paint. I made a little paint jockey, and once I found an interesting subject, would park my car on the wrong side of the road, so I could open my hatch, set up a French easel, and sitting in the back of the car, get to work. I learned to check that a car wasn’t roaring by when painting letters, or the car would shake and put a wobble in my hand.

Certain rules presented themselves: 7 by 10 inches (a nice modest size), paint it in one shot, usually in an hour or two, no fussy revisions once back home.  Signs were to be painted as crisply graphic-flat and uninflected as I could. The needed simplification AND nuance of the woods or leaves were the trick. I thought, “when in Maine, paint in the Maine tradition,” recalling Lois Dodd’s amazing visual editing of a scene, or Alex Katz’s ability to use only three colors to capture the whole of a light situation. I started pushing the cropping more, letting the differences of human and nature pull apart even more. Slowly, my old realist chops came back. Many of the paintings still have a bit of awkwardness, but the scale and intent make it feel like a type of honest pursuit. Romantic and dopey at the same time.

Another big point of appeal is the question of language in these signs: Some can have a double meaning, like the Freudian Hidden Drives or the Slow Children, crying out for a comma. An absurd found text. Are the symbols even language? The squiggle that is “read” subliminally, in a dialog of individual and the state? The color coding of Safety Yellow, Fluorescent Work Orange, Stop Red, Information Blue, Location Green…

It’s always good when painting slows down the pace, making the unseen (or overly seen here) visible. I’m clearly having fun doing these which is a paramount affect in everything I do, regardless of style.

– Tom Burckhardt, New York City, 2022

Fourteen paintings in the road sign series by Tom Burckhardt are currently on view at Pamela Salisbury Gallery, Hudson, NY in the gallery’s second annual ALL SMALL exhibition (December 18, 2021 through January 23, 2022).

Tom Burckhardt, Crossroads, 2021, oil on panel, 7 x 10 inches
Tom Burckhardt, Posted #1, 2021, oil on panel, 10 x 7 inches
Tom Burckhardt, Bump, 2021, oil on panel, 10 x 7 inches
Tom Burckhardt, Bridge Caution, 2021, oil on panel, 10 x 7 inches
Tom Burckhardt, Yellow Marker, 2021, oil on panel, 10 x 7 inches