Gerald Peters Brings Maurice Burns’ Art to New York, At Last

Maurice Burns' Birdman Plays the Blues, 2019.

Gerald Peters Contemporary
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Santa Fe, N.M.-based artist Maurice Burns listens to jazz when he paints, favoring Thelonius Monk, whose improvisations are a fitting accompaniment to his own colorful, rhythmic style. 

That may not come as a surprise to those who have seen Burns’ work. The artist, 82, is known to paint large canvases featuring jazz and blues musicians, including Monk, Miles Davis, and Junior Wells, history-making artists he has admired since growing up in Alabama. “They were creating something new and it was exciting,” the artist says.  

Burns’ vibrantly colored, dynamic, sometimes Pop-style, sometimes autobiographical, works often are dominated by figures, but with abstracted elements—a blurred face, a woman who could be Native American, or maybe a nun?—and odd surprises, like palm trees or bucking broncos. 

“I paint figuratively, but there’s a little twist to it,” Burns says. “I’m not just painting a picture, I’m relating it to sound and music.”  

Maurice Burns in his studio.

Gerald Burns Contemporary

After 40 years largely spent out of the public eye, Burns, finally, is showing his work outside of Santa Fe, beginning with a solo exhibition at Gerald Peters Contemporary’s booth at Art Miami last December and another at the gallery’s New York location on Manhattan’s Upper East Side through March 13.

The New Mexican-founded gallery has long been aware of Burns and his work, but it was only recently that the artist, who long eschewed galleries, agreed to be represented. 

“I’m in the right state of mind now,” Burns says. Before, “I found galleries got in the way—I don’t want anybody leaning over my shoulder, telling me what to do.”

Burns is from Talladega, Ala., where he was born to a family with mixed roots, including African-American, as well as Scottish, and Choctaw. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he was pulled into computer science from a job as a telephone installer in Gary, Ind., by those who recognized his natural aptitude for math. He then rose through the ranks at Illinois Bell in Chicago to achieve the kind of success that allowed him to buy Brooks Brothers suits and a Porsche, he says.

But to move further ahead, Burns needed to complete his bachelor’s degree. So he tapped funding from the G.I. Bill to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in 1968. After graduating in 1972, he received a fellowship to “paint in the woods,” as he puts it, with the Edward MacDowell Colony in Petersboro, N.H., before deciding in 1972 to accept a position at the Royal College of Art in London.

It was in London that Burns met and befriended R.B. Kitaj, a U.S. artist with Jewish roots, who introduced him to artists who were part of what was known as the School of London, an informal movement that included David Hockney, Michael Andrews, and Frank Auerbach, among others. Many of them painted figuratively at a time when abstraction was popular. 

Maurice Burns' Cowboy Rain

Gerald Peters Contemporary

“Like these artists, many of them gay, Jewish, or otherwise marginalized, Burns was reckoning with history and exploring new ways of seeing himself,” according to Gerald Peters.

After leaving London, Burns accepted another MacDowell scholarship and then, in 1974, he moved to Santa Fe to take a position at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The landscape of New Mexico drew him in, giving him the kind of peace he was looking for to paint, and he never left.

“The land dominates out here,” Burns says. “It’s a strong, healing, stabilizing force.”

The colors, light, and scenery of the region infiltrates Burns’ work, although the Southwest never dominates. In a diptych called Galisteo Fantasy, 1989-93, (US$85,000) Santa Fe’s Ortiz mountains are painted in the top left in a soft blue against a bright orange background. The work—which references Galisteo, N.M., where Burns had a studio—features an abstracted woman, and a wild rendering of Albert Einstein’s head, with flying hair painted in green and white, floating on a road. 

“I use imagery arbitrarily—everyone will bring what they see to it,” Burns says. “I like to suggest things and make you wonder about them.” 

At age 82, Burns continues to actively paint, often going back in and adding to previous works. Many of his pieces are worked on over a period of several years. One work on display at Gerald Peters, Havana, 2019-20, was finished shortly before the exhibition. “They plucked it away from me,” Burns says. 

So now he’s looking at four blank canvases, not knowing what he will do next. “I want to discover something I didn’t think of,” he says.


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