Charles Joseph Biederman was a twentieth century abstract American artist best known for his constructivist, cubist-inspired reliefs. Biederman is often regarded as an American original, the self-proclaimed “best-known unknown artist in America.” Influenced by the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism and De Stijl, he dubbed his vivid geometric three-dimensional reliefs “New Art,” disregarding traditional mediums such as painting, drawing, or collage. Instead, he favored synthetic materials such as plastic and aluminum, most often coated with bright oil-based paint.
Regardless of his use of similar materials and aesthetic, Biederman’s work departs from the interests of De Stijl, Constructivism and Neo plasticism in his desire to depict the natural world, stripped to its most simplified and beautiful elements. Biederman’s work emphasizes line, transparency, light and shadow in his use of basic geometric shapes and symmetrical compositions. Initially inspired by the cubism of Braque and Picasso, his signature reliefs are regarded by scholars as a three-dimensional continuation of the cubists’ original interests1. While Picasso created the illusion of light and shadow through wielding a paintbrush, Biederman employed three-dimensional geometric shapes that create real shadows on the surface of the canvas. Biederman’s reliefs are not static, but constantly vulnerable to changes depending on the lighting conditions in which a relief is displayed, as well as the viewer’s relationship to and movement around the work. The temporal strategies of Biederman’s reliefs were also highly innovative—the artist made a conscious effort to bring a consideration of time into his work by forcing viewers to literally move their bodies and alter their point of views in order to experience the piece fully. An element of time and process is seen in Biederman’s unique system of labeling his work. Most of his reliefs are untitled, marked instead by two dates and the name of a city. The dates signify the time in which the preliminary drawing was executed and the second marks the date in which the work was fully realized. In his search for a New Art, Biederman became preoccupied with innovation. He was an artist concerned not with what was considered good or bad, but one who aimed to produce something that was truly unique and revolutionary.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Biederman grew fond of the visual arts at a young age. As a teenager, he enrolled in figure drawing and watercolor courses at the Cleveland Art Institute, and apprenticed at a local advertising agency, where he learned layout design. Despite failing to obtain a high school diploma, he later attended he Art Institute of Chicago from 1926 to 1929. While at school, Biederman began to explore various artistic influences and was immediately drawn to the early twentieth century European modernists, such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, and particularly Cézanne. Cézanne heavily informed Biederman’s early style, and his fascination with the artist is evidenced in both the visual and written work that he produced throughout his lifetime. Though professors celebrated his technical ability, Biederman failed to attend basic courses at the Art Institute. With no desire to complete his formal education, Biederman eventually left the school in 1929.
Biederman continued to paint throughout the Depression, experimenting with several styles reminiscent of the cubists and biomorphic surrealists. He often painted using discarded canvases and old flour sacks. Subsiding on little, he spent much of this time boarding with friends or sleeping on park benches, refusing to compromise his artistic talents for commercial work. During this time, he became acquainted with a brother of a classmate, John Anderson, who immediately took an interest in his art. Anderson soon became a close friend and patron. In 1934, Biederman left the Midwest for New York, to become established in the modern art scene of the city. During this period Biederman was featured in the show “Five American Constructionists” at Paul Reinhardt Galleries and had his first major solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1936.
In 1936, Biederman traveled to Paris where he met several European modernists including Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Georges Vantongerloo, and Jean Arp. His disillusionment with the artists’ personas and his growing discontentment with the medium of painting led him to return to New York where he kept to himself and continued to perfect his personal style of geometric reliefs2. By the late 1930s, Biederman had retired from the traditional medium of painting, and was working exclusively in structural reliefs composed of synthetic materials. Soon after, he began studying semantics with Alfred Korzybski in 1938, and was inspired to begin writing what evolved into his own interpretation of the history of Western art entitled, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge, to be published a decade later in 1948. Unsatisfied with urban life and eager for an artistic reconnection to nature, Biederman soon returned to the rural Midwest. In 1941, Biederman moved to Chicago, where he reunited with and married Mary Katherine Moore, the sister of John Anderson’s wife. The two married in December of 1941 and started a home in rural Red Wing, Minnesota where Biederman could find inspiration in nature. Mary became essential to Biederman’s work as an artist and theorist; she provided the family’s primary source of income and assisted his written work through editing, translating, and conducting research.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted the artist’s breakthrough show in 1965, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art showcased a Charles Biederman retrospective in 1976. Both shows helped to popularize his work throughout the United States, and solidify Biederman’s role in the development of American abstraction in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Biederman’s wife passed away shortly before the Minneapolis Institute of Art show’s opening in 1975. Her death led to the artist’s reclusive lifestyle, and an unwillingness to cooperate with art dealers and patrons of the Northeast—which historians and scholars speculate cost Biederman his chance at art world fame and widespread recognition in the United States.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Biederman’s work continued to show across the United States and abroad in Europe. In 1991, Biederman arranged to give the University of Minnesota over a thousand of his works, as well as selections from his personal library, correspondences, and written documents. The largest selection of his work remains in the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Despite declining eyesight, Biederman continued to create artworks until the mid 1990s. Despite his growing cynicism regarding the direction of the contemporary art world, Biederman remained dedicated to his written work in his final years. Until his death in 2004, he continued to publish art theory, often emphasizing the important role of nature and science in the creation of visual arts. The artist’s repertoire of written work consists of over a dozen books, and several articles published in renowned art periodicals such as ArtForum, The Structurist, and Studio International.
1 Samuel Sachs, et al. Charles Biederman: A Retrospective. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, page 9.
2 Christopher Benincasa, “Why Charles Biederman Matters (To Me).” The Structurist, no 45/46.
Written and compiled by Lauren A. Zelaya
1906 Charles Joseph Biederman is born August 23, in Cleveland, Ohio 1926-29 Attends the Art Institute of Chicago 1934 Moves to New York 1936 First major solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Travels to
Paris 1937 Moves back to New York 1941 Moves to Chicago, rekindles relationship with Mary Katherine Moore whom he marries later in the year 1942 Establishes home in farmhouse outside of Red Wing, Minnesota 1943 Daughter Anna Biederman is born in Minnesota 1948 Publishes first book of art theory/history, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge 1958 Publishes book, The New Cézanne: From Monet to Mondrian 1965 Retrospective at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1969 Arts Council of Great Britain hosts a Charles Biederman retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London 1975 Wife Mary Katherine dies 1988 Publishes Art, Science, Reality; denounces polarization between art and science and emphasizes a humanistic view of the sciences 1988-89 Travels to Europe to present his book Art, Science, Reality on behalf of the PRO Organization, a Dutch group with intent to advance constructivist art and
architecture worldwide 1992 Publishes four-part essay, The Dehumanization and Denaturalization of Modern Art, which follows such artistic movements as Symbolism, Surrealism and
Neoplasticism 1993 Publishes Nature and Art Anew; a compilation of private journals from 1959-1990 1994 Publishes The End of Modernism, Figurative or Abstract; a compilation of selected journal entries from 1983-1992 1999 Publishes Visual Art Humanifies the Sciences (1998) and Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity and Science, a collection of letters between the artist and physicist David Bohm 2000 Publishes essay, The Visual Millennium: Leonardo to Cezanne 2004 Dies December 26 at his home in Red Wing, Minnesota
1962 Sikkens Award, Amsterdam 1964 Ford Foundation 1966 National Council on the Arts 1966 Walker Biennial Donors Award 1969 Minnesota State Arts Council
1936 (solo) Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
“Five American Concretionists,” Paul Reinhardt Galleries, New York
“Cinq Peintres Americains: Biederman, Calder, Ferren, Gallatin, Morris, Shaw,” Galerie Pierre, Paris and Mayor Gallery, London 1941 Arts Club of Chicago
Katherine Kuh Gallery, Chicago 1962 “Experiment in Constructie,” Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
“Experiment in Flache und Raum,” Kunstgewerbemuseum, Zurich 1963 Columbia University School of Architecture
School of Architecture of the Georgia Institute of Technology 1964 “Mondrian, De Stijl, and Their Impact,” Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York
“Pittsburgh International Exhibition,” Carnegie Institue, Pittsburgh 1965 Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1966 “Reliefs, Sculpture,” Marlborough New London Gallery 1967 Rochester Art Center, Rochester, Minnesota 1968 “Relief/Construction/Relief,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1969 “Charles Biederman: A Retrospective Exhibition,” Hayward Gallery, London 1971 Dayton’s Gallery 12, Minneapolis
Akron Art Institute, Akron, Ohio
“Painters and Sculptors in Illinois: 1820-1945,” Illinois State Museum, Springfield 1972 “American Geometric Abstraction of the 1930s,” Zabriskie Gallery, New York
“Geometric Abstraction: 1926-1942,” Dallas Museum of Fine Arts
Annely Juda Fine Art, London 1973 Seattle Art Museum, Washington 1974-76 Charles Biederman: A Retrospective, Minneapolis Institute of Arts 1979 Rutgers University Art Gallery, New Brunswick, New Jersey
“One Hundred Artists, One Hundred Years: Alumni of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Art Institute of Chicago 1980 Whitney Museum of American Art, Fairfield County branch, Stamford, Connecticut
Haus der Kunst, Munich 1982 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York 1983 “Beyond the Plane: American Constructions, 1930-1965,” New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
“Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America: 1927-1944,” Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
“Contrasts of Form: Geometric Abstract Art: 1910-1980,” Museum of Modern Art, New York 1986 “The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941,” Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York 1991-92 “Between Mondrian and Minimalism: Neo-Plasticism in America,” Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown at Federal Plaza 1995 “American Abstract Art,” Snyder Fine Art, New York
“American Modernism: 1920-1945,” Snyder Fine Art, New York
“From Realism to Abstraction,” Crane Kalman Gallery, London 1999 Retrospective Exhibition at Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Minneapolis
“The American Century,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY 2000 Weisman Gallery, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA 2002 Tweed Gallery, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Duluth, Minnesota
Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey 2003 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas 2007 Joan T. Washington Gallery, New York, NY
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
Christopher Benincasa. “Why Charles Biederman Matters (To Me).” The Structurist, no 45/46 (2005/2006): 90.
Charles Biederman. Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge. Red Wing, MN: Art History Publishers, 1948.
Elaine D Gustafson. “Charles Biederman.” In The Second Wave: American Abstraction of the 1930s and 1940s, edited by Susan E. Strickler and Elaine D. Gustafson, 44. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 1991.
Donald B Kuspit. “Charles Biederman’s Abstract Analogues for Nature.” Art In America 65 (May 1977): 80-83.
Joan Marter. “Constructivism in America: the 1930s.” Arts Magazine 56 (June 1982): 73-80.
Patricia McDonnell, et al. Charles Biederman: The Charles Biederman Collection Archive. Minneapolis, MN: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 1999.
Samuel Sachs, et al. Charles Biederman: A Retrospective. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Minneapolis, MN: Colwell Press, Inc, 1976.
Jan Van der Marck. “Charles Biederman.” In Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America: 1927-1944, edited by John R. Lane and Susan C. Larsen, 48-50. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.