Few artists in the history of American art have
possessed the level of Harry Bertschmann’s genius and output. In order to help viewers absorb the diversity and depth of his life’s work, we have structured this website to run parallel with the twenty chapters of the hardcover monograph. Together they stand as testament to an artistic polymath whose feats in visual gymnastics reveal an uncanny natural reflex to jump back into modes of expression that at times seem to be irreconcilable opposites. After graduating at the top of his class of 1949 at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland he found success as a graphic designer, first in Cleveland, and from 1962-on in New York. By nature, humble and unpretentious, he was nonetheless acutely aware of his skills and gifted vision. Every day throughout his life he broke from his design work and made visual leaps that challenged emerging movements. Persistently experimental, he delighted in discovering new dynamics — not only within abstract and figurative expressionism but in stylistic movements as seemingly disparate as Hard Edge, Photorealism, Minimalism, and Pop. He was blessed with such ambidextrous skill, coordination, and vision that he was like a professional athlete who could perform exceedingly well at a different sport on any day.
The back story is that Bertschmann is a master who led double lives, first earning a living by day as a graphic designer. Walk into any CVS or Walmart and you’ll see a dozen packaging designs that have remained iconic in brand recognition within America’s consumer culture. Kent and Newport cigarettes, Nestlé’s, Advil, Excedrin, and Bufferin are but a few. By night he resolutely pursued his fine art, fluidly alternating between two paths of expressionism — figurative and abstract. Within these two major genres he produced series after series but largely avoided exhibiting them. Indeed, owing to his success in the commercial world, the pursuit of galleries was never a pressing matter. That is why his immaculate studio became an astonishing time capsule preserving hundreds of rolled canvases and seventy years of paintings on paper, pastels, and drawings in a series of large flat files. His total output of unique artworks approaches that of Picasso.
The reader may notice that the journey through both this website and the book tries to adhere to some sense of chronological order. Bertschmann’s journey of discovery and practice of revisiting previous series makes that difficult. Whereas the majority of artists’ careers may be plotted as curved lines on a graph, his prolific output is represented by so many series that mapping such a course looks much more like a constellation.
Creating New Series within the Stylistic Categories
Bertschmann challenged every stylistic movement that emerged after World War II through the 2010s. His deep dives into 8 primary contemporary stylistic categories — and his persistent practice of returning to probe them again and again throughout his life — was unlike that of any other artist. Just as it seemed he had pushed a style as far as it could go, he would return to it a decade later and produce another innovative series within that style. That’s why it’s not easy tracking one who applied a boundless vision matched by a fastidious approach to execution. After all, we’re so used to picturing an artist’s life work as evolving along a steady path that starts with early training, is followed by experiments, and upon maturity settles on a particular visual pursuit.
Plotted on a graph, it looks like a steadily rising slope. For those artists who peaked and then lost their creative edge as they aged, their graphs look like a bell curve. Bertschmann defies being graphed. This artistic polymath led a non-linear artistic life. He not only mastered multiple trajectories but kept returning to them, discovering ever new dynamics in expression. In order to help you absorb the extraordinary diversity and depth of his life’s work, we have organized his collection into eight basic Style Categories — within which you will discover the dozens of distinctive Series he named.
Filter by 35 Series within 8 Stylistic Categories
You can search all artworks by any of their 35 specific Series or more broadly by any of their 8 Stylistic Categories.