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Myth in the Making: Celebrating American Artist Burton Kopelow’s 100th Anniversary

Burton Kopelow, c. 1983. Photo by Craig Morey

As we parked outside the quintessentially Los Angeles-style bungalow—which resembles the other houses in the neighborhood except for its pastel pink color—it dawned on me that nobody would suspect it contains thousands of masterpieces by America’s prolific and awe-inspiring artist, Burton Kopelow (1924–2015). My husband and I were here to tour the Brooklyn-born artist’s studio in preparation for Myth in the Making, an exhibition celebrating his life, work and mythology.

Taking place at the Hansell Gallery between April 27 to June 22 on what would have been Kopelow’s 100th birthday, the event was curated by his archivist and widow Nancy Blumstein, in partnership with the Philosophical Research Society. 

Nancy welcomed us to the home that she and Kopelow shared for over 20 years, and she joked about how they put their house broker through hell while trying to find a residence that could accommodate their domestic needs as well as Kopelow’s artistic must haves. She enthusiastically introduced us to the numerous pieces that hang on the walls of every room, as well as to Kopelow’s studio and garage.

My husband and I were blown away by the vividly colored paintings, the bold shapes and styles that are so wonderfully executed. It makes perfect sense when Nancy shares that Kopelow “thought in pictures” and considered himself “a colorist,” but it is obvious that he was more than a painter: his expansive literary library and his vast collection of science fiction novels indicate that he was an avid reader, philosopher and lover of life. 

Kopelow in 2014. Photo by Craig Morey

As detailed in Meher McArthur’s piece, Manifesting the Higher Self: The Mandalas of Burton Kopelow, Kopelow viewed painting as a meditative tool and a visual expression of higher consciousness. He was deeply inspired by the Theosophy movement, as well as by Tibetan thangka paintings and Carl Jung’s psychology of the mandala. In Kopelow’s own words:

The process of art is like the alchemists trying to produce gold from lead—it’s a metaphor for the transformation of oneself to a higher level of being. For me, alchemy ties three things together: Jung, Theosophy, and my paintings. My first really serious work was about putting these ideas on canvas.

(Blumstein 2020, 23)

Rendered on massive canvases, Kopelow’s Mandala series and Chromorphism series depict his view that nothing exists on its own, but rather, everything exists in relation to everything else. Often measuring 81 by 81 inches, the canvases combine the geometric symbolism of Tantric teachings with a mid-century American abstract expressionist color palette. Designed to be exhibited live and in a calculated sequence, the artist’s aim was to completely transform the audience’s experience. 

Beyond his masterful Mandalas, it is Kopelow’s way of being and dedication to the process that strike me as important to highlight. Banned by his parents from having anything to do with painting, Kopelow was self-taught and he visited numerous museums and galleries in the USA and Mexico to learn composition from the great masters.

Burton Kopelow, 1973. Image courtesy of Nancy Blumstein

Despite not having the opportunity to exhibit his work until 2014, when he was in his late eighties, Kopelow was undeterred and dedicated the latter seven decades of his life to his art. He always had two easels on the go, and even a stroke that rendered one side of his body very weak did not slow him down. According to Nancy, for Kopelow it was “all about the work.” This is evidenced by the fact that most of his pieces are intentionally untitled so that “the conversation would be about the art itself.” (PRS)

Similarly, Kopelow did not start properly dating his pieces until the early 1970s. In this current age of social media, where self-promotion and record-keeping is a daily pastime for most of us, Kopelow’s commitment to art for art’s sake really stands out:

Burton Kopelow produced over 3,000 pieces of art in his lifetime. He was an artist’s artist, dedicated so fully to his craft, so fully immersed in the potential of art and the ongoing creation story that binds us all, that his peers would refer to him as “the guardian of the threshold.” Perhaps it was this stewardship, this devotional practice, that dissuaded Kopelow from self-promotion: Burton’s mind, body and soul were too busy painting.

(PRS)

It is no wonder that the Philosophical Research Philosophy (PRS)—a Los Angeles-based nonprofit learning center that was founded in 1934—chose to focus on the mythicism of both Kopelow’s art and his persona in Myth in the Making. Along with the Theosophical Society and the Self Realization Center, Kopelow frequented the PRS library from the 1960’s onwards to expand his knowledge of philosophy and multi-cultural traditions. The exhibition, which is being held at the PRS Hansell Gallery, presents a striking selection of Kopelow’s work—only one of which has ever been shown before—that span over many decades. 

Burton Kopelow, “The Magic Circles of Enchanted Love,” 1973, Acrylic on Canvas, 81×116

The opening on April 27 was well-attended, and audiences were served birthday cake in celebration of Kopelow’s 100 years. The PRS reports that since then there has been a steady stream of visitors to the exhibition. During the May 11 panel discussion on Myth in the Making, Nancy Blumstein, artist David Orr and Executive Director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation John Bucher, presented on the life and work of Kopelow. Together, they reflected on Kopelow’s personal hero’s journey and examined the mythic symbolism in several of his pieces, praising his ability to speak to a part of the soul that is usually inaccessible. John Bucher noted that there was a lot of celebrating taking place in Kopelow’s paintings: the celebration of both suffering and joy, the celebration of the human condition.

The consensus is that Kopelow very consciously studied mythology and ancient symbols and reflected this in his art. However, over time and as his skills developed, he became much freer in his ability to depict diverse motifs. According to Nancy, it reached a point where Kopelow could skillfully and effortlessly alternate between styles multiple times within the same day. 

Kopelow, Untitled, 1976, Acrylic on Paper, 18×20.5

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was invited to join the presenters to tour the exhibition and experience the art directly. This was my second visit to the Hansell Gallery, and this time I noticed that Kopelow’s pieces would grow in meaning and magnificence every time I interacted with them. As the world becomes increasingly exposed to his art, I have no doubt that the myth of Kopelow will be celebrated for generations to come.

If you are interested in participating in the process, please have a look at Burton Kopelow’s website, the book Burton Kopelow: Paths of Discovery (2020) and the exhibition “Myth in the Making.” I guarantee you will be mesmerized. 

References

Blumstein. 2020. Burton Kopelow: Paths of Discovery. Canada: Friesens. 
Burton Kopelow: Myth in the Making with John Bucher, artist David Orr, and curator Nancy Blumstein

See more

Burton Kopelow
Myth in the Making (PRS)

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No One Important
No One Important
29 days ago

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

in duality we have the negative and positive.

negative: modern art is a reflection of a declining society. The Dharma Ending Age.

positive: with the proper support I could be a famous artist. Though fame is not something I seek.

All is Mind.