My son bought me a calendar for Xmas. It’s a “Picture a Day” from The Met in New York. I like it because, coming from an American background, it shows different paintings to those you’d normally think would be included in this type of thing.
A really good example of this is the painting from Tuesday of this week – Robert Birmelin’s City Crowd, Cop and Ear from 1980.
I’d never heard of Birmelin before, but I really liked this painting as soon as I saw it. The unusual viewpoint, the realism and the 1970s aura. It looks a bit like a still from the film Taxi Driver.
My initial thought was that he must be a member of the Photorealist school. The glass in the shop windows and the cars in the middle ground pointed me in that direction, but then I thought that the figures are too stylised for that. There’s a certain drama or emotional intensity to them.
I decided to dig around a bit and see what I could find about the artist.
First stop – Art UK. Apparently there are no works by Birmelin in public ownership in the UK. Not really a surprise, I guess, given the very American atmosphere of the painting and the fact that Birmelin is American (it says on my calendar). He must be quite local to the American market, although clearly well enough known in the US to have a work in the Met!
So, turning to the Met website and the actual entry for the picture, immediately it’s even clearer that this is not a Photorealist painter. Seeing the full picture and in more detail than on the calendar, there’s a real blurriness about the figures in the painting, particularly the ones on the edge of the canvas. The figure on the far left, with his back turned to us, seems to be disappearing, almost becoming transparent.
One thing I really like about the painting are the hands. The hand of the figure in the foreground, playing with the earring, points to the hand resting on the arm of the woman in the centre. That hand leads us to the hand of the woman held to her mouth. These all form a nice diagonal from right to left, echoing the diagonals of the pavement (or should I say ‘sidewalk’ given the American milieu).
There’s no write-up about the painting on the Met website, just the standard catalogue information. Nothing about the artist either, although a few references to the appearance of the painting in catalogues and exhibitions, none of which are easily obtainable.
So, to the artist’s own website.
There are lots of examples of his paintings on here, as you’d expect. Many are similar to the one in the Met, expansive cityscapes crammed with figures, some of whom seem to be turning transparent or fading away. Something about these pictures reminds me of comics covers. It wouldn’t look out of place if Spider-Man were to swing down into view. A good example is Ordinary Lives an Allegory.
Alongside these, though, there are also examples of very intimate paintings e.g. The Twenty Dollar Bill and interesting formal experiments such as Overpass. Lots to explore here and I thoroughly recommend taking a look at the artist’s website.
The website also give some sparse biographical details, although not a lot. One interetsing note is that he studied at the Slade School in London in 1961. So he may be a distinctively American painter but there is at least a minor European connection.
Googling further afield, there seems to be little detail about the artist anywhere. So, for now, I’ll leave you with this quote from a 1985 book called The New Response: Contemporary Painters of the Hudson River. It gives a brief commentary on Birmelin and states ‘The paintings are imbued with the emotional tenor of urban life’. That seems like a good summary of the effects of his paintings.