Re-envisioning Mid-Century Modern
As the saying goes, “Everything old is new again.” Artist Andy Burgess, whose a local exhibition starts this month, has a distinctive and fascinating way of looking at designs from our near past.
By Scott Barker
Andy Burgess sees things that most of us don’t — tiny nuances in shapes and colors. But then, that’s his job.
A native of London, the talented and engaging visual artist grew up surrounded by deeply rooted history, and many branches of noteworthy architecture and design, all of which were worthy of detailed study.
“As a child, I was surrounded by beautiful buildings,” he reveals, explaining that he lived very close to the Hampstead area. “It’s a historic neighborhood, famous for writers and intellectuals. The Bloomsbury Set often were there, along with people like Karl Marx. It’s like a village, with wonderful old houses and buildings. And yet, in the early 20th century, there were visionaries who built modernist architecture there as well.”
Andy’s father was John Burgess, an actor who had a long career in both the theater (including with the Royal Shakespeare Company), and on the big and small screens. His mother Lana had been a secretary, and then after his parents split up, a homemaker, remarrying and raising Andy and his siblings Harvey and Paul. Although his mom was an aficionado of the theater and opera, Andy says that all the culture surrounding him didn’t lead him toward the stage or into music.
“I went to a very academic school, so I wasn’t overly encouraged to do art. In fact, I didn’t do art properly until well into my university life. When it came to choosing my subject matters at school, I ended up studying history, geography, English, Latin, but I didn’t do art or music, which is a real regret for me. But I guess I’ve made up for it now!”
His initial focus was on politics, and he attended Leeds University for a four-year poli-sci degree that included him working for a congressman on Capitol Hill for six months, and in the British House of Parliament for an additional six months. “It was a hugely competitive program to get into; they only took six people every year. That was an amazing four-year degree, which I completed, but it was only in the last year of study that I started to get completely obsessed with art and realized that maybe my heart lay not in politics, but in art.”
Subsequently while attending art school, Andy found his voice and his passion in abstract painting. But he also discovered a distinctive skill set that circled back to his fascination with man-made structures. “In abstract painting … everything has to do with lines, geometry, space and receding planes,” he comments. “It just worked out over time that using architecture as my subject was a very good way of exploring that, but still maintaining one foot in the representational world that people understand. It was kind of a convenient hook.”
Painting has not been his only medium, however. “I also do a lot of photography, and it’s very critical to what I do. It doesn’t provide the commercial success that the painting has provided, but it’s absolutely integral. My favorite thing in the world is to be in a city and walk around for hours. It doesn’t matter where I am; I will find interest anywhere. In a paving stone, mailbox, or lamppost and specifically, looking up. Most people don’t walk around on a daily basis looking up. But it’s become second nature for me. I’m walking around with a camera, and everything is potential subject matter, whether it’s a plant coming out of a brick, or a shadow over a crumbling wall. That becomes a really fun way of being in the world.”
Over time, he carved out a niche as a visual artist in his hometown. “I was doing cityscapes — aerial views and street scenes — and I had a certain degree of success in London. I was building a nice career. I also had an article in Modern Painters magazine.”
But though that part of his life was taking off, a very important area remained grounded. “I was in my 30s, and I was having a rough time of it in London for health reasons. I realized I could not function in cold, damp weather. My body was shutting down and I was ill every other week.”
He had an escape plan, however, involving the Old Pueblo, a place with which he had a familial connection. “In the 1980s, the Royal Shakespeare Company sent out small groups of actors, like a troupe, to America to teach Shakespeare in American universities,” explains Andy. “My dad did one of those tours with some really great actors, and one of the places they came to was Tucson. And my dad, bless him, was quite eccentric. He loved out-of-the-way places, and hated anything pretentious. He loved it here, and he used to talk about Tucson all the time.”
Fast forward a few years, and Andy’s oldest brother Harvey and his wife moved to Tucson, where she landed a job as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital. The Burgess family came out on visits, and it seemed the perfect place for Andy to get out of the cold and wet.
Living in the Southwest changed his life in many ways. He married his girlfriend and they had a child, and Andy turned his attention to painting images of Mid-Century Modern buildings. “The whole interest in painting specific modernist architecture happened just before I moved to Arizona,” he says. “I was really interested in Bauhaus and European modernism. And when I moved here, the access was far more to the heir of that, which was Mid-Century Modern. Those architects who were from that tradition, like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, were émigrés. They came to the States and some of them settled in LA, and a few worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. That mixture of the Prairie style, Bauhaus and Modernism, with help from Palm Spring architects like Donald Wexler, Albert Frey and those guys, came to form a unique style of American architecture. You put all that together, and suddenly you have Bauhaus transferred to the desert. And I fell in love with that. It made perfect sense to follow through from drawing Bauhaus to drawing and painting Mid-Century, and going back and forth between the two to enjoy the connections.
Moving to America has been a boon to Andy’s career, and he notes, “This year has been my best to date. I had the Nazraeli book [Mid-Century Perspectives: Paintings by Andy Burgess and Objects of Modern Design], and the Tucson Museum of Art exhibition, followed by a sell-out show in New York. Those three things were really phenomenal.” He notes that he has been so busy that he has had to turn down requests from galleries, as well as some commissions.
Fortunately, he found the time in his hectic schedule for a very special exhibition, which will be unveiled on Oct. 5 during Tucson Modernism Week. Titled Andy Burgess: Sunshine Mile Modern, this show at the Sunshine Shop (located in the historic former Hirsh’s Shoes store), explores the modernist buildings on the strip of Broadway between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road. “I’m recording the Sunshine Mile, both in paintings and photography,” Andy elaborates. “I am hoping to do a photography book eventually as well. It isn’t just looking at the buildings from afar. It’s also the details — the brick and stonework and the design.”
He is unquestionably drawn to the Southwest Modernist style, and he says that his step-mother-in-law Kathy McGuire is writing a book on architect Judith Chafee, soon to be published by Princeton Architecture Press. “We’re very close,” he comments about McGuire, “and have a lot in common. She’s always loved sharing her architectural tradition with me. She was a student of Judith Chafee and worked for her.”
During any free moments, Andy likes to spend time playing with his son Jonathan, as well as swimming, practicing martial arts such as Aikido, and cooking. “A lot of time is spent thinking about food, shopping and preparing food. I love making risotto. I’ve made a few paellas as well. That’s a hobby, but I often think to myself, if I hadn’t become a painter, I’d have been a chef!”
Or maybe a writer. He did, after all, grow up in a place known for its authors, and he had to write lengthy dissertations for his degrees. With a nod to his literary side he sums up, “I started this publishing company Dark Spring Press and that was purely out of passion and naiveté. And it’s been fun. It’s a massive learning curve, but I love analog. I love physical things.”