b. 1920 Anykšciai, Lithuania – d. 1998 Sante Fe, NM
Rudolf Baranik (b. 1920 Lithuania – d. 1998 Santa Fe, NM) was a painter, writer and lifelong political activist. His artistic process was motivated by a fundamental belief that his political involvement could not be separated from his abstract painting. To describe his practice, he coined the term “socialist formalism”—a style that eschewed the division between art of conscience and Greenbergian formalism. He and his wife, the artist May Stevens, were staunch advocates of the Civil Rights, feminist, prison reform and numerous anti-war movements. “I am an artist strongly committed to social change,” Baranik explained. “I am in fact a socialist. I would want people to be moved towards changes in society, to more humane relationships, and so on. But I also know that art acts upon people in ways that are slow, indirect, circuitous, illusive, unmeasurable. It is because of that that I feel when I do precisely what I want it is really the best I can do for others. I am concerned but uncompromising.”
His most famous series, The Napalm Elegies, is a powerful series of paintings made in response to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Between 1967 and 1974, Baranik created some 30 paintings based on a newspaper image of a Vietnamese child badly burned by napalm. Using a range of white and gray tones on deep black backgrounds, Baranik reproduced the image in fragmented arrangements of paint and collage. Another important series for the artist was his powerful Word paintings, sparked by the death of his son, Steven, in 1981. These powerful paintings, that dealt with personal grief and mourning, were tied together by snippets of poetry and text—a motif inspired by the suicide note Steven left his parents.
After immigrating to the United States in 1938 and serving in the American army during World War II, Baranik studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and The Art Students League of New York, where he was an instructor in the 1970s. In 1948, he and his wife moved to France and attended the Académie Julian in Paris on the GI Bill, while Baranik also studied under acclaimed artist Fernand Léger. Baranik was well-versed in the formalist concerns of his abstract expressionist peers and felt particular “kinships,” as he called them, with artists Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) and Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967). Like Reinhardt, Baranik was attuned to the transcendent power of the color black.
In 1951, the couple returned to New York City, where their Soho loft became a hotbed for artistic-political gatherings with their contemporaries, including Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. In 1967, Baranik assisted in organizing Angry Arts Week, and in the late 1960s, he co-founded Artists and Writers Protest Against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, he and Stevens founded Artists Meeting for Cultural Change with Benny Andrews and Lucy Lippard. Baranik was a professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for 25 years and a distinguished writer who contributed to Artforum. In 1997, Baranik and Stevens moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In 1981, Baranik was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts, and in 1997, he was the subject of the book, Poetics and Politics in the Art of Rudolf Baranik by David Craven with a foreword by Elizabeth Hess.
Baranik has been included in a number of solo and group exhibitions, including at the Jersey City Museum (2004); University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson (2000); Exit Art/The First World, New York (1994); University Gallery of Fine Art at Ohio State University, Columbus (1987); and Boston University Art Gallery (1987). In 2019, his work was included in Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965- 1975 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and in 2017, he was included in Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney's Collection 1940-2017 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Baranik’s work is held in the public collections of Brooklyn Museum, NY; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, NY; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Walker Art Center, MN; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, among others.
Elegies: Sleep, Napalm, Night Sky
Poetics and Politics in the Art of Rudolf Baranik