Byron Burford, Artist of Circus Life, Dies at 90
Published: June 26, 2011
from: New York Times
Byron Burford, a figurative artist who attracted a broad following, particularly in the Midwest, with vivid images of athletes, soldiers, factory workers, jazz musicians and a panoply of circus people, died on June 17 at his home in Iowa City. He was 90.
He died of natural causes, his granddaughter, Madeline Burford, said. Working mostly in oil — but also in prints, engravings, acrylics and even hot wax on canvas — Mr. Burford suffused his creations with sometimes muted shades but more often with glowing colors. He focused on poignant moments: Southern blacks toiling in the fields; beachcombers gazing into the distance; jazz musicians reaching for high notes; a World War I soldier recovering in the hospital; a forlorn bicyclist standing by the side of the road, out of the race. But Mr. Burford was perhaps best known for depicting circus life. Among his many works are whip-cracking lion tamers, midflight trapeze artists, feather-bedecked ladies riding high on elephants, and sideshow attractions like the tattooed man, the bearded lady and the two-headed dog. When some of Mr. Burford’s paintings were shown at a gallery in Manhattan in 1966, Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times that “motifs drawn from carnival and circus life, from popular culture and nostalgic glimpses of forgotten wars are transformed into graphic symbols of a notable complexity.” He added, “There is no mistaking the fact that a genuine and interesting imagination has been engaged.” Mr. Burford’s works are in the collections of, among other institutions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the University of Iowa Art Gallery. Byron Leslie Burford Jr. was born in Jackson, Miss., on July 12, 1920, to Byron and Flory Smith Burford, and grew up in Greenville, Miss. His father, who was director of the local Y.M.C.A., booked the circuses and carnivals that came to town. Byron Jr. combined his artistic talent with a fascination with those unusual performers and, at 14, went on the road with the Tom Mix Circus, hauling and painting. After graduating from high school, Mr. Burford enrolled at the University of Iowa, where his mentor was Grant Wood, the famous painter of rural America. He graduated in 1942, served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and returned to the University of Iowa, where he received a master’s in fine arts in 1947. At Mr. Wood’s behest, he was hired to teach painting at the university, which he did for 38 years. In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. Burford is survived by his son, Kevin, and two daughters, Nana Burford and Kathy Burford Lewis. His wife of 65 years, the former Mary Dell, died in 2009. During summer recesses throughout his academic career, Mr. Burford would go on the road with traveling circuses, playing drums in the band and, of course, painting.