About David Budd
David Budd: The Artist and the Mystery
David Budd was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1927. His boyhood home was near the Coffee Pot Bayou, the title of one of his beautifully textured, monochromatic paintings. He died in 1991, at the age of 64, in nearby Sarasota.
Toward the end of his life health problems limited his artistic activities: he had broken his neck and was forced to wear a Haley Vest “halo,” his circulation was so bad he could only walk with a cane and he contracted cancer, His work had not been seen in a solo exhibition since 1986, the year he won the prestigious Peggy Guggenheim Award. The Silver System paintings that won him the prize were shown in Venice, Italy.
Prior to that, however, Budd enjoyed great success in the art world.
David Budd was a product of his time, post-World War II, when America was taking the lead in the creation of a new form of abstraction that came to be known Abstract Expressionism.
In 1950, while Budd was still living in Sarasota, he saw Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock executing a drip painting on a large sheet of glass. The experience inspired him to become a painter. The decision was also influenced by his friendship with Syd Solomon, who encouraged him to paint full time. Hollywood, the oldest painting in the David Budd collection that, April, his daughter, donated to the Ringling College of Art and Design, dates from 1948.
Budd married Corcaita (Corky) Cristiani, a ballerina for the Cristiani Brothers equestrian act, and in the first year of their marriage, David’s job was selling popcorn for the Cristiani Circus. The couple’s goal was to save enough money to move to New York, which they did in 1954. It was there that Budd became a full-time artist and started hanging out with Abstract Expressionists. Corky remembers many nights spent sitting in the Cedar Street Tavern watching her husband drinking and conversing with Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and other famous painters who frequented the bar.
Budd’s first solo show was at the American University in Washington, D.C. in 1956. His second and third shows were at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1958 and 1960. Parsons’ other artists included Pollock, Joseph Cornell, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg.
Though he had been painting for only six years, in 1954 Budd dropped into the center of the modern art world.
In the ‘50s, Budd experimented with a variety of Abstract Expressionistic styles in an attempt to find his own direction. His early work consisted of slashing brush marks of bright color or toned-down marks and blends of neutral colors with softened forms that seemed to float on the canvas. In contrast, Starry Night and L’Artifice were painted in thick, swirling strokes of blue and white in the former and primary and secondary colors in the latter. Still others, including B +W, had jagged cloudlike forms floating across the surface.
What seems now to be oddly out of place is a series of large paintings in which Budd divided the picture plane into four loosely painted squares or rectangles of more or less flatly brushed colors. Motel and Movie Time are two of these seeming anomalies that actually foreshadowed the flat paintings the artist would produce in the ‘60s.
The most significant paintings Budd created in the 1950s experimented with thick paint in single colors using a palette knife. They were quite large and the strokes tended to move the eye toward the center of the canvas. Although Budd abandoned the thick, monochromatic technique at the end of the decade, he brought it back in the 1970s to produce many of his most important paintings.
By the end of the Eisenhower decade Abstract Expressionism was running its course. Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had stopped looking inward for inspiration in favor of dealing with the urban world around them. This trend eventually lead to Pop Art. Budd was not impressed with the new direction, nor ready to abandon Abstract Expressionistic techniques.
Given the opportunity to move to Paris and work with the prestigious Galerie Stadler, he took it. Between 1960 and 1968 he was an expatriate, and quite successful. All but two of the paintings exhibited during his first solo show with Stadler were sold.
In the early ‘60s, he was still painting in an Abstract Expressionist style, but that changed by 1964. A series of large paintings done that year are flat, hard-edge abstractions that relate to the Post-Painterly Abstractions being shown in New York at the time. In 1966 Budd was dividing his canvases with a diagonal line or an undulating curvilinear line going from the lower right corner of the picture plane to the upper left. The two halves were further divided by thin white lines (sometime augmented with dashes) between the colors and can be seen in Pan Zone from 1966.
Another former Ringling School of Art student, Loomis Dean, was working as a photographer covering Paris for Life Magazine. One of the subjects he photographed was the Beat Hotel and its denizens, which included the notorious writer William Burroughs. At the time, Budd was collaborating with Burroughs, creating a series of drawings for which Burroughs provided the words. (Burroughs later dedicated his book, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, to his friend David.) Where the drawings are today is unknown, the only proof of their existence are small, black-and-white photographs taken for the Galerie Stadler records.
Budd returned to New York in the late 1960s. Sahara, a painting probably created after his return to New York in 1968, has the familiar undulating line dividing the canvasses that Budd used in the mid-1960s. The difference is the paint is no longer flat and it was painted in a single color, a shade of tan.
Budd went back to the palette-knife painting style he had used in the ‘50s, but with variations that mark this period of his development. The palette-knife work becomes neatly laid down and horizontal. Edges sometimes appear in the center of the canvases and meet meandering vertical or horizontal lines of paint. Occasionally Budd created a thick ridge of paint that he smoothed out before texturing again. Although most of the paintings were monochromatic, he also worked in combinations of blacks and dark browns and some of the pieces have two colors or a wider streak of color going across the picture plane.
The Bisbee Blue series were the most minimal of the monochromatic paintings. Each of the canvasses was 36” x 36” and painted in different tones of blue or blue-violet. The larger paintings are over six-feet wide and 10-feet long. The knife marks on the right edges are slightly flattened down to send the viewer’s eye back to the left side of the canvases. The colors Budd used for these paintings range from black to blue to violet to red to white.
The Easter Island Series consists of black-and-brown tones with the browns representing round-peaked islands. Budd’s palette-knife work is extremely accomplished in these paintings. Forms appear in the six-panel black-and-brown work, Black Polyptych painting (now in the Ringling Museum collection), which is a summation of the stylistic variations Budd created in the monochromatic or two-color palette paintings of the 1970s.
The first series of paintings Budd produced at the beginning of the 1980s was called Journey Without Maps, and in these paintings his technique changed. Instead of mixing large batches of single colors and applying it directly to the canvas, Budd scraped thick, white paint across the canvas surfaces with palette knives (and sometimes other tools) to build up ridges, flatten areas or gouge shallow craters. He then stained the white surfaces with color, often red or dark blue. By re-staining the areas the colors became darker and the varied textures added a sense of depth to the paintings.
The largest paintings in this series are the monumental-sized gold painting called Journey Without Maps XIII (78”x126”) and the slightly smaller silver painting Journey Without Maps XII (60”x120’).
By 1983 Budd was once again experimenting with new techniques. He did a series of scribble-like paintings on black backgrounds where he drew curvilinear lines by squeezing white paint from a tube. The lines went upwards to a rounded peak, then down, up again and down across the picture plane. In 1985 the backgrounds became white and the arching Zen-like linear forms became partially filled in, usually with reds and silvers. Little curlicues drawn with a paint tube also appeared.
The artist’s final series of paintings won him the Peggy Guggenheim Award. He called it the Silver System. He worked on the series while wearing the Haley’s Vest, which limited his movement to the point where the canvases had to be very small. Budd painted one a day for the entire time his head was locked into his metal halo. He was determined to paint for as long as he could.
The rest of the series ranged in size and were sometimes shown together in groupings. The compositions used black lines to create right angles and open boxes. The forms were boldly conceived—as was the use of silver as the ground color. To Budd, the color silver represented the vastness of space.
Rembrandt once said that any time a horizontal and vertical line cross a painting would be balanced. In his Silver System series, Budd seemed intent on proving that a large “empty” space could also balance linear forms placed at one side of the picture plane.
The Budd Legacy
During his career David Budd showed at galleries and museums in New York, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Japan. The museums with Budd paintings in their collections include the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Jewish Museum in New York and numerous others throughout the United States (see the full list printed below). He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the Peggy Guggenheim Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. His work was written about in newspapers and major art magazines including the New York Times, Art News and Art Forum.
So why is the name David Budd not better known today?
How did David Budd become the forgotten Abstract Expressionist?
Not to put too fine a point on it, why do David Budd’s pieces sell for so much less than those of the painters he drank and argued and laughed with every night at the Cedar Tavern?
To answer these questions, we went to Kevin Dean, Director of Selby Gallery, Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, Florida:
“The reasons are part of the David Budd story, and not unlike the stories of many great artists.
“I first saw Budd’s monochromatic work in an art history class when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s. There were no books published about his work. And as time went on, books about the history of modern art, even American modern art, have had to eliminate some of the artists of Budd’s generation to add the generations of major artists who came after them. Furthermore, the monochromatic paintings I believe constitute Budd’s most important work are difficult to photograph, reproduce and ship because the surface of thickly applied oil paint dries before the pigment underneath, which tends to stay moist. If the surface cracks, it can leak out and attach itself to the plastic sheeting or whatever covers the paintings in shipping. This factor makes storing the paintings difficult as well.
“As a result, many of Budd’s most important pieces have seldom been seen.
“Reportedly, one of the reasons Budd showed with so many galleries was that he tended to quarrel with his dealers—and artists who die without having a dealer to look after their legacy have a real problem. Budd died without representation from a gallery and did not even show his later work in public because of the illnesses he suffered in the last years of his life. As the arts writer Stephen Westfall succinctly summed up the situation in the first sentence he wrote in the catalog for Selby Gallery’s first David Budd show in 1996, ‘David Budd’s paintings keep threatening to fall through the cracks of our historical framework for postwar American painting.’
“David’s story also includes the problem that the families of many artists who pass away in similar situations have: What do you with all of those paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures after the artist is gone? April and Corky were left with more than 200 paintings that had to be housed in a warehouse after John Chamberlain (fellow Sarasota artist and friend of Budd’s) moved back to New York. Corky was able to sell paintings to collectors and museums and found representation for the work of the 1950s at the McCormick Gallery in Chicago, which only helped cover the cost of storage in a building without proper climate controls. The solution was to donate David’s legacy to the Ringling College of Art and Design, which recognizes Budd’s achievements as an artist to be one of the most noteworthy among all the highly successful students who attended the school during its 73-year history.
“The exhibition at the Ice House Artspace in Sarasota will provide collectors and museum curators a rare opportunity—in many chases their first chance—to see David Budd’s career unfold in an exhibition space, to see the work up close, on the walls of a gallery, the way it was meant to be displayed,” Selby Gallery’s second Budd exhibition was a small summer retrospective. The Ice House is a vast space capable of showing a more complete retrospective of the work owned by Ringling College. In addition, more than 65% of the 50-plus pieces chosen for the show have never been seen in Sarasota.
“This is our first step toward bringing the art of David Budd into the light, to public view and, hopefully, to the attention and acclaim we believe it richly deserves.
- Kevin Dean , 2014