Charles Biederman, in a new light

EAST HARRIET — If you’ve seen anything by the artist Charles Biederman, it’s likely to have been his painted aluminum constructions — sculptures that hang on the wall like paintings, spinning shiny, brightly colored shapes out into the room.

But if that’s all you’ve seen, you don’t know Biederman. And that makes the current exhibition at Weinstein Gallery, which describes the artists’ evolution through a few dozen paintings, drawings and sculptures, something of a revelation.

The show presents Biederman’s career chronologically, beginning with his art school days in Depression-era Chicago, where we see him working through the lessons of his guiding light, Paul Cezanne, in a subdued still life of lute, bottle and rangy houseplant, and also playing with Cubist composition. The show then traces his quest to commune with like-minded modern artists in New York and Paris in the late ’30s before his retreat to Red Wing in the early ’40s, where he married and lived until his death in 2004.

These meanderings were often driven by Biederman’s dissatisfaction with the state of modern art and the compromises he felt other artists made. But the narrative of his early career almost reads like self-sabotage, with the prickly, uncompromising young artist pulling away from the corrupting limelight.

Biederman’s admirers ranked him among the best modern painters in the late 1930s, when he was producing enormously attractive abstract paintings that hinted at the human figure and movement using a variety of forms: balls, ribbons and horn-like shapes, painted in warm pastels. A 1937 canvas, completed during his Paris sojourn, uses bolder colors and hints at surrealism; typographical shapes, like metal type melted and stretched, catch shadows in their folds. For Biederman, even impossible shapes have mass and volume, a physical presence on the canvas.

The late ’30s and early ’40s are a pivotal point in Biederman’s career, when he takes the sculptural forms from his paintings and drawings and begins to express them in three dimensions.

In some early experiments, he simplifies his abstractions into painted grids with overlapping bars of color. Then come the constructions — still in wood at this point — using blocks painted in bright primary colors and arranged so that some jut out and others recede. The effects of light and shadow are integral to the composition.

That’s the key that helps to unlock Biederman’s later work. Underneath their seamless, industrial gloss, the constructions are descriptions of the natural world — rigorous and quasi-scientific explorations of the interactions between light, color and the human eye. 

It went even deeper than that for Biederman, who developed complex theories about form and structure in the natural world on near-daily excursions to a bluff overlooking the Cannon River near his home. Biederman’s choice of materials seems almost ironic in this light, but at their minimalist best the aluminum constructions convey a sense of purity: light and form fractured into their component parts, ready to be reassembled by us, the viewers.