For the past five years, I've kept a photograph of an extraordinary painting on my kitchen windowsill. I look at it daily. It's titled "A Wonderful Life," and it was painted by Raleigh artist George Bireline, who died on Aug. 20.
Something about it makes you want to keep studying it; unraveling its riddle, its visual koan, seeking its meditation on life and death. It's not an easy painting--none of Bireline's paintings were--but it conveys a great deal about the man. At the time of its creation over five years ago, he had been hospitalized for a major illness. He asked his wife, Jen, to take photographs of him, hooked up to the apparatus that kept him alive: he knew (he told me, later) that he wanted the visual record.
It's an extraordinary diptych: on the left side, a startling, close-up self-portrait from his hospital bed, his eyes intently peering over tubes. In the right hand panel a trompe-l'oeil note taped to a bright orange field finds striking contrast with a portrait of an empty hospital bed, rendered in monochrome green. When its hinged panels are closed, "A Wonderful Life" gives up one more secret. The image of an ouroboros is painted on the back: the ancient Greek symbol of a snake devouring its tail, the beginning meeting the end, the infinity of it all.
Bireline met what we now know as the last phase of his artistic career by contemplating his beginnings, reprising the many phases of his development in a spirit of playful invention. Yet he clearly contemplated his own mortality with a characteristic, unflinching honesty.
Bireline took on the great themes of our time. Like all great artists, he brought us the difficult messages, often cloaked in seductive color and expert rendering. In the mid-'80s, he created a marvelous series that paralleled the trials of martyred saints with those of AIDS victims. Bireline did not shy away from prophesying an apocalyptic vision based on our inhumanity and our negligence of the environment.
He was a beloved husband, father, friend and teacher to hundreds of students in his long career at N.C. State University's School of Design. He insisted that we look more closely, think more deeply about the world around us. Through his art and in his presence, we did. His absence is keenly felt.
The portrait that follows is created from the gathered voices of those in his inner circle--fellow artists, colleagues and friends.
frank harmon Architect, professor, friend
I knew George Bireline when I was an architecture student at the School of Design in the 1960s. Although I didn't have a course with him, I was in awe of the power and drama of Bireline's abstract paintings, like many students were. We couldn't wait to see his next painting because his work spoke to us of the beauty and chaos of life. Bireline and Joe Cox were the first men I knew who lived for art.
After I returned to teach at the School of Design in 1981, I bumped into Bireline one day in a small stairway under the school office. We started to talk about painting. Over two hours later we were still talking, having discussed Michaelangelo, Le Corbusier, game theory, goats, motorcycles, Cezanne and Abraham Lincoln in a way that not only made sense but was exhilarating.
It was an example of his insatiable and penetrating curiosity, who sought to illuminate the world through art and share it with others. He was one of those rare teachers who could demystify art while exalting it, giving students a glimpse of the courage an artist needs to survive and the passion he needs to flourish.
His work as a painter opened a door on the world of art for generations of students--and left it open.
charlotte v. brown, hon aia Director, Gallery of Art & Design, N.C. State University
George is one of my true heroes. He never stopped working and he used everything the art of our times gave him as tools to paint about the hard issues: love and death, waste and destruction, grace and hope, courage and forgiveness. But he presented these images in relentlessly lyrical, elegant and wonderful ways; capturing our eyes, engaging our minds and fiercely touching our hearts.
ron rozelle Artist, professor, former student
The day after I turned down a teaching job at N.C. State in 1980, George Bireline telephoned my Los Angeles studio. He expressed disappointment and asked me to reconsider. He closed with the words "We'd have fun."
That was all it took. Six months later I was sitting beside him in a faculty meeting in North Carolina.
Fun was a modus operandi for George. He took a childlike delight in every undertaking, a joy contagious to those fortunate to be around him.
George painted everyday. He was always looking forward to working in the studio, even if it was only for an hour. He ran the gamut from expressionism to extremely accurate illusionism, and in his later work he often incorporated multiple styles in a single canvas. His skill was that competent in each style of painting.
Of course if he knew I was writing this about him, he would laugh, and deny, and dismiss any notion of it.
But painting was only one facet of George's enthusiasm. He read more than anyone I have ever known. Poetry was perhaps as important to him as painting.
If you ever cooked a meal for George, it was inevitable: You would watch him flatten his thumb and sweep it around his plate, collecting every last morsel. In essence, he was licking the platter clean--a simple act that made him a favorite dinner guest for anyone who truly enjoys cooking.
rebecca martin nagy Director, Harn Museum of Art University of Florida, Gainesville
In 1994, I was offered a rare and special opportunity. Over several months I often met with George in his studio, as we pondered the selection of paintings for an exhibition, George Bireline: Decade 1984--1994, at the City Gallery of Contemporary Art (now Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum).
Having been an admirer of his work for years, I was richly rewarded when I talked about art with this gentle man, whose unbounded intellectual curiosity was matched by his kindness and generosity. As I wrote in the catalog for the show we curated together, George's figurative paintings of that decade dealt with the weighty themes of human experience: life and death, health and illness, sexuality, stewardship of the planet, religious faith.
Talking with George about these powerful and moving images, I was continually amazed by his knowledge, reflection, and insight on many widely divergent subjects. However drained and weary I was upon arriving at George's studio for a visit, I emerged several hours later invigorated and inspired by our conversations.
Knowing him was a blessing, working with him a delight. A beautiful small painting, a farewell gift from him when I left North Carolina, hangs in my office as a daily reminder of his wonderful talent and enlightened spirit.
claude e. mckinney Professor Emeritus and Former Dean, N.C. State University School of Design
George and I first met in the fall of l950. He was in the first class of the new graduate studio art program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was to enter that program in the following fall, after I had received my undergraduate degree. We both studied creative painting and design.
The faculty in the Art Department at that time included John Allcott, Kenneth Ness, George Kachergis, Clemens Sommer and Robert Howard. They provided leadership in their disciplines, but George was also a major factor in my education. We spent many hours together, talking about ideas, books, artists and exhibitions, generally over coffee or Tudor beer--all we could afford as graduate students.
George was a war veteran, and older than most of us. He was always considered a "heavyweight," a designation of respect he carried through his tenure at the School of Design at N.C. State University from the 1960's until he retired in 1986.
In 1952, we were actor-technicians in the outdoor symphonic drama Unto These Hills, and my wife, Mimi, was an Indian dancer. That summer we all lived in the Episcopal Manse in downtown Cherokee. George's paintings during this time were intense, colorful and expressionistic. They were always powerful, laced with skill and maturity.
After our summer together, George remained in Cherokee to teach while Mimi and I went on to Alabama. Then George moved to Raleigh, where he became technical director at the Raleigh Little Theatre before joining the faculty of the N.C. State School of Design.
While I was living in New York in 1964, I was surprised to read in The New York Times that George was to have a one-man show at the Andre Emmerich Gallery. When I went to the gallery, I was stunned. The paintings I saw could not have been the work of George Bireline.
The intense, often frenetic expression that characterized the work I knew had been replaced by the calmness and sophistication of his color-field paintings: all large and very impressive. Later, I was fortunate to inherit on loan from Andre Emmerich "RED WOW." I prominently displayed it in my office.
When Chancellor John Caldwell asked me to become the Dean of the School of Design in 1972, we worked together again. George had fathered the Basic Design Program and though the administrative leadership of the program had been a challenge for him, it still carries his imprimatur today.
While George's work is critically acclaimed, I cannot separate that work from
his spirit and intellect. I am fortunate to have had his friendship. I will miss him. So will many others.
harold hopfenberg Camille Dreyfus Professor in Chemistry, N.C. State University
In a toast to Bireline, Hopfenberg comments on two persistent leitmotifs: mushroom clouds, and a "trick of the eye" designed to fool the viewer into thinking that a piece of masking tape was hanging on the canvas.]
...He became more and more interested in framing the big questions. ... He was suspicious of answers.
George, who fought in the European theater of World War II, and knew war as only a soldier can, was captured by the horrible ambiguity of the nightmarish, but nevertheless beautiful, mushroom cloud.
His masking tape warned the viewer to beware of illusions, but to trust the artist's skill in posing the question. He seduced the viewer with masking tape and mock transparencies, to attract the viewer to his point of view regarding the ease of illusion and the difficulty of determining truth.
Often I watch viewers drawn to the masking tape; avoiding the difficult, nested meanings of the mushroom cloud. Young viewers try to pull off the masking tape. More self-conscious adults merely want to. And at that point, George brings you into his art--the art of the question.
Once you know that the artist has tricked your eye, you must also know that he has connected with your mind.
Lee hansley Owner, Lee Hansley Gallery
When I think about George Bireline, I think about the colors he commanded. Bright, daring hues of fuchsia, electric blue, vibrant red, a dash of acrid green, a splash of cadmium yellow: George never encountered a color he couldn't use in his painting. Through his development from early abstraction to abstract impressionism to color field paintings, through his triptych phase, his political and allegorical paintings and his collection of self-portraits--his most personal works--the constant unifying thread is the trademark Bireline color.
Once, while I was working at a newspaper in my hometown of Roanoke Rapids, I drove to Raleigh with my artist friend E.C. Langford to see one of the annual North Carolina artist exhibitions at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Langford and Bireline were former classmates at Chapel Hill, and Langford had promised me we'd go to George's house after we left the museum.
I'll never forget that first meeting. George was sitting on the porch swing. A veritable swirl of activity surrounded him: It seemed like everyone had migrated to East Park Drive after the opening. George was affable and welcoming and I immediately felt comfortable there.
In my estimation, George Bireline was the most important artist living and working in North Carolina. Not only did he have the reputation and resume to support that designation, he had the drive and determination, the tenacity and sensitivity, the keen sense of purpose, and the dogged will to persevere to be a painter while painting nationally was, for all intents and purposes, out to lunch.
Five years ago, George was preparing a solo show for my gallery, and he stopped by one afternoon to talk. He was concerned that he was looking back, quoting his older work in his new paintings, and he was unsure if we should show them.
I encouraged him to quote away. After nearly 50 years of painting, he'd earned the right.
Subconsciously, I contend, George was entering the last phase of his artistic output. His final plateau would be peppered with images and ideas from his whole life experience. For the next five years he continued to borrow from himself, creating a body of work that brought his artistic life full circle. Toward the end he knew that, and I think he felt good about it.
Bireline is gone, but we are left with all that color and light.