A Retrospective View of the Singular Charles S. Klabunde

By: Ed McCormack November-December 2002 / January 2003
Published by Gallery & Studio

It is wholly characteristic of a Charles S. Klabunde's almost perverse originality to mount a major retrospective in the obscure little riverside hamlet of Frenchtown, New Jersey, far from the fashionable precincts of the official art world.

Klabunde, after all, is a phenomenon apart. A welcome anomaly in contemporary art, he is a prolific printmaker and painter who has chosen the path of passionate humanism over mundane careerism. In the tradition of Leonard Baskin, Jacob Landau, Maurice Lasanky, and a mere handful of other independent spirits who have bucked the system, going against current trends and fashions, Klabunde's work springs from moral and philosophical principles and convictions, as opposed to the historical imperatives of modernism.

Charles Klabunde: Master Printmaker, Painter and Fine Artist"The Sirens" (Pencil Drawing 50x38)

As with all great humanists, the armature upon which Klabunde's work in both printmaking and painting has always rested is his surpassing draftsmanship. This is the focus of “Black and White,” a 35 year retrospective of Charles Klabunde's etchings and pencil drawings, at Beyond the Looking Glass Gallery, 33 Bridge Street, Frenchtown, New Jersey, from November 2 through 30. (The opening reception is Saturday, November 2 from 4 to 8 PM, and the exhibition can be viewed from 11 to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment by calling 908-996-6464.)

Many of the works in this show, spanning the period from the 1960s to the present, have never been exhibited previously. Others, however, are well known to Klabunde's collectors and admirers, including the four deluxe edition European boxed books of etchings and engravings, respectively entitled “Cycle of Sangsaric Phenomena: The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1967),” “The Seven Deadly Sins (1971),” “Samuel Beckett's The Lost Ones (1984),” and “Studies of the Revolutionary Mind (2000).”

In each series, one sees how Klabunde's images illuminate, rather than merely illustrate, the texts from which he takes inspiration. In the etching “Cycle of Sangsaric Phenomena #III,” for example, the mystical qualities of the Tibetan Book of the Dead are conveyed with surreal figures orbiting a darkly cross-hatched cosmos around a brilliant orb that could appear to be a portal to their n ext incarnation. By contrast, in “The Seven Deadly Sins” series, various preposterously grotesque beings recall Odilon Redon's desire to create figures that are “impossible according to the laws of possibility.” Yet, we recognize the bloated, coverous figure of “Greed,” and the fanged monster of “Anger” – the latter replete with ballistic erection! – as symbolic surrogates of our own worst traits.

“Terrifying!” Samuel Beckett himself declared on first viewing Klabunde's etchings for “The Lost Ones.” This was high praise, coming from the Master of Despair, and wholly justified, for Klabunde fleshes out Beckett's desolate mindscape with visions of hapless, misshapen souls climbing crooked ladders to nowhere or idling like icons of dysfunction, their limbs propped limply on crude crutches. This series, especially, exemplifies the Existential Realist phrase of the artist's work.

But perhaps the most powerful of all Klabunde's boxed books for its prophetic qualities is “Studies of the Revolutionary Mind,” the series of etchings created to illuminate his own eloquent text, focusing on “the incomprehensible horror of genocide in the twentieth century.” For, while both the text and the etchings were created well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the figures that we see in “True Believers” and “Ideology of Madness” chillingly externalize the inner demons of those who would take thousands of innocent lives in the name of an abstract ideology.

In his most recent work, however, Klabunde has moved from inner demons and internal fantasies toward a new affirmation of life in all its most sensual and beautiful outer manifestations. This creative metamorphosis has occurred as a natural consequence of his move away from nihilism and existentialism, toward spiritual transcendence. AS the visual vehicle for expressing his personal growth and philosophical rebirth, the artist has chosen monumental images of the human body. Now no longer grotesque, misshapen, or symbolically deformed, the bodies that he presents are ideally beautiful in the majestic series of very large pencil drawing poetically entitled “Burned by the Fire of Our Dreams.”

The title itself is as visionary as any phrase ever dreamed up by William Blake, and the figures, derived from the dance, that Klabunde delineates so sensitively in his new series soar as weightlessly as any of the angelic beings that Blake set in flight in his heavenly illuminations.

Klabunde's figures, however, are creatures of flesh and blood, their nakedness at once sensual and innocent. Seen singularly, poised in mid-leap, or interlocked in erotic embrace, their anatomies are depicted in specific detail that lends each figure the unique features of an individual, yet, by virtue of their physical perfection, their flamboyant gestures, and the monumental thrust of Klabunde's compositions, each figure takes on the ideal qualities of an archetype.

That the figures are set against pure white expanses of paper, with no backgrounds or even the suggestion of a floor to ground them, invites comparisons with the large graphite and charcoal drawings that Robert Longo executed in the 1980s. But there the resemblance ends, for while Longo's figures are fully clothed in contemporary styles and seen in freefall, like shooting victims crumpling in some film noir drama, Klabunde's (with rare exceptions, such as the two seductive female figures perched on the rocks in diaphanous garments in "Sirens") are nude and considerably more mythic.

However, even the apparently horned an cloven-hooved satyr embracing the statuesque female nude in Klabunde's "Erotica Entwined," could very well be a dancer, given Charles S. Klabunde's recent predilection for imbuing all that he observes with a sense of magic, as opposed to conjuring magic from the subconscious.

In any case, it is well worth the short trip to Frenchtown, New Jersey, to see more than three decades of prints and drawings by this singularly gifted artist, who is reportedly now at work on a project called "The Passion of Christ," as well as a series of Native American portraits.

So, one is advised to phone the gallery posthaste for traveling directions.