Moving from the Darkness to the Light

By: Beth E. Fand July 6, 2003
Published by The Trenton Times

The woman stood in Charles Klabunde's art gallery, transfixed by his drawing of a tiger ascending to heaven.

The work reminded her of the death of her dog, she told the artist, and she wanted it - as long as her husband agreed.

He didn't.

"The husband comes in and says `It reminds me of death,' and he runs out," Klabunde remembers. "He came back several times, but he was really frightened of it."

The reaction didn't bother Klabunde a bit.

The artist's work - which includes etchings, drawings and paintings - "should scare (people)," he says, "because it has a lot of the undertone of the rawness of ourselves, and we are a dangerous species."

That kind of honesty is what Klabunde's work is all about.

In it, the noted Frenchtown artist, a philosophy buff who describes himself as an existential realist, strives to emphasize truths about the human condition - from the monstrous capacity of a society to follow a man like Hitler to the divine grace of a dancer's body.

"I take life very seriously," says Klabunde, 67. "People should think about things. Why shouldn't they be jarred out of their complacency? I want to reach in and awaken people so they feel alive."

-- -- -- The artist has had some major opportunities to pursue that goal.

He's sold pieces to the Metropolitan and Philadelphia museums of art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago and Prince Charles and Lady Diana, among others.

The winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970, he exhibited a retrospective of his work, spanning the years between the 1960s and today, at his Frenchtown gallery in November.

It's a collection that looks as if several different artists might have created it.

A series of engravings titled "Studies of the Revolutionary Mind," for instance, features cavorting cartoonish characters in black and white, intricately shaded with tiny black dots.

Much more realistic-looking, Klabunde's recent paintings and drawings are of male and female nudes done in long, lean, flowing lines and sometimes bold colors. Divided into three groups, they touch on physical beauty, Christian themes and the traditions of a dwindling African tribe.

The shift in Klabunde's style and subject matter was spurred not just by artistic choices, he says, but by a change in attitude that evolved over time.

When he was younger, Klabunde says, his work reflected his biggest concern: the most upsetting aspects of being human.

In "Studies of the Revolutionary Mind," for instance, Klabunde examined the "genocide of the 20th century, the concept of the mass liquidation of human beings."

Through the works, he explored two basic questions: "What triggers an ordinary human to become a monster? And how do we, en masse, follow them?"

In "The Seven Deadly Sins," the artist looked at ideas including greed, lust and envy, and, in a 1984 group of etchings, he illustrated the story of Samuel Beckett's "The Lost Ones."

It's the tale, he says, of "a chamber where you can't escape from yourself. There are no human relationships at all; everyone is trying to escape, but no one is helping each other escape. There's the myth of a way out, but no one will achieve it."

When he finished "The Lost Ones," though, Klabunde found he was ready to do "more affirmative" art that celebrated humanity as "a wonderful species."

He was done, he says, searching for evidence of meaning amid the madness of life; his art had taught him that beauty could spring from nothingness.

"When I met Beckett, he was in despair, tired, and his plays were getting more minimal," Klabunde recalls. "I did not want to go that way. There's only so far down into yourself you can go. Maybe it's because I had a couple of young children, and I thought their lives should be built on something besides the nihilism of the 20th century."

His recent series of nudes, "Burned By the Fire of Our Dreams," reflects that change of heart.

In it, Klabunde presents "this magnificence that the camera can't catch - a transcendency, a magic."

Unlike the use of flawless models in advertisements - a trend that "only makes us feel we were left out" - Klabunde's nudes show "a perfection that will not last," he says, "and that makes us moved."

The works also give viewers a glimpse of a beauty beyond the physical, the artist says.

"People will (look at the images and) say `Yeah, I feel that way inside,' " Klabunde says, "because there's a sense of grace there."

-- -- -- Klabunde was a child when he began expressing his ideas with a pencil and a sketchpad.

"I was born to be an artist," he says. "I have a natural talent."

The fact that he pursued that ability professionally is a bit more surprising.

A dyslexic student from a lower-middle-class background, Klabunde says his parents' biggest aspiration for him was that he become house painter. It never occurred to anyone, he says, that he would paint artistically.

That all changed one summer when Klabunde worked as a surveyor and met a fellow employee his own age who kept pushing him to go to college. He finally gave in, attending the University of Nebraska in Omaha, where he earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts.

He went on to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where Mauricio Lasansky, a professor and printmaker, became his mentor and encouraged him to build a career as an etcher.

He did just that, heading to New York City after graduation and opening a print studio there in 1967.

"I started to make a living right away," he recalls. "I had 30 galleries eventually carrying my work. And I got into museums right away. The first was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was 31."

After teaching art at the Cooper Union, winning the Guggenheim Fellowship - he created "The Seven Deadly Sins" with the $10,000 grant - and traveling the world to show and sell his art, Klabunde and his wife moved, with their two sons, to Frenchtown.

The two later divorced and their sons grew up and moved away, but Klabunde has remained in the little village, working in a Bridge Street studio that overlooks the quaint downtown district and the posh, salon-style gallery where he exhibits and sells nothing but his own work.

He's been there since 1990, and, since then, his work has evolved.

For one thing, Klabunde, long known for the prints he makes from his handmade etchings, has branched out into painting.

He did it when the "print world started to come apart" due to the influence of corporations that hired artists, made mass reproductions of their works and "called them collectibles," Klabunde says. "It took the wind out of the sails of original printmakers, because you can't compete with that."

The difficulty, he says, is that one handmade etching can take an artist several months to complete. The process involves tracing a drawing and etching the image into a copper plate with acid. Afterwards, the plate is combined with wet ink to make prints - or editions - of the work.

"When you first do an etching, it drives you crazy," Klabunde says. "It's not for lighthearted people who don't want to work hard."

But the process is worthwhile, Klabunde says, because artists can offer something in their etchings that is missing from mass-produced prints: enhancements, such as added background shading, that weren't in the original works.

-- -- -- While Klabunde hasn't given up on etchings, he says he's glad he was pushed to start painting, a pursuit that had always tempted him anyway.

"Aesthetically," he says, "I wanted to grow."

Klabunde admits the move has made him unusual, though, since "only a handful of artists do both etchings and paintings."

The differences in the two forms explain a lot about why Klabunde's style varies so much from work to work.

For instance, one etching, "San Andreas Annunzio," focuses on a tall, complex building surrounded by lots of smaller buildings. Done in muted shades of teal, the work is so crammed with detail that it almost feels cluttered.

On the other hand, the paintings in the "Burned by the Fire" series feature large, distinct, less complicated figures that stand out against dark backgrounds of solid or near-solid color.

Klabunde approaches the two types of pieces differently, he says, because etchings are meant to be viewed up close, while paintings are best considered from farther away.

"Etchings are very private," he says. "Paintings are very public."

So far, Klabunde has been able to attract plenty of customers with both of those styles.

Hailing from New York, Philadelphia, Bucks County in Pennsylvania and Hunterdon County in New Jersey, Klabunde's clients - who include French President Francois Mitterand - pay from $600 to $27,000 for his works.

"I was never recognized as a great artist, so I never had that pressure, but I have always made enough money so I didn't have to compromise myself," Klabunde says. "I have what I really want: I'm free to paint, draw and make etchings."

It's an ideal situation that Klabunde often urges his fans to emulate by pursuing their own dreams.

"If you have talent, you'd better maximize it instead of making money, because otherwise it is a waste," he says. "How sad it would be. It leaves you with nothing."

Charles S. Klabunde's work can be seen at Beyond The Looking Glass Fine Art Gallery, 33 Bridge St., Frenchtown. The artist can be reached at (908) 996-6464 or at