The Metaphysical Humanism of Charles Klabunde

By: Ed McCormack December 2001 / January 2002
Published by Gallery & Studio

Art that transcends the gamesmanship of the art historical view to address the larger and more terrible history of mankind achieves its immediacy and relevance by mirroring current events, even as it aspires to an enduring universality. Certainly this is true in the case of Charles S. Klabunde, a fiercely independent spirit whose work suddenly seems more urgent than ever in the light of the horrendous terror attacks of September 11.

Klabunde, a widely exhibited artist whose etchings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and numerous other prestigious public and private collections the world over, belongs to that small, often maligned fraternity of the humanist artists who, in the words of the critic and poet Selden Rodman, "feel drawn to values outside themselves strongly enough to examine them in their work."

Rodman himself was broadly maligned by the avant garde establishment in 1960, when he published his controversial book, "The Insiders," an impassioned argument for art that calls attention to "the unspeakable degradation of the individual" and "rejects the purists' authoritarian reliance upon the direction and umpiring of an aesthetic elite..."

These were fighting words in a period when the art world, particularly in New York, was still drunk on the triumph of Abstract Expressionism and eager to embrace every mini-movement that followed feebly in its wake. Just a decade later, however, the taboo in the art world against impassioned subject matter had relaxed sufficiently for Charles S. Klabunde to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for a series of etchings and engravings addressing what he calls "the dark world of the existential nihilism of the twentieth century."

Klabunde began "Cycles of Sangsaric Phenomena (The Tibetan Book of the Dead)," in his Greenwich Village studio in 1967. From this series of prints, inspired by Carl Jung's interpretation of Tibetan Book of the Dead, which puts into context the theory that all human thought, including the world's great religions, are mere illusions, Klabunde moved on to a suite on "The Seven Deadly Sins." Although the concept is of Medieval origin, Klabunde's etchings are based on twentieth century Jewish theologian Martin Buber's thesis that "the inherent reality of evil lies at the threshold of our consciousness and that this is the origin of the human dilemma."

Sixteen years later, in collaboration with the New Overlook press, Klabunde created etchings for a deluxe edition of Samuel Beckett's "The Lost Ones" -- harrowingly beautiful images of human isolation in a desolate landscape of lovelessness -- that the great Irish author and playwright himself praised as "terrifying."

The final leg of what Klabunde refers to as his "solo journey into the darkest recesses of the human soul" is the series entitled "Studies of the Revolutionary Mind," which can be viewed by appointment at Beyond the Looking Glass Gallery, 33 Bridge Street, P.O. Box 69, Frenchtown, NJ 08825 (telephone: 201-996-6464 or 212-777-9162). Inspired by the writings of Albert Camus, this Blakean enterprise, presented in an elegant European box book format bound in burgundy colored Italian linen and Morrocan leather, and includes the artist's own text, focusing on "the incomprehensible horror of genocide in the twentieth century."

An eloquent writer as well as a superb draftsman, Klabunde begins the introduction to his text with the observation, "The faces of mass murderers show no trace of the madness that lies within." And this statement proves chillingly accurate when one recalls the photographs of the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and killed so many innocent citizens that appeared in the mass media shortly after September 11th. With their innocuous expressions and casual Western style sports clothes, their faces did not differ markedly from those of their victims, in the poignant posters that papered the walls and lamp posts of the grieving, wounded city in the wake of that unthinkable tragedy.

It is the inner demons of such terrorists, however, rather than their deceptive social masks, that Charles S. Klabunde shows us so vividly in his powerful etchings, which may someday take their place beside Goya's greatest works in the same medium, such as "Los Caprichos" and "The Disasters of War," as enduring documents of mankind's folly and savagery.

As a contemporary artist, however, Klabunde has been liberated by his awareness of abstract aesthetics from the specific, satirical details to which even the most imaginative artists of Goya's time were, by and large, beholden. Thus his figures, like the "Nazi Drawings" of the Maurice Lasansky, achieve a monstrousness that is considerably more symbolic and visionary than those of his illustrious predecessors. With the bulbous features and gaping mouths of gargoyles, Klabunde's embodiments of evil float weightlessly in empty white space.

Resembling weird hybrids of cherubs and dybbuks, they twist in mid-air like wisps of smoke from the ovens of Auschwitz or the ruins of ground Zero, contorting their lumpy limbs and converging as though seeking some unspeakable form of sexual congress by which to impregnate the world with further evil. Indeed, the etching entitled "The Communal Rage" depicts several grotesque figures entwined in an almost orgiastic manner. According to the artist's text their congress "blends the evil which fortifies the great lies that justify our hate and cruelty for others."

If "The Communal Rage" suggests intercourse, another etching entitled "Ideology of Madness" suggests a demonic birth, with gnomish creatures tumbling from a gaping womb-like opening in the underbelly of a protoplasmic mass of writhing limbs and grimacing faces. Here, the accompanying text describes the "transformation of all truths into the great lie, the true fanatical ideology of madness" which begets "the need to annihilate all opposition to the great cause."

Although Klabunde's finely-stippled figures resemble those in the early figurative etchings of Paul Klee, the manner in which they flare out against the white space of the paper is more akin to the compositional freedom of more contemporary metaphysical humanists as Rico Lebrun and Jacob Landau. Like the latter artist, particularly, Klabundes' refusal to anchor his figures lends them a supernatural quality that makes their demonic aspects all the more harrowing.

Perhaps the level of passion and outrage in the etchings of Charles S. Klabunde can finally be compared to the work of the French writer, actor, and draftsman Antonin Artaud. Unlike Artaud, however, Klabunde is not a madman, nor is he a misanthrope. Rather, he is an immensely gifted and deeply concerned citizen struggling to make sense of the world's random evil and pointless violence. Indeed, it is the sense of a supremely civilized intellect driven tp the edge of reason by that which defies reason that imbues his work with undeniable power.