Credit Line: Commissioned by University Museums. An Iowa Art in State Buildings Project for Music Hall. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Even in quiet moments, you can sense the sound of music in the artwork displayed in the lobby of ISU’s Music Hall. Music Played for Personal Enjoyment is a colorfully expressive painting, by figurative abstract artist Byron Burford (1920-2011). Completed in 1982, it was commissioned for the new home of the Department of Music as part of the Art in State Buildings Program. The commission specified “an oil painting on canvas of musicians rehearsing in the style of the artist.”
Nine musicians and assorted instruments fill the canvas. Some musicians play their instruments, while others may have finished a passage or are waiting to start. One studies a score before taking his seat at the piano. Several instruments await their performers.
The musicians wear formal clothing as though dressed for a concert. Burford captures them in a moment when they aren’t performing together, but are perhaps warming up and doing their last individual rehearsing before the performance begins. But what kind of ensemble is this -- two pianos, two saxophones, harp, strings, other wind instruments, and a gong? The title suggests this is not an ensemble after all, but instead, a compilation of individual musicians, each pursuing his or her own musical enjoyment. And the instruments not being played? Is that a clue to more enjoyment to come when other musicians enter the scene?
Burford tended to limit his palette. In this painting colors are organized into two groups -- neutral tones of black, grays, browns, golds, and whites for the figures and instruments set against a background of brighter hues, primarily red, gold, and lavender.
A visit to the Chicago Art Institute convinced the teen-aged Burford that he wanted to be an artist. He studied under Grant Wood and others at the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History and taught there for almost 40 years. He explored the science and chemistry of the materials and tools used in his painting and printmaking. He experimented with both oil and acrylic resin paints. His interests and personal experiences manifest themselves in his art themes – the circus, music, war, magic, and polar exploration. He had a strong interest in music, especially jazz, playing both drums and trumpet, and loved the circus. Many summers he joined the circus, playing drums, painting signage, and making the observations and sketches that later became artworks portraying circus performers. He explained, “I am interested in human experience, history, and behavior. “ And further, “I’m a figure painter. I don’t paint the figure as if it were a hunk of meat. Not as an object, but as a vehicle with internal feelings.”
Artworks by Burford are in the collections of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Guggenheim in New York City, Des Moines Art Center, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, National Museum of Art in Washington, DC, and Central Museum of Art in Tokyo.
Written by Rae Reilly, University Museums Docent