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Biederman, Charles Joseph (1906–2004)

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Charles Biederman with a cat

Charles Biederman with a cat.

Charles Joseph Biederman of Red Wing, an influential and non-conformist American Modernist painter, sculptor and art theorist, made a lasting mark in American and international art circles.

Karel (Charles) Joseph Biederman chose his own career path as a teenager. A son of Czech immigrants, Charles was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 23, 1906. He left high school after eleventh grade to earn money to help his family. Nevertheless, Biederman began taking classes in drawing and watercolor at the Cleveland Art Institute. In 1926 he moved to Illinois to attend the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Instructors saw talent in Biederman, but they were frustrated by his refusal to take basic art courses. He left school in December 1929. He experienced tough times in Chicago as America's Great Depression strangled the national economy. Biederman made friends with John Pierce Anderson, a painter and photographer from Red Wing, Minnesota and the son of scientist-inventor Alexander P. Anderson. The younger Anderson lent much-needed financial assistance to Biederman.

Biederman moved to New York City in 1934 and made an important breakthrough. A. E. Gallatin, founder of America's first museum gallery devoted to modern art, thought highly of Biederman's work. Gallatin included Biederman's works in the 1935 New York show, "Five American Concretionists."

Biederman decided to tour the European art scene, helped by the patronage of his Minnesota friend, John Anderson. Biederman was not impressed. He declared Paris "washed up" as an art center and returned home.

During the 1930s Biederman studied the styles of abstract painter Piet Mondrian and Russian Constructivists. Biederman was drawn to the simplest geometric shapes found in nature and, combining ideas from the work of both Mondrian and the Constructivists, he began creating three-dimensional reliefs of these basic shapes. His work featured brightly colored vertical and horizontal elements projecting from a single-color base. These geometric shapes, made by machine to eliminate arbitrary decisions by the artist, became integral to his art. He considered handmade oil paintings and watercolors obsolete.

In 1941 Charles Biederman reconnected with Mary Katherine Moore. Mary was the sister of future diplomat Eugenie Moore Anderson, John Anderson's wife. Charles and Mary decided to marry. They wed on Christmas Day 1941 in Red Wing, with the Andersons as witnesses. Biederman later explained that Mary was very important to his work, saying that his art and writing were as much hers as his.

Charles and Mary settled in Red Wing in October 1942. The small Minnesota town would be his home for sixty-two years.

Fascinated by art theory, Biederman soon began writing. In 1948 he published his first book of art theory and history, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge. Six years later the Biedermans bought a small farmhouse in a wooded valley near Red Wing. Each day he climbed a hill behind their home to study nature, later applying what he learned to his art.

Biederman's work during these years did not sell well. The art world paid attention to the Red Wing Modernist, but the American public did not. He once called himself "the best known unknown artist in America."

Then, in 1965, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted a retrospective of Biederman's work. The Arts Council of Great Britain held its own exhibition of his work at London's Hayward Gallery in 1969. The Minneapolis Institute of Art followed suit with a major retrospective in 1976.

The joy of this last success was dampened when the artist's wife, Mary, died shortly before that exhibit opened. In the isolation of his farmhouse, Biederman continued his work. He continued producing books and sculpture.

Poor eyesight finally stopped him in the 1990s. Charles Joseph Biederman died on December 26, 2004, at his home near Red Wing. He bequeathed his artistic and archival work to the University of Minnesota Art Museum. As of 2012, these works are held by the university's Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum.

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Biederman, Charles Joseph. Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge. Red Wing, Minnesota: Art History Publishers, 1948.

———. Art, Science, Reality. Red Wing, Minnesota, 1988.

———. Search for New Arts. Red Wing, Minnesota, 1979.

Charles Biederman, the Structurist Relief, 1935–1964: [an exhibition] March 30 through May 2, 1965, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis: The Center, 1965.

Kuspit, Donald B. "Charles Biederman's Abstract Analogues for Nature," Art in America 65 (May 1977): 80–83.

———, and Susan C. Larsen. Charles Joseph Biederman. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2011.

Larsen, Susan C. and Patricia McDonnell. Charles Biederman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, distributed for the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 2003.

Larsen, Susan C. "Charles Biederman and American Abstract Modernism," in Charles Biederman, a guide to the exhibit of the artist's work held at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 1998.

McDonnell, Patricia, et al. Charles Biederman: The Charles Biederman Collection Archive. Minneapolis: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 1999.

Sachs, Samuel, et al. Charles Biederman: A Retrospective. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Minneapolis: Colwell Press, Inc. 1976.

Van der Marck, Jan. "Charles Biederman," in Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America: 1927–1944, ed. John R. Land and Susan C. Larsen. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.

Zelaya, Lauren A. "Charles Joseph Biederman, 1906-2004." Manlius: NY: Caldwell Gallery.

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Turning Point

In 1934, Charles Biederman moves to New York City where he impresses Modernist art impresario A. E. Gallatin.



Charles Joseph Biederman is born on August 23 in Cleveland, Ohio.


He begins attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Biederman moves to New York City and is discovered by Modernist art impresario A. E. Gallatin.


Gallatin includes Biederman works in a New York show, "Five American Concretionists."


He holds a major exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City and later travels to Paris.


Biederman returns to New York.


He moves to Chicago and rekindles a relationship with Mary Katherine Moore, whom he marries later in the year.


He publishes his first book of art theory and history, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge.


He publishes The New Cezanne: From Monet to Mondrian.


Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosts a retrospective of Biederman's work.


Arts Council of Great Britain holds a Charles Biederman retrospective exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery.


Mary Moore Biederman, his wife, confidante and collaborator, dies.


Minneapolis Institute of Arts stages a major Biederman retrospective.


Biederman's Art, Science, Reality, denounces polarization between art and science.


He publishes a four-part essay, The Dehumanization and Denaturalization of Modern Art.


He publishes the essay The Visual Millennium: Leonardo to Cezanne.


Biederman dies on December 26, at his home near Red Wing, Minnesota.