Feb 11 2013

Burhan Doğançay, Turkish Painter, Dies at 83

by HG Masters

BURHAN DOĞANÇAY before the opening of his 2012 retrospective at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Muhsin Akgun. Courtesy Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

Along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s frenetic pedestrian thoroughfare, there is a small, brown sign that reads “Doğançay Muzesi.” It points down a side street in the direction of a narrow five-story, 150-year-old building that houses the still life and landscapes of Adil Doğançay (1900–90), alongside the diverse modernist paintings of his son, Burhan, who died of cancer in Istanbul on January 16 at age 83.

In the course of his lifetime, Burhan Doğançay became one of Turkey’s most recognized painters abroad, particularly in New York, where he lived since the 1960s and whose art museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have acquired his work for their permanent collections.

Burhan Doğançay was born in 1929 in Istanbul, at the end of a decade that saw the establishment of the Turkish republic, the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate and numerous social reforms, including the introduction of the new Turkish alphabet. His father was a military officer and an amateur painter who made impressionistic plein-air watercolors of Anatolia on his travels.

Although a life-long pursuit, producing art was not Burhan’s first profession. After graduating from university in Ankara, he studied law and economics at the University of Paris in the early 1950s, and went on to work in Turkey’s diplomatic services. During his time in Paris he also took art classes at Académie de la Grande Chaumière—through whose doors passed legions of other independent-spirited midcentury figures, from Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder, to Isamu Noguchi and Zao Wou-ki. In 1962, he was hired as to direct the Turkish tourism office in New York City, and there discovered the subject that would become his life’s work.

In New York, Doğançay became captivated by the textures of the city’s walls, the leftover fragments of text, the peeling posters layered on top of one another, the shadows cast across their surface. Allegedly he had his moment of epiphany in 1963 on a walk across the Upper East Side of Manhattan on 86th Street, where a ripped orange poster splattered with mud caught his eye. In a 1994 interview, he declared, “It was the most beautiful abstract painting I had ever seen.” For the artist, walls came to mark the passage of time—through the graphic design and brands of the day, and through their gradual dissipation to the elements.

Doğançay had found his subject, and would concentrate on it  over the course of his career, adopting a wide variety of styles in which to depict it. In late May of 2012, Istanbul Modern Art Museum held a large survey of his works, “Fifty Years Of Urban Walls,” which illustrated his many approaches. His early New York paintings were often trompe l’oeil re-creations of billboards and doors, occasionally incorporating found objects such as nails or door handles. In the 1970s, his style became more abstract in the closely cropped, detailed depictions of posters edges. By the 1980s, highly mannered paintings depicting tangles of ribbons bursting through torn holes became almost calligraphic in appearance. Doğançay backed away from total abstraction, however, and from the 1990s until the end of his life, deployed techniques from assemblage to décollage and photorealism.

Having settled on a subject matter for his artworks, in 1964, he retired from his work as a diplomat to devote himself full-time to his painting. He had his first solo exhibition at the Ward Egglestone Galleries that same year, and in 1965 the Guggenheim museum purchased a painting for its permanent collection. Through the 1970s, he showed regularly in New York, and began to show at one Istanbul’s first modern art galleries, Galeri Baraz, in 1976. In 1982, the Centre Pompidou gave him a midcareer survey, “Walls That Whisper, Shout and Sing,” which toured to museums in Brussels and Montreal.

In addition to painting, Doğançay visited more than 110 countries in his life, and amassed—he claimed—a photographic archive of more than 30,000 pictures of his travels. He was also known for a series of black-and-white photographs depicting the construction of skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan and the renovations of the Brooklyn Bridge in the mid-1980s.

Throughout his career, Doğançay found beauty in decay, the randomly created, the overlooked, graffiti, the remnants of commercial culture. As such, there are many affinities to be found in his work to other midcentury movements, including the French Affichistes like Jacques Villeglé (who worked with torn posters), as well as to the Beat sensibility and assemblage style found in the mixed-media objects and canvases by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Today, his work is owned by numerous museums around the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum in London, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Doğançay Museum was opened in Istanbul in 2004 and is a modest home for a few of the more than 4,000 works created by Burhan Doğançay in his lifetime of traveling the city streets of the world.