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American Modernist, Woodblock Maker and Assemblage Artist

by Tim Abraham

John Bernhardt decided to devote his life to fine art while convalescing from Tuberculosis in 1939. He pursued his education at the John Herron School and later at Columbia University. Bernhardt made a large series of successful color woodblock prints that owed much to early German Expressionism. He also won numerous prizes for painting over his short career. In 1959, Bernhardt moved to Santa Barbara, where he started to make assemblages. Sullivan Goss is pleased to represent the Estate of the artist.

Table Of Contents


John Bernhardt was born in 1921, in Indianapolis. He was the only child of William and Cora Bernhardt. His father, William, was a pattern maker for many years and when John enrolled at Arsenal Technical High School, he specialized in commercial art. Briefly putting his art career aside, he entered Butler University in 1939 where he studied business. Shortly after his enrollment, he was stricken with tuberculosis and sent to a recovery hospital.

Bernhardt remained at the hospital for the next three years recovering from his illness. At that time, he befriended his roommate, Herman Ziegner, who influenced Bernhardt on the arts. He became especially interested in the visual arts and began drawing seriously.

In 1943 Bernhardt had partially recovered from tuberculosis and was able to leave the hospital. By this time he had decided to pursue his interest in art seriously and enrolled as a part time student at John Herron Art School in Indianapolis, focusing mainly on painting and drawing. Once fully recovered, he moved to Colorado to study at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. There he would be taught and greatly influenced by Boardman Robinson.

His teaching career began in 1947, when became Instructor of Drawing and Painting at the University of Texas. Living so far south, he was able to take a trip to Mexico where he interviewed the famous painter Jose Clemente Orozco.

Bernhardt moved to New York City the next year and studied woodcutting with Ralph Mayer at Columbia University. He found work as a commercial designer at the studio of Will Burton. Around the same time he married Bunny Pritchard and moved to an apartment in the Lower East Side. During his spare time, he would paint and make woodcuts in his studio overlooking the city streets. He also enjoyed going to the Brooklyn Bridge and making sketches for woodcuts. By 1952 he had practically given up his day job as a commercial designer to concentrate on his artwork. He had his first one-man show in 1954 at the Haydn Planetarium at the University of North Carolina. His growing success and drive got him an instructing position at both the Adelphi College and “The Contemporaries” Gallery Workshop in New York.

After a living and teaching briefly in Boston, Bernhardt and his family moved to San Miguel Allende, Mexico. He concentrated on painting for the next three years and was very successful. After winning first prize in 1959 at the First International Art Exhibit in San Miguel Allende, the Bernhardt’s moved to Santa Barbara, California where he helped found the cooperative artist’s Gallery 8.

Back in the United States, John Bernhardt had a string of successful one man shows. He began to work in assemblage and sculpture, concentrating on junk and discarded elements for his material. In 1962 he suffered a mild heart attack but recovered and went back to working hard, continuing to exhibit his art and win awards. Tragically, in 1963 he died very suddenly at the age of 42 of a lack of artery circulation.

14" x 17"
woodblock on paper
Available for acquisition

John didn't leave notes about the edition size of many of his woodblock prints. Most of the prints are singular at this point. The heavy blocking out of positive and negative space shows the artist's awareness of German Expressionist woodblocks. At the same time, the colors are vibrant and strikingly contemporary.


While recovering from tuberculosis, John Bernhardt was influenced to pursue the arts by his roommate, Herman Ziegner. Ziegner introduced Bernhardt to both the literary and visual aspects of art, allowing John to have a well rounded conceptual grasp for his approach. His continued education, especially that under Boardman Robinson at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, aided Bernhardt stylistically and intellectually. Well educated and living in New York City, Bernhardt was able to take a firm yet emotive approach to his artwork, exploring ideas and concepts of modernity through printmaking.

One of his early prints done in New York was The Demagogue, 1950. In this print we can see some influence from his education under Boardman Robinson. The man, who we can assume to be a demagogue, stands proud making a notion of leadership with his left hand raised up in the air. Contrastingly, his face is withered and unexpressive. His eyes are dark and sunken into his face, unable to truly command his people. In the background, the word War is printed over a banner reading The Demagogue, shielding the banner from clear view. The Demagogue, who we can only assume is the man in the picture, is using the concept of war to shield the truth from the people he is motioning to. One cannot help but think about the actions of the Nazis and Fascists when they think about a modern demagogue in the 1950s. Bernhardt was living in the Lower East Side, a prominently Jewish neighborhood, when he made this print and must have felt some sensitivity towards the horrific treatment of Jews in Europe during World War II. Although in no way does the man resemble Adolph Hitler, the connection is clear. The idea that he does not resemble Hitler extends Bernhardt’s aversion to demagogues and says something about his ideals on staying educated and not adhering to propaganda.

Bernhardt also had an interest in the modern achievements of his environment. Living in New York City, he was close to some of the greatest products of industrialization and modernity. According to his wife, Bunny, he would frequently visit the Brooklyn Bridge and make sketches which would later be turned into woodcuts . He also made prints of Queens bridge, harbor storage tanks, and a power plant. Each of these prints focus on geometric elements forming abstract representations of these technological innovations. In Harbor Storage Tanks we see a bridge in the front with several round, dome shapes behind it representing the storage tanks. Although very abstract, the print does not seem particularly frightening. In Queensbridge the subject matter is barely recognizable.

Bernhardt moved to several cities after New York until he settled in Santa Barbara in 1959. At that time, many California artists were working in assemblage. The assemblage medium fit Bernhardt’s approach to modernity very well. Whereas the subjects of his woodprints were often modern, industrialized sites, he was able to use actual pieces and scraps of industrialized products to create his assemblages. In The First Airplane, a 1962 sculpture, we see the Bernhardt’s interest in a machine aesthetic. The sculpture is made up of mass produced wheels that look like cogs in a machine, attached to various scraps of metal. It is abstract in the sense that it does not look anything like one’s conception of an airplane. Nothing about the sculpture tells the viewer that this is something that can possible fly in the air. In fact, although it looks like a machine, a closer look shows that its only function is that of what it is: a sculpture. Bernhardt is making a critique on many levels here. The choice of materials is a critique on the industrialized world and the junk and refuse that it leaves behind. The material is no longer needed for its intended industrial purpose and is discarded for newer technology much like how the first airplane has become obsolete and left behind in favor of newer more technologically advanced airplanes. Ironically, because the first airplane is obsolete and because it is the first, its function is now to be looked at in a museum setting, much like Bernhardt’s The First Airplane. Bernhardt would work in assemblage for the rest of his career. His most influential works came out of this medium, which seems so appropriate for a man so influenced and inspired by the modern world.


  • Addison Gallery of American Art
  • Boston Public Library
  • Boston Museum
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Cincinnati Museum
  • Dallas Museum
  • Davenport Art Gallery
  • De Young Museum, San Francisco
  • Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Mass
  • Fort Worth Museum
  • Indiana Museum
  • John Herron Museum
  • Joslyn Museum
  • Library of Congress
  • Los Angeles County Museum
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • National Gallery
  • New York Public Library
  • Oakland Museum

    10.5" x 11.5"
    woodblock on paper
    Private Collection

    In this woodblock, the hustle and bustle of New York City is distantly felt. In an immediate sense, the artist's love of his neighborhood can be seen in this composition which borrows some of the geometry of cubism. There are three of these woodcuts in the artist's estate; each in different colors.


  • 1948 Special Prize, Indiana State Fair Fine Arts Exhibit
  • 1948 Purchase Prize, Central States Graphic Arts Exhibition: Joslyn Memorial Arts Museum, Nebraska
  • 1949 Board of Director’s Prize, John Herron Art Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • 1954 Purchase Award, 8th National Print Annual Brooklyn Museum
  • 1954 Sacks-Allen Prize, Boston Printmakers 8th Annual Exhibit
  • 1959 First Prize, First International Art Exhibit, San Miguel Allende
  • 1960 First Prize, 5th Biennial of 50 Indiana Prints
  • 1961 Graphic Award, California State Fair and Exhibition
  • 1961 Honorable Mention, Santa Barbara County Fair, 1st Invitational Art Exhibit
  • 1962 Honorable Mention, 17th Annual Newport Harbor Art Exhibit
  • 1962 Ford Foundation Purchase Prize for Painting, Houston Annual

    16.5" x 24"
    woodblock on paper
    Available for acquisition

    In this woodblock, the artist's evolving interest in electricity as a metaphor for spiritual connection is clearly evident. The artist completed a series of woodblocks which use the repeating triangles often seen in industrial complexes as the building blocks of his compositions. The move towards abstraction continued in the artist's later work, ultimately leading to pure abstraction - particularly in his last paintings.


    (Under Construction)

    28" x 28"
    Polymer tempera on masonite
    Exhibited: Face to Face: Selected American Portraits, 2004
    Available for acquisition

    Between twenty and thirty paintings have survived in the estate. These works show a dexterous and intelligent artist at the height of his powers. It is possible that he learned a great deal about the medium from Jose Clemente Orozco, whom he interviewed while he was teaching at the University of Texas. His prinicpal influences were Orozco, Picasso, and De Kooning although he had close friendships with many LA artists like Sam Francis.


    1. 1. Bernhardt, Bunny. My New York. The Independent 19 Aug. 2004: 39.
    2. 2. Bernhardt, Bunny. Personal interview. 23 Apr. 2005.
    3. 3. Bernhardt, Kienholz, Wagner: Assemblage. Los Angeles: Tobey C. Moss Gallery, 2004.
    4. 4. Falk, Peter H. Who Was Who in American Art. Vol. 1. Madison, CT: Sound View P, 1999.
    5. 5. John Bernhardt: A Memorial Exhibition. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1964.

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