Rediscover the irrepressible artist of the bay region Henrietta Berk


Henrietta Berk is delighted to combine figurative, abstract, expressionist and fauvist influences in her paintings. Working out of her Oakland, Calif., Studio in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, she began composing her works by pressing large amounts of brightly colored oils onto canvases. She then picked up paintbrushes and palette knives, swirling the paint into portraits, everyday scenes, landscapes and still lifes – all while dancing to popular music of the era, an activity that preserves her elegant social figure.

As an intuitive painter whose goal was the freedom, joy and creative pleasure experienced through artistic creation, Berk has garnered continued praise. Critic Miriam Dungan Cross wrote of Berk in 1962, “the energy released in the interplay of colors and the action of painting expresses his concept of the inner dynamics of all things. This enormous vitality, skilfully contained in the composition, results not only from the exuberant contemporary execution, with its luxuriant pigments and its happy accidents, but from its vision…

Henrietta Berk: Oakland Hills, c. 1967, oil on canvas (On loan to the Hilbert Museum from the Witt Family Collection)

If you haven’t heard of Berk (1919-90), who was well known to the Bay Area art world during his lifetime, but later faded into oblivion, Mark Hilbert (founder with his wife Jan of the Hilbert Museum of California Art, and administrator of Chapman University) is determined to change this situation. After consulting the Santa Monica art dealer Steven stern, Hilbert recognized the brilliance of Berk’s work.

Stern explained, “One day while researching online auction sites, I took a look at a painting by Berk and was amazed at its exceptional quality. I had come across the most significant discovery of my career. After purchasing four paintings from Berk, I was amazed at his mastery of color, control over design, and confident brushwork, hallmarks of a highly skilled and well-taught artist. I also discovered his tutelage from artist Richard Diebenkorn, his long history of exhibitions, his fiery personality and Hollywood fame, as many actors, musicians and industry icons have collected his work.

Stern also learned that before actively embracing painting, Berk was a traditional 1950s housewife and vivacious socialite whose husband was ambivalent about his artistic aspirations. But spurred on by her love of art, she began taking evening classes, studying with several Bay Area painters, and soon began to make a name for herself in the northern art world. from California.

artist henrietta berk

Henrietta Berk: Paddling Pool, c. 1961, oil on canvas (On loan to the Hilbert Museum from the Stephen Foster Collection)

After purchasing his painting “Wading”, Stern showed it to Mark Hilbert, explaining his vision of mounting a retrospective and publishing a catalog of his work. “Mark immediately recognized his talent,” said Stern, “declaring that he loved the painting, that he would like to acquire it and hang it prominently in his museum.”

Hilbert added: “When I first saw his work, I was absolutely blown away by his brilliant use of color and his thick brush strokes which add so much texture to his paintings. I bought my first Berk painting soon after.

In August 2021, the Hilbert Museum opened its doors Henrietta Berk: in bright colors, curated by Gordon McClelland, the first major exhibition of his work since 1981. It is the museum’s largest solo exhibition with 43 paintings by 18 collectors and from the collection of Mark and Jan Hilbert. Museum Director Mary Platt said: “The Hilbert Museum is proud to bring to the fore the work of this brilliant artist, who first flourished in an era and in an environment that challenged women artists.

artist henrietta berk

Henrietta Berk: Interior, c. 1965-67, oil on canvas (On loan to the Hilbert Museum from a private collection)

In Living Color, which is filled with richly textured and colorful oils, depicts scenes and portraits of the Bay Area while connecting abstraction with representation. Yet Berk’s paintings diverge from the California Scene Paintings that have characterized the Hilbert Museum’s exhibits since its opening in 2016. The California Scene Painting genre includes oils, watercolors, and gouaches depicting landscapes, cityscapes, and rural scenes like backdrops for people at work and in their leisure time. The paintings focus on culturally relevant environments in California, primarily from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Breathtaking In Living Color, indicating a broadening of horizons for the Hilbert, is prescient about his future. What new artistic genres will the museum explore in the years to come, especially after expanding in 2023 with twice as much gallery space?

The Berk exhibition is accompanied by the beautifully illustrated catalog, In Living Color: The Art and Life of Henrietta Berk. This literary expression of Stern’s vision explains how Berk unearthed his artistic talent and sensibility, becoming a major figure in the Bay Area and later Southern California art scene, winning numerous awards along the way.

One of Berk’s earliest paintings, “Me or Façade” (circa 1960), a self-portrait of a woman with a red beehive hairstyle, illustrates his courageous approach to the application of paint and the daring use of the colour. She is quoted as saying, “Color has a profound impact on mood.” His “Model in Red” (1962), shown at the entrance to the exhibition, and possibly another self-portrait, demonstrates Berk’s range of styles and technical skills.

artist henrietta berk

Henrietta Berk: Floral in a Vase, c. 1962, oil on canvas (On loan to the Hilbert Museum from the Zotovich family collection)

“Wading” (1961) features a mother and three children frolicking in blue and green water with a Northern California landscape in the background. “Summer Romance” (1962), a poignant scene of a couple relaxing on a beach, features broad expressionistic brushstrokes. “Lunch Gossips” (1962) features brightly dressed, fashionable women enjoying each other’s company on a sunny afternoon. With white impasto paint filling the background, the scene could be from the artist’s own life.

Later paintings – expressionist landscapes in deep reds, oranges, greens and blues – include “View From Clarewood” (1963-65), “Oakland Hills” (1967), “The Valley. Vacaville ”(1967) and“ Tomales Bay ”(1967-69). His still lifes, composed of shards of wild flowers, some inspired by Russian artist Chaim Soutine, express his daring exploration of painting styles and subjects.

Berk’s son, observing her artistic process as a small child, is quoted in the catalog: “I was amazed at how full of intention and focus on the moment she became while still maintaining a sense of fluidity, grace and power. Indeed, Henrietta Berk’s prolific artistic production was born out of her passion for creativity, her active social life filled with glittering events and intense dialogue, and the many people she appreciated and loved, including her children. and friends, and which she then used as models for her. paintings.

Henrietta Berk: In Living Color is on view until January 15 at the Hilbert Museum of California Art, 167 N. Atchison St., Orange; To free;

artist henrietta berk

Henrietta Berk: Sunset on the Beach, c. 1966, oil on canvas (On loan to the Hilbert Museum in the Neville and Cindy Johnson Collection)

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