The modernist

MARY ABBE | Updated 11/8/2012

Show should boost late Minnesota artist's international reputation.

The late artist Charles Biederman at his Red Wing home in 1999.

Though Charles Biederman was a virtual hermit in Red Wing for much of his long life, he comes across as a world-traveling bon vivant in Weinstein's handsome, museum-quality show.

The 30-some drawings, paintings and sculptures span Biederman's career with special emphasis on the 1920s and '30s when he turned out surrealist-infused imagery in Chicago, Paris and New York. The fourth and final gallery samples the Red Wing years, five decades in which he refined the colorful 3-D aluminum wall sculptures on which his international reputation rests.

When he died in 2004 at age 98, Biederman gave the bulk of his estate to the University of Minnesota and its Weisman Art Museum with the proviso that pieces could be sold to support exhibitions and scholarship about his art and ideas. In consultation with U officials, veteran Minneapolis art dealers Martin Weinstein and Thomas Barry are partnering to reintroduce Biederman's lesser-known early work and to place key pieces from all eras into museum and private collections around the country. This is their first dip into the archives, and it's a treat.

The Chicago-Paris years will be a revelation to those who associate Biederman only with the bright structuralist geometries of his last decades. A fabulous draftsman and deft colorist, he struts his talent at age 22 in a traditional 1928 "Still Life with Lute," and hits the mark again in "Paris, January 20, 1937," a little ensemble of rectangles and triangles that advance and recede in syncopated rhythm. His pigments flow onto another canvas in luxurious, gleaming blacks and lush tones of red, blue and pumpkin. Within a few months in the mid '30s, he shifted from painting rich, voluptuous abstractions to pastel arabesques that suggest jazz dancers or the surrealist costumes of French designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Note especially the playful spirals, dancing ribbons, and tender pink-and-mint-green ground of " New York, November 1935."

A similarly lighthearted spirit infuses a half-dozen delightful drawings from 1935 and '36. Composed entirely of cleverly shaded squiggles and blobs that appear to have deep psychological lives, the drawings suggest that, had he wished, Biederman could have had a smashing career as a cartoonist in the Saul Steinberg mode.

Legendary as a cigar-smoking curmudgeon, he rejected the art world's urban hustle for the solitude of his favorite place -- a hill overlooking the Cannon River valley where he studied the landscape and distilled it into pure geometry. His signature designs from the Red Wing years are scarlet or azure planes from which tiny wafers of color -- lemon, aqua, lilac, lime or orange -- pop like miniature houses of cards exploding into very thin air. Besides prime examples of that work, this elegant show fleshes out his career with earlier, more rectilinear sculptures in subtle arrangements of yellow, white and blue -- pure sunlight, sky and water.

Known as a pioneer of three-dimensional painting, Biederman should also be acclaimed as the brilliant colorist this show proves him to be.