The Space Art of John Berkey

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My favorite artist is J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851), a Romantic landscape painter and watercolorist known for his impressionistic use of light and color. John Berkey (1932 – 2008) is the Turner of the late 20th century.

Turner emphasized the terrible grandeur and capriciousness of nature, while Berkey depicted humanity’s attempt to tame that fickle grandeur through technology. Turner, like the nature he portrays, is indifferent to human beings. They are too small. In Berkey’s visions, humanity has been resurfaced, enlarged and prolonged by mechanization but also defaced by it, in effect dehumanized by the mortal impulse to break orbit and touch the infinite, to get out of the here and now.

Turner’s work revolves around the sun and contends with the interplay of light and fire with smoke and fog, storms and dust clouds. Berkey’s massive, eloquent spacecraft are self-lighting candles in the interstellar bleakness, slight visitations on a nearly universal blankness. There is a fundamental loneliness in the work of both artists. Turner’s burning skies and Berkey’s eerie ships are so lastingly sublime because the people under them and inside them are not.

Below are Turner’s famous The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1839) and Berkey’s Intrusion, an Unpleasant Visitor (1990). The similarities, to me, are remarkable.

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Berkey claimed that he wasn’t a fan of science fiction because “It isn’t literature.” The statement doesn’t surprise me. He’s a Romantic in the grand tradition, and if he had depicted subject matter deemed “fine” and “high” enough (a giant dachshund, for example, or a hairy butt) by the snobs who write art columns and control art galleries and museums, he would be revered today as one of the greatest American artists of his time.

Read a 2005 interview with Berkey at City Pages.

The official website of the John Berkey Estate is here.

(Berkey images via Astrona; Turner image via WikiPaintings)

3 Responses to “The Space Art of John Berkey”

  1. 1 leftylimbo February 25, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Amazing! Freakin’ Berkey and that heeeee-yUUUUGE hydrofoil departing from that metropolitan harbor! Wake surfing at its finest, sheeeyit! So crazy!

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