Dirk Bach is an artist-scholar. His story-filled art has ranged from calligraphic abstractions, to cultural iconography, to brilliantly colored still lives, to personal visions cast against intricate patterns of grass, woven baskets, and oriental carpets. He has worked in almost every drawing and painting medium. He has been a professor of design and art history, an entertaining pianist, and an insatiable reader of books.
My thesis for a master’s degree in painting from the University of Denver in 1962 subscribed to the rigid principles of the De Stijl movement and proposed taking Mondrian into the third and fourth dimensions: colored light projected onto white constructivist surfaces.
I grew up in this rocky mountain city where for thirty years my father served as its art museum director. Daily life in my parent’s household encouraged personal engagements with music, art, and literature; my mother was a writer, my father painted regularly every evening and weekends and I was an aspiring jazz musician.
Playing piano in high school jazz bands and combos continued during my two years at Colgate University, where I was introduced for the first time to formal studio art courses which uncovered a latent talent for drawing. There was an urgency to make visual images of nearly everything I saw, and I transferred to Denver University’s School of Art. Early success came in the form of regional juried exhibition awards, including first prize for painting in the 1961 Mid-America Annual exhibition, Nelson Gallery, Kansas City. For three years, the absorbing focus on studio experiences neglected areas of study in a broader liberal arts education which I knew would be the key experiences in securing a teaching position that could provide a stability to my career as a visual artist.
I enrolled in graduate programs in oriental art history at the University of Michigan where I learned Mandarin and served as assistant to major scholars and pedagogues in the field of far eastern art: Michael Sullivan, Richard Edwards and Walter Spink. My own studies centered around Buddhist art with a concentration on Chinese scholar-painting. My proposal for a thesis on the development of Ch’an [Zen] painting in Southern Sung China and Ashikaga Japan was coupled with a personal need to continue working on my own as a painter. The influence of the pictorial Asian landscape and its unique spatial perspective quickly affected my personal efforts which by now had abandoned large-scale, minimalist, abstract, constructivist painting nourished in art school and instead favored the creation of small private landscapes in gouache on paper. I was, I thought, emulating to some degree the life of those far eastern artists I found so important, but was encouraged by my mentors to choose between the life of a painter and the life of a scholar. I withdrew from the program and secured a position on the faculty of the University of New Hampshire, teaching drawing, painting and design while directing an ambitious exhibition program for the University’s art galleries. In New Hampshire, I received a number of state and local commissions for large murals based on northern New England coastal imagery representing the dynamic interface between water and land—tides, shorelines—accomplished in a variety of media [wood, plastic, steel], before returning to representational images made on a smaller scale with acrylic pigment on paper.
Caught in the fury of the anti-war movement of the late 1960’s, I produced a series of “commemorative stamps” barely disguised as social protests, which were published in Ramparts magazine, November, 1968, and shown in one-man exhibitions in Boston [Rigelhaupt Gallery], Manchester, NH [Currier Gallery] and Dartmouth College [Hopkins Center]. That year I was appointed to the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design to teach contemporary American art and survey courses in Asian art for the Department of Art History. I remained active in my own studio, despite a busy teaching schedule, incorporating new paper surfaces and materials coordinated with a renewed connection to traditional far eastern visual concerns. Photo silk-screen, gilding, and colored pencil applications to large sheets of pigmented paper were the surface results of a series of landscapes which explored Buddhist cosmological diagrams. The “cloud mandala” series received an added influx of ideas gained from an NEH grant to study Japanese Buddhist architecture and sculpture in Nara and Kyoto. These “Buddhist landscapes” were exhibited widely in the early 1970’s: St. Louis [Webster University], Denver [Sachs Gallery], Phillips Exeter Academy, Tucson [Art Center], Kalamazoo College, RISD [Woods-Gerry Gallery], and Dartmouth College. They were also exhibited in Rome [Palazzo Cenci] where I served as director of RISD’s European Honors Program, 1974, 1975.
Returning to teach at the School of Design, I moved to Newport, RI, where direct contact with the sea and its fishermen encouraged a new series of large-scale oil-on-canvas paintings depicting singularly heroic examples of edible marine life harvested from the ocean: cod, lobster, mackerel, squid, flounder. The series was exhibited at the Newport Art Museum, Phillips-Exeter Academy, and the RISD Museum of Art.
In 1980, I began a series of large graphite-on-paper drawings—“still-life” would properly identify the context—with which I am still occupied thirty years later . The work incorporates photographic imagery [slides of chairs, water surfaces, rugs, grass textures, Asian calligraphy, Japanese prints, crustaceans, lobster traps, etc.] projected singly onto a sheet of vellum, drawn by hand with a soft graphite pencil, erased and reintroduced, the overlapped objects changing in size and position until a satisfactory composition is secured. For years my classroom experience had been tied to art historical pedagogy by means of a discussion of slides projected onto a large screen; the extension of this mode of visualization into the private world of my studio seemed only second nature. A collaged composition of light projected objects also made reference to proposals in my master’s thesis twenty years earlier. When the working drawing on vellum reached a completed status, the vellum was turned over and secured to a white sheet of quality rag paper and the graphite marks transferred by linear pressure onto its surface. Removing the vellum, I would then work up the illusion of the solid objects in space, applying chiaroscuro effects to achieve the finished version. Each slide held a view of a specific object photographed as seen from above—the array of objects depicted from this vantage point created an overall spatial effect one could term “oriental perspective”—an axonometric space, allowing the viewer to “hover” above the scene. The imagery is largely self-reflexive or autobiographical, suggesting conditions and events through symbolic and metaphorical associations. When I was treated for colon cancer in 2003, crabs and fish cages appeared in the drawings to represent my physical/medical condition; antique cameras referred to frequent cat scans taken to check my recovery; game boards made reference to chance—the gambled survival through individually devised chemotherapies. In 2008, I moved from Rhode Island to New York. I share a studio with my partner—Kay WalkingStick, a well-known Native American painter—whose influence on my work is registered by forms representing our close relationship and mutually entangled identities as artists. There is a marked infusion of color as well which takes the drawings out of their comparatively dour graphite condition and into the realm of joy and celebration.
Dirk Bach was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 27 November, 1939. Four years later, the family moved to Denver, Colorado, where his father, Otto Karl Bach, was appointed Director of the Denver Art Museum, a position he held for the next 35 years. His mother, Cile Miller Bach, a journalist, became the museum’s publication editor and registrar. As a perquisite, the director was provided with an unusual residence in a carriage house appended to a late 19th century mansion located in the center of the city which housed an extensive collection of native American arts.
His early interests in art and music were encouraged by his parents and their friends and associates, who were local and visiting painters, poets, sculptors, lecturers, educators, and collectors. He attended East High school, where he played piano in jazz combos and orchestras, frequently accompanying singer Judy Collins. Music continued to be his extra-curricular mainstay while attending Colgate University; his jazz group performed on many college campuses and occasionally in clubs in New York City.
In 1958, after enrolling in a drawing class, he discovered a strong interest in creating images, an urge dormant until then, and decided to pursue studies in the visual arts. He transferred to the University of Denver where he obtained a BFA in 1961 and an MA in 1962, in painting. He exhibited in regional shows and received first prize at the 1961 Mid-America Annual Exhibition organized by the Nelson Galleries in Kansas City. He enrolled in a Far Eastern Art history program at the University of Michigan, and in 1963 won a series of National Defense Language Fellowships to study Mandarin. During this time he traveled in the orient: Japan, Taiwan, India, and Southeast Asia.
In 1965, he joined the faculty at the University of New Hampshire art department, where he taught drawing, painting, design, and printmaking. He also developed a course in exhibition design to coordinate with his role as director of the Scudder Gallery. His own visual images took on new dimensions: first as series of imprisoned figures based on the contemporary play Marat/Sade, then as landscapes reflecting the environment of coastal New Hampshire and the communities along the edge of Great Bay. The pop art influence encouraged a series of iconic postage stamps commemorating American atrocities; this series coalesced into a Ramparts magazine article, “The Stamp Collection of Dirk Bach” in November ,1968.
The following year, he left the University of New Hampshire for the Rhode Island School of Design, where he taught for the next 25 years. He taught art and architectural histories of Japan, China, India, and contemporary America. He also taught design. His own studio work focused on landscape mandalas inspired by a National Endowment to the Humanities grant for travel to temples in Nara and Kyoto, Japan, and on Buddhist “Pure Land” diagrams based on imagery in the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra. These new works led to several exhibitions and speaking engagements.
From 1974 to 1975, he served as director of the Rhode Island School of Design’s European Honors Program in Rome. The travel and administrative responsibilities allowed little time for studio work, but he did produce some colored pencil drawings on paper of the Baroque Italian cityscape, which were exhibited at the Palazzo Cenci in the spring of 1975.
When he returned to resume his Rhode Island School of Design teaching, he relocated to Newport, Rhode Island, where he briefly participated in a commercial fishing community and began a series of large oil paintings of fish still-lives. These still-lives were shown in a 1977 one-man exhibition at the Newport Art Museum. He assumed the chair of the art history department at Rhode Island School of Design, and in 1990 became president of the faculty association. During these years, he created a series of interior still-life drawings in graphite on paper, a medium in which he continues to work.
In 1992, following the death of his parents, he resigned his position at the Rhode Island School of Design and moved to a secluded 18th century colonial farm in rural Rhode Island, where he built walking trails, structures, and gardens, and worked in his drawing and painting studio. His recent drawings of wooden boats in grassy fields reflect both his continued interest in far eastern art and his celebration of renewed personal vitality as a cancer survivor. In 2007, he moved to Jackson Heights, New York, where he lives with the artist Kay WalkingStick; he and Kay also share a studio.
Awards, Grants, and Recognition
Mellon Fellowship Grant [travel/Egypt], 1984.
National Endowment for the Arts [travel/Japan], 1972.
Central University Research Fund [large stamp paintings], University of New Hampshire, 1967–1968.
National Defense Language Fellowship [Mandarin], University of Michigan, 1962–1965.
School of Art Scholarship, University of Denver, 1961.
Who’s Who in American Art, 1970–present.
Who’s Who in the East, 1982–present.
1962–1965, MA [Far Eastern Art History], PhD candidate [Chinese painting], University of Michigan.
1959–1962, BFA/MA [painting], University of Denver.
1957–1959, Colgate University.
1969–1992: Professor, Chair, Department of Art History, Rhode Island School of Design [RISD]; Chair, Full-time Faculty; President, Faculty Association [NEA].
1974–1975, Director, European Honors Program, RISD, Palazzo Cenci, Rome.
1965–1969, Assistant Professor, Department of the Arts, University of New Hampshire; Director, Scudder Gallery, University of New Hampshire.
1969–1992, Rhode Island School of Design: Far Eastern art and architectural history [India, China, Japan], contemporary American painting and sculpture, contemporary American craft, contemporary public sculpture, general art and architecture survey, Asian art seminars, contemporary thematic seminars, [studio courses] senior painting workshop, graduate printmaking. 1965–1969, University of New Hampshire: drawing, painting, printmaking, two-dimensional design, exhibition design.