Artist Ellen Berkenblit
Ellen Berkenblit. Photo courtesy of Bryan Derballa.

Ellen Berkenblit has spent more than 30 years breaking down conceptual walls with her paintings. Created with a graphic sensibility and an eye for the drama of color and line, these works challenge the way we think about art through this unique approach.

The Early Life of Ellen Berkenblit

Ellen Berkenblit, born in 1958, grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. But it was a short distance away in the sprawling metropolis of New York City that she received her education and launched her career.

She earned a BFA from The Cooper Union in 1980, opting to stay in the thriving art scene there to pursue her painting. 

Three Quarter Giraffe and Leopold by Ellen Birkenblit
Left: Three Quarter Giraffe, Ellen Birkenblit, 2021.
Right: Leopold, Ellen Birkenblit, 2021.

By the mid-80s, her work could be found in exhibitions around the city, and already some of her primary motifs were showing up on her canvases. The heroines were bold, cartoon-inspired images dominated by explorations of simple shapes.

Early on, Berkenblit used this line-based interpretation of humans and animals as a starting point. From that basis in representation, she could launch into the abstract. And as her work continued to develop, she would further blur this line and soon escape categorization altogether. 

The Arrival of an Artist

The style Berkenblit has honed grounds everything in luscious blacks. This allows everything to pop out as if dreamt up out of a void. From that darkness arise bright colors shooting out in shapes and patterns that interact and reference each other. If you stand close enough to one of her paintings, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a masterpiece of abstract art.

The artist insists her work hides nothing from the viewer.

But step back and what resolves is a lively image, often an extreme close-up on a single character but sometimes interspersed with a collage of city sights. Everything is rendered, in the final analysis, as much according to comic strip sensibilities as those of high abstraction.

Untitled by Ellen Birkenblit
Untitled, Ellen Birkenblit, 2016.
Griffe by Ellen Birkenblit
Griffe, Ellen Birkenblit, 2016.

The paintings themselves are often large, helping to confuse the interpretation from up close and far away.

This style has managed to be adapted to other subject matter rather well. A growing portion of her oeuvre contains images of animals—wild cats, songbirds, giraffes—among flowers and other symbols of the natural world.

What does it all mean? The artist insists her work hides nothing from the viewer. Each painting is a pursuit of purely aesthetic concerns.

Tiger Fur Umbrella by Ellen Birkenblit
Tiger Fur Umbrella, Ellen Birkenblit, 2019.

The Artist Established

Berkenblit’s art, which can now be found in various public and private collections including the Brooklyn Museum, has established itself as a leading voice in contemporary art. Paintings like the candy-colored “Tiger Fur Umbrella” (2019) and the charming attitude of “Griffe” (2016) represent the artist’s voice continuing to sharpen its focus.

In 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her an Arts and Letters grant. The Guggenheim followed suit a year later by granting her one of their prestigious fellowships.

Those awards illustrate the recognition Berkenblit continues to build through her consistent fusion of high and low, urban and wild, abstraction and representation. Inside the tension between these dichotomies, lies the power of her work.

Berkenblit has been represented by Anton Kern Gallery for over 20 years. She continues to exhibit at a feverish pace—her next solo show will be in April of next year.