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Artist Documents Beauty – and Depletion – of Polar Landscapes at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers

A new exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University brings 19th-century American landscape traditions into the 21st century with a blast of arctic air. “Diane Burko: Glacial Perspectives,” on view September 4, 2013, through July 31, 2014, not only captures the beauty of ice, it also addresses the fragility of these remote vistas and the concern that their disappearance will have drastic effects for us all. The exhibition transports museum visitors to the very ends of the earth, documenting changes in glacial movement and depleted snow levels that have occurred within the past century. “Few people will ever have the opportunity to visit these distant regions, yet their existence is crucial to life as we know it on this planet,” explains Suzanne Delehanty, the Zimmerli’s director. In addition, support from an endowment fund established by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allows the Zimmerli to collaborate with Rutgers colleagues on interdisciplinary programs throughout the 2013-14 academic year.

With their large scale and vivid color, Burko’s new work featured in “Glacial Perspectives” reflects her longtime interest in extreme landscapes. For more than 40 years, she has focused on monumental and geological phenomena throughout the world: from American scenic icons to volcanoes on four continents. Beginning in the early 2000s, Burko’s explorations have extended to include snow and ice in increasingly remote locations. “My ‘obsession’ since 2006 is the threat of global warming,” she explains. “My practice has been devoted to exploring those issues and interpreting that knowledge through my own aesthetic language articulated with my brush and camera.”

Burko draws from American landscape traditions of the 19th century. Choosing to expand on the genre, she reinvents it by integrating contemporary climate concerns with scientific evidence – rather than political commentary – as the basis for her work and encourages viewers to develop their own points of view about climate change. “Diane has a marvelous ability to translate technical data into dynamic, panoramic views, while also evoking an intimate, emotional experience,” observes Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Andrew W. Mellon Liaison for Academic Programs and Curator.

Burko’s sublime paintings from her ongoing “Politics of Snow” series (2007-13) capture gradual landscape changes, as well as specific climatic events. She created the “Columbia Glacier” series (2011) based on photographs of this Alaskan glacier taken by explorers and the U. S. Geological Survey at different intervals during the 20th and 21st centuries. Each of the four canvases is a majestic scene in itself; and seen together, they illustrate the glacier’s rapid retreat since 1980. The paintings “Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010” (2012) and “Arctic Cyclone, August 2012” (2012-13) re-create specific natural events: a dramatic break in Greenland’s Petermann Glacier and a cyclone that traveled across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada, respectively. Burko referenced NASA imaging as her source material for these aerial views, but added a personal perspective with her sweeping brushstrokes.

In 2000, Burko added photography to her oeuvre, with her first series culled from thousands of slides taken on research excursions for prior projects. Burko’s newest photographs include oversized prints from “Polar Investigations,” an ongoing series that began with her expedition to Antarctica in early 2013. The 20 photographs in “Antarctica Grid” (2013) capture chunks of ice in various sizes, breaking apart from glaciers and icebergs. Her close-up shots in Paradise Bay – one of only two ports for cruise ships – also show what now are incremental pieces of ice, but collectively had been significant portions of nearby icebergs. Burko’s concern is that this additional ice contributes to sea level rise.

As the exhibition opens at the Zimmerli, Burko begins the next phase of “Polar Investigations” in September, when she joins a voyage with other artists and scientists to the high Arctic. The Independence Foundation in Philadelphia awarded Burko a Fellowship in the Arts to support her expedition, which is sponsored by the nonprofit organization The Arctic Circle ( The group embarks on the adventure from Longyearbyen, the world’s northern-most town, located only 600 miles from the North Pole, and sails as far north as the pack ice allows. The exploration complements Burko’s trip to Antarctica, allowing her to experience both poles in the same year.

Thanks to the generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endowment, the Zimmerli is collaborating with Rutgers colleagues to offer an interdisciplinary seminar series, “Polar Perspectives on Art and Science,” throughout the 2013-14 academic year at the Zimmerli Art Museum and other venues across the university. The museum’s partners include the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy, Department of Geography, Rutgers Climate Institute, the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, and the Institute for Women and Art. These partnerships are co-sponsored by the Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA Centers) as part of the 2013-2015 Biennial Theme: “Global Health!” For updates throughout the 2013-14 academic year, visit,, and

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