Artist Terry Burns on his childhood in Wanskuck, R.I., quoted in an invitation to a recent showing: "Most of the children I knew had faces like thin cats." Also attributed to Burns: "Art is the celebration of the actual and only the artist is on time" and "Philosophy is an assemblage that leaves nothing out. And so goes collage . . . "
Products of an original mind? "Of several," says Burns, 51, pleased to admit he borrowed the lines from poet Kenneth Patchen, writer Charles Olson and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, respectively. "What would you expect?"
Burns is a collage artist.
He pieces together his works in a third-floor studio of the Victorian row house near 14th and T NW where he lives. Practically a recluse in an art world that spotlights self-promotion and hype, he prefers the soft dawn light of his studio's three south-side windows that overlook the rooftops and TV antennas of a neighborhood dragging its feet toward transition.
Against a wall lean his latest works, patched onto full sheets of exterior-grade plywood, 4 by 8 feet. They'll probably never show in public, Burns says. They're too big for the wall space in any gallery he knows of, and they're difficult to transport. He shrugs, suggesting that exhibition isn't the point anyway. It's a lesson learned during his days at Black Mountain.
In the early 1950s Burns studied at the radical arts community that converted the rocky farmland of Buncombe County, N.C., into a classroom and haven for the intelligentsia of the Beat movement. Paul Goodman, Charles Olson, Fielding Dawson and Robert Creeley, among other writers, poets, artists and musicians, taught and worked there. Creeley's Black Mountain Review was the voice of new-style, revolutionary writers such as William Burroughs and Hubert Selby.
The small experimental college held to an embattled point of view, one that became the glue of Burns' work. "Its lack of structure forced self-discipline. Olson taught us that we read too fast and we read the wrong things. We learned to stop drawing narcissistic pictures of ourselves in our happy homes. It was a good basic education -- how to blow up the American system." He pauses mischievously, then adds, "Figuratively." Burns laments that the land-rich, money-poor Black Mountain has since been abandoned, the facility now "the finest boys' camp east of the Mississippi."
"Actual Phantoms," Burns' February show at the Anton Gallery, was his first public exhibition in more than two years. The works, priced from $600 to $5,000, ranged from demanding to whimsical, from fragments of collective consciousness to bits and pieces of personal history to impenetrable visions begging acceptance on appearance alone. The artist listed 25 titles: "And a Man Can Raise a Thirst," "Where the Flying Fishes Play." When read in order, they produce the first stanza of Rudyard Kipling's ballad "Mandalay."
"Given the names of some of the pictures I've seen in the past 10 years," says Burns, a conversational prankster, "I figured the worst criticism I'd get is that it'd be called 'Kiplingesque.' "
He is most at ease in the clutter of his studio, where a cat sleeps behind heaps of "material," discarded treasures he has found on the streets of Washington since settling here in 1977: a Billy Graham Crusade tract, outdated calendars, a pile of old magazine ads, half a pasteboard vase tossed out by a Vermont Avenue funeral parlor, artificial flowers picked from refuse. One man's trash, another man's medium.
"I want pictures to be direct -- a visual fact," explains this son of a textile factory worker, grandson of English coal miners. "What is that translation by Ezra Pound of Confucius? 'Have no tricksy plots.' That is so true of pictures. You can't think your way through a picture any more than you can solve a problem by throwing paint at it."
Although he claims little knowledge of or skill with color, form or composition ("I thought it was something you find in a compost pile"), Gail Enns of Anton Gallery, now Burns' agent, calls his work strong and literate. "It's too bad he's been so reclusive for so long," she says. "When you look at his work, you get the feeling of time warp. I'd call him an Abstract Expressionist, one who needs to be discovered."
Yet Burns is reluctant to emerge from his studio, into the public arena. He says something about "the politics of the art scene" and dismisses himself from it. He likes to quote Sholom Aleichem's line, "With God's help, I am a poor man." He'll tell you about several dozen collages he left behind in a musty cellar in Rhode Island. "They'll probably end up where they came from -- the local garbage heap." And in the next sentence he'll add, "Of course, I'd rather sell them."
Collage in Washington, Burns says, is a hard sell. "People who like my pictures tend to have looked at them over a long period of time -- a year or two," he says. "People who see them for the first time tend to be put off. It looks easy.
"They'll find things in my collages that I've never heard of, like part of an album cover they remember. 'Rice Is Nice' by the Lemon Pipers or something. They see religious symbols and wonder if I'm antireligious. They look for meaning."
But for Burns, meaning means "tricksy plots."
"Young people have no reference to the junk material in my collages, any more than I have to the collages Kurt Schwitters made in Berlin in the late '20s. He was a master. The content he used -- traffic tickets, playbills, cigarette packages, pieces from here and there -- probably wouldn't even mean anything to a contemporary German.
"But when that meaning is drained from collage . . . " he stops to emphasize the only meaning of his work, "it starts to begin a life of its own. A visual fact and nothing more."