Michael Buhler: Artist and teacher noted for the stylistic diversity of his work

Wednesday 17 February 2010 01:00
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Michael Buhler was a versatile artist and teacher whose diverse interests nourished his output in various media. Unlike painters and sculptors content with one style and subjects that remain unchanged over decades, a Buhler exhibition frequently included surprises. His 2002 solo show Street Life and Beyond at the Chappel Galleries, near Colchester, gave an idea of his range. Colourful, neon-lit paintings of young urban life and others of tourism were hung alongside Buhler's distinctive white multi-layered boxes, the artist's preoccupations including unidentified flying objects and endangered species.

Buhler was one of those artists who benefited from, but had to cope with, having a distinguished painter father, in his case the Royal Academician Robert Buhler. Michael was born in 1940, the son of Robert and his first wife, Evelyn. Robert would marry again and eventually Michael had, as well as two half-brothers, Adam and William Buhler, a half-sister, Frances Miller.

After Bryanston School, from 1960-63, Michael attended the Royal College of Art, where he had distinguished and very different teachers: Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Ruskin Spear, and Colin Hayes, who would eventually write a monograph on Michael's father. Because of the uncertainty of a painter's life, Robert was at first apprehensive about Michael's desire to be an artist, but was latterly encouraging.

For many artists the economic underpinning of their career must be teaching. For Buhler, this was not a chore. "He loved it and was a brilliant teacher," his second wife, Monika, recalled. She met him when in his class at the City and Guilds of London Art School. "Michael was very liberal, didn't impose his own way of painting and tried to help you with your own style. He was much loved by his students."

One special student was the autistic Stephen Wiltshire, who as a child showed prodigious ability as a draughtsman. Stephen's phenomenal visual memory was demonstrated in 1991 when he produced a perfect front elevation of St Paul's Cathedral, not having seen it for nine years. Studying with Buhler, Wiltshire gained a degree and worked in the City and Guilds print room.

From 1963, while continuing with his own work, Buhler was much in demand as a part-time teacher. Venues included art colleges at Colchester and Maidstone, the Central School and Imperial College in London, Newcastle University and the Ruskin School at Oxford.

The 1960s were a fertile period in British art. "It was not until 1965 that I really found a clear direction of my own," Buhler wrote. "The theme of the figure in landscape inspired by Poussin, Keith Vaughan and Francis Bacon became the basis of my subject matter. The current movements of the mid-Sixties influenced me, Pop art, optical art and colour field abstraction, as well as a fascination with the graphic communication and signage necessary for the new motorways and supermarket packaging then appearing in the environment."

He studied the historian Ernst Gombrich's book Art and Illusion "and experimented with the reduction of figuration to a minimum that would both depict the subject and evoke atmosphere in a painting. My admiration for Patrick Caulfield's early work and the simplified formalism of Léger's work of the 1920s was developed and applied to a series of paintings based on package tourism on the Costa Brava, new concrete hotels, roads and pools in a hot landscape."

After Michael and Monika married in 1984, during their honeymoon in Egypt and then during summer visits to her native Greece, Buhler continued to be fascinated by mass tourism. Writing in the 2002 Chappel Galleries catalogue, the critic Mary Rose Beaumont noted how Buhler "depicts the tourists as noisy, brightly-coloured vandals, disturbing the peace of the sombre-coloured sites, transistors blaring and videos blindly recording, their jazzy clothes spreading across the canvas like a contagion."

From the 1960s Buhler's paintings were based on an underlying diagonal grid, sometimes faintly visible through the paint that to some extent dictated the placing of elements in the composition. This grid dictated, though not rigidly, "the placing of elements in the composition, such as colour patterns through the linear design and the perspective." Lack of facial features and hair on figures was "part of my aim to minimise figuration and individuality as in graphic communication."

By the late 1960s he had switched from oil to acrylic. He had also "moved towards a theme of abstracted industrial landscapes based on aerial photographs of motorways, airfields, military installations and factories depicting our endless invasion of the natural environment."

Buhler's white boxes, preceded by small biro drawings and fashioned by him with a fretsaw, became perhaps his most singular creations. They were allied to his interest in unidentified flying objects and the paranormal. Buhler had always loved aeroplanes, made model ones and had a great collection of them as well as space ships and tin toys. In 1978, he produced the photographic book Tin Toys 1945-1975.

Buhler was an open-minded, sometimes sceptical member of the British UFO Research Association and of the Society for Psychical Research, and attended their meetings. "He was very well informed on UFOs and many of his drawings were of incidents that happened or were meant to have happened. While we were in Greece he spent quite a bit of time looking in the sky to see if a UFO appeared," Monika Buhler says, adding wryly, "but he was disappointed."

Having produced in 1975 Five Minutes, a book on UFO sightings, in 1995 Buhler created Abductees, an 11-minute animated film for Channel 4 television. With a friend he had travelled to New York to interview people who claimed to have been abducted by visitors from outer space. "He enjoyed meeting them," says Monika, but thought that some could be, as he put it, 'a bit off their trolley'."

Buhler's constructions, drawings and collages formed part of England & Co's 2008 exhibition Is Anybody Out There? By then he had had a series of solo exhibitions as well as appearances in numerous group shows. These included Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, where won the Rowney Award, 1984; John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool; Contemporary Arts Society; the Hunting Group Prize Exhibition; and the Discerning Eye Exhibition at the Mall Galleries.

Buhler's works are in over a dozen important collections in Britain and abroad. Among these are the Arts Council, Department of the Environment, Royal Academy, University of London, British Museum, Unilever Collection and Museo do Estado da Bahia and Galeria Boitata, Porto Alegre, both in Brazil.

David Buckman

Michael Robert Buhler, artist and teacher: born London 13 June 1940; married 1963 Georgina Howell (divorced 1978; one son), 1984 Monika Veriopoulos (one daughter): died London 30 October 2009.

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