Derelicts, Drunks, Hippies, and Queers: Fred Burkhart’s Life in Photographs / Hyperallergic

Fred Burkhart, “Burnt Out Hippie (Sunset Terrace), Venice California” (1970)

I first spotted artist Fred Burkhart’s advertisements for nude female models plastered around local Chicago hippie, vegetarian, artist hangouts. I was 16 years old. The ads said something like: “Nude models needed for figure drawing class at Burkhart Studios. We pay $60 for three hours. Must be 18 years old.” I was ecstatic about the prospect of earning money by just posing nude while a bunch of artists drew interpretations of my body, and so I called up Burkhart and told him that I was available for modeling. I lied about my age. When I showed up 15 minutes before class started, Burkhart didn’t ask me for an ID, but he must have known that I was too young to model.

I only modeled for Burkhart’s figure drawing class twice, because after he proudly showed me an up-close-and-personal interpretation of my labia that he drew, I decided that I should probably keep my clothes on. I did continue to drop by the weekly coffeehouse, Burkhart Underground, an alcohol-free Sunday evening series of open mics, poetry readings, and art exhibitions that ran from 1998 to 2005. In the lair-like underground space, smoke from cigarettes and incense tangled under dim red lights while folks relaxed, drew or scribbled on sketchpads while listening to a poet, musician, or performer read their latest masterpiece. This was all part of Burkhart Studios — Fred’s home, artistic center, and communal gathering place from 1986 until 2005, when the gentification powers that be pushed him out.

Burkhart’s Underground is also the name of the beat artist’s current solo exhibition at Alibi Gallery. His 58 black-and-white photographs of derelicts, drunks, hippies, queers, KKK members, children, and fetishists play out like a photo album of all the various people living on the margins of society whom Burkhart encountered during his life. Besides them, he also ran into Jack Kevorkian, aka Dr. Death, who believed in a terminal patient’s right to die by physician-assisted suicide, and the first female neurosurgeon, Toby Goldstein; both of them appear in Burkhart’s photographs. Burkhart now lives with the “Jesus people” in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, where he is dying of bone cancer. The doctors say that his bones look like Swiss cheese. In August 2012, they gave him six months to live. This exhibition is his first in a formal gallery setting, and will most likely be his last.

Read the full review of “Burkhart’s Underground” on Hyperallergic: