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Burgoyne Diller
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
New York City
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
New York City
An American painter and sculptor whose geometrical abstractions were inspired by the works of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Burgoyne Diller was also influential as the Head of the Mural Division of the Depression-era Federal Art Project in New York City. Born in New York City in 1906, Diller’s father died around 1908. Diller moved with his widowed mother to her parents’ home in Buffalo in 1913, where he was educated in parochial schools. After his mother remarried in 1919, the family moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. Diller attended the public high school, where he excelled as an athlete. He entered Michigan State College (now University) on an athletic scholarship, but did not graduate. Diller left the school in 1927 and returned to Buffalo where he worked at a series of odd jobs and took art lessons. He moved to New York City in 1929 where he took classes at the Art Students League, supported first by a scholarship and then a job in the school’s store. Diller studied under Jan Matulka (1890-1972) for three years and then with Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). His early works were inspired by cubism. He participated in a group exhibition at the G.R.D. Studio in New York City in 1932, and had his first solo show at Contemporary Arts New York in 1933, for which Hoffmann wrote an introduction to the exhibition catalog. Diller began working for the Public Works of Art Project sponsored by the Federal Government’s Treasury Department in 1934 and later that year was employed as a mural assistant in a program sponsored by New York State’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. The next year that program was taken over by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. By this time Diller’s artistic style had moved to geometric abstraction, following the theories expressed in Mondrian’s rectilinear abstract works, which became known as “Neo-Plasticism.” Diller has little time for art during the late 1930s as he was promoted in the WPA’s Mural Division in New York City, becoming its director in 1937. In this position he was able to promote geometrical abstraction for a number of murals, despite the realist style supported by most of the WPA administrators. Diller was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936, along with such artists as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). Diller became the assistant technical director for the New York City WPA Art program, and later the technical director. The WPA art program became part of the war effort in 1942, and Diller directed the War Services Art Division in New York City. In 1943 Diller enlisted in the Navy, was commissioned as an officer and served in the training aids division until late 1945. He began teaching at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1945 and the next year began teaching at Brooklyn College, rising to a tenured professor of art in 1949. He continued teaching at those institutions for most of the rest of his life. He began exhibiting in solo and group shows at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York in 1946. He built a studio in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey in 1948, but continued to teach in Brooklyn. His works were included in a group exhibition of abstract art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1951, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1952 and a group show at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in 1953. Elaine de Kooning (1820-1989) profiled Diller and his working methods in an Art News article in 1953. By 1956 Diller began suffering from heart disease. A spring flood in 1959 damaged many paintings and hundreds of drawings stored in his studio. He had taken a five-month leave of absence from Brooklyn College in 1960 due to his heart disease, took a year-log sabbatical starting in the fall of 1961, and took another leave of absence in 1963. Despite his poor health, he continued to draw, paint and make sculptures but now in a more symmetrical geometric style that produced some of his best art. Unfortunately he did not live to pursue his new ideas, and died on January 30, 1965 at a New York City hospital. (TNB 6/2014) Selected bibliography: Haskell, Barbara. Burgoyne Diller. Exhibition catalog. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990. Schwabsky, Barry. Burgoyne Diller, the 1960s: Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings. Exhibition catalog. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2004