Ralph Coburn

Ralph Coburn was born in Minneapolis, MN in 1923. His father taught romance languages at the University of Minnesota. In 1926 the family moved to Miami, FL, where his parents founded a private school. The Coburn School was run by Ralph’s father who spoke six languages, while his British born mother who had lived in Paris and Tunisia taught French. Ralph grew up in Miami Beach in a house overlooking Biscayne Bay and from an early age was keenly aware of a landscape comprised of horizontal bands of land, ocean and sky. In recent interviews, Coburn explains that when viewing the world around him the major forms and elements in his field of vision have always been presented in a subtle yet noticeable geometric arrangement. His visual processing prevented him from being drafted into the Second World War. This limitation was actually a gift that would guide his image making over the next sixty years.

In 1941, acknowledging his parents' wishes to learn a practical skill, Ralph enrolled in MIT’s five-year School of Architecture and Planning. Once on campus he was drawn to several pockets of avant-garde thinking, and it is here his artistic development began. Ralph was predisposed to a modern architectural aesthetic, having witnessed the construction of numerous Art Deco hotels and contemporary residences along Miami Beach in the late 1930s. He assisted an upper classmate Walter Netsch who introduced Coburn to modern design and avant-garde music. Netsch, one of the more progressive-thinking and advanced architectural students at MIT, later became a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and designed several landmark buildings including the east wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Through his studies at MIT, Coburn was also introduced to the work of Mondrian by a professor of architecture, William Hoskins Brown. According to Coburn, Mondrian’s influence upon his thinking was profound. This occurred while Ralph was also attending lectures at Harvard University by the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, department chair of Harvard’s School of Architecture. The idea of combining the two-dimensional imagery of Mondrian with the format of an architectural plan provided Coburn with numerous ideas for image making. This interest in making pictures was further reinforced through collaborative projects involving Ralph and students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Coburn would later spend time drawing from the model in classes in Boston and Paris, but his time at MIT studying architecture and abstract design would have the greatest influence on the way he would compose images throughout his life. He also credits MIT’s intense academic environment for providing the discipline and focus needed to execute work of a very skilled nature.

After two years at MIT Coburn was called to register for military service but problems with his eyesight prevented him from being drafted. He soon found employment working as a draftsman for the Air Force at the Miami Air Depot. These drafting projects which involved the creation of technical drawings for manufactured airplane parts had an abstract quality of form and line that Coburn found compelling and artistic. After the war, Coburn moved back to Boston and planned to return to MIT to complete his architectural degree. He stayed with relatives in Wellesley Hills and worked as a draftsman for a local architect. Six months later Ralph returned to MIT. After reacquainting himself with several art students at the Museum School, Ralph decided to leave MIT and pursue a career in painting. He found part-time employment at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston working with his friend Hyman Swetzoff. He then followed Swetzoff to the Boris Mirski Gallery newly located from Charles Street to Newbury Street in Boston where Swetzoff had been hired as the gallery director.

About this time Coburn began a lifelong friendship with Ellsworth Kelly who had been a student at the Museum School in Boston. In 1948 Kelly moved to France where in June 1949 he was joined by Coburn and two artist friends from the Museum School, Ninon Lacey and David Aronson. Coburn would visit France four times between 1949 and 1956. These trips (1949–50, 1951–52, 1954–55 and 1956) ranged from six months to over a year. Coburn’s time in France with Ellsworth Kelly has been briefly discussed in several books on Kelly including Yves-Alain Bois’ Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948–1955 and Ellsworth Kelly The Years in France, 1948–1954 (with Jack Cowart and Alfred Pacquement) as well as Diane Waldman’s, Ellsworth Kelly A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum and E. C. Goossen’s, Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art.

“Kelly’s friend Coburn arrived in Paris in spring 1949. Together they visited galleries and museums and became interested in the Surrealists’ practice of making drawings generated or governed by chance operations in order to emphasize the role of the unconscious in the creative process. Kelly and Coburn collaborated on making the Surrealist drawings of chance known as cadavres exquis (“exquisite corpses”)…On July 4, 1949 Kelly and Coburn took a trip to Brittany and stopped about halfway, in Le Mans to see the stained-glass windows of the cathedral. It was in the cathedral square of the Le Mans that Kelly drew Stacked Tables. When they arrived at the coast of Brittany, they stayed on Belle-Ile for only a few days before Kelly decided to spend the summer there and returned to Paris to close up his room at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Coburn accompanied him back to Paris and the two visited Gertrude Stein’s companion, Alice B. Toklas…Kelly returned to Belle-Ile in August. During the summer and afterward, when Coburn went to the south of France, they corresponded and exchanged ideas about their work. In the dialogue that ensued, many of the concepts essential to Kelly’s later work began to form.” 1

“Something happened during the summer of 1949, however, that had a liberating effect on Kelly. Ralph Coburn, a friend from Boston, came over to France in June for a vacation. Coburn, now a painter and a designer for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had heard about automatism and various other devices that had become popular among avant-garde artists in New York…Kelly was intrigued by Coburn’s demonstration of automatic drawing, and during the summer of 1949 they both practiced it. Several such drawings appear in Kelly’s sketch books from this period.” 2

During this formative period he and Kelly discussed and explored numerous concepts hoping to resolve them into a visual language. Initially they planned to promote their work and ideas through a self-published journal titled “Concrete.” 3

Coburn and Kelly’s time in France was one of intense development for each artist. Both men would choose markedly different directions in their career paths while continuing to explore ideas acquired during this period. Coburn’s work didn’t change radically but it matured and developed as he refined and distilled his compositions down to a presentation of tightly edited forms. Coburn’s initial artistic efforts grew out of the image-making techniques taught in his architectural and design classes at MIT and further honed at the Miami Air Depot. Many of his black and white “Landscape Motive” drawings (illustration 1) as well as a significant black-and-white collage (illustration 2) could pass for quickly composed floor plans or technical drawings.

Coburn’s earliest French drawings are a continuation of the compositional approach he utilized in his Boston drawing, Squantum (illustration 3), created several months prior to his first French visit. Terrace St. Germain (illustration 4) of June 1949, created shortly after he arrived in Paris, is a more elaborate image than the Squantum drawing. This work displays a linear arrangement of forms seen from the artist’s studio located outside of Paris in St. Germain-en-Laye. The Eiffel Tower rises up as a pointed aperture and a detail of the tower reflects below a horizon line into the Seine River. The image is divided into four quadrants of slightly unequal dimensions, foreshadowing works like Red and White Cross (illustration 5). Within a month’s time Coburn seems to have settled into his new environment and his work becomes simpler and more direct. By early July, he is creating tightly wrought images. The two drawings titled Beach at Bordrouhant (illustration 6) present Coburn’s disciplined placement of a few painted black lines on a white ground. The result is a visual amplification of figure and ground. When asked about the motivating forces brought to bear on these works, Coburn states that he was hoping to create images more immediate and dynamic than work created by other artists prior to this. His second and equally important goal was to create work possessing an original concept.

A visual and intellectual investigator, Coburn did not limit his working methods to distillations of scenes around him. He would utilize a small object discarded on a Paris street as a starting point for a new composition. White Abstraction (illustration 7) was conceived in this manner; the vertical beige-and-black form, located in the lower right of the composition, depicts a piece of wood Coburn spotted on a street. This form served as a starting point for the eventual composition. Another painting of this period, Forms from a Paris Street, Re-arranged, 1950 (illustration 8), depicts random forms arranged by Coburn into a painted composition.

Coburn’s investigations also include the use of ready-made, commercially available material as a source of imagery. Coburn would alter the ready-made object, pulling certain compositional elements and extract a final composition. Two works, each titled Composition Derived from a Drambuie Scotch Ad, 1949/50 (illustration 9, 10) illustrate the artistic possibilities of Coburn’s approach. In illustration 9 we see the original Drambuie ad, which was printed in the New Yorker, in November 1949. Coburn paints over the text and illustrated areas, creating an abstract composition. He then “lifts” the red printed background of that composition and produces a second composition from the ready-made source (illustration 11).

The artist’s inventiveness led him to explore other areas of chance image making. Black Abstraction, 1949/50 (illustration 12) in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is another innovative and exploratory work by Coburn. It is different from his multiple-panel drawings and paintings, where each composition can be modified by re-arranging the panels according to the laws of chance or choice. Black Abstraction allows the viewer/owner of the painting to modify the compositional colors by changing the wall color or material upon which the painting hangs. This work has one painted oblong form in the center of the black painted canvas and five oval voids cut from the surface. Coburn envisioned the work being hung on a white wall with the possibility of further compositional choices of color and surface being dictated by the viewer.

Why have Coburn’s early works remained beyond the reach of curators and the art world for so long? Part of the answer lies in the temperament of the artist as well as his decision to stay in Boston. He is described by his close friends as modest to a fault and interested only in the intellectual ideas behind an image. Painter and Yale University art professor Bernard Chaet, who knew Coburn since the 1940s, explained Ralph’s artistic anonymity this way: “Becoming a successful artist simply didn’t matter to Ralph—it was always about the exploration and execution of ideas, nothing more.”

During the 1950s a market for Coburn’s work never materialized in Boston, despite the efforts of his employer and dealer, Boris Mirski. When an offer from the newly formed Office of Design Services at MIT was presented to Coburn in 1957, he accepted the graphic design position. This new livelihood provided Coburn with both financial security and a creative work environment. The process of composing letter-forms and images onto a printed page was a natural extension of his artistic sensibilities. Though he had no graphic design training, the position was offered to him based upon a viewing of his art portfolio. In time, Coburn’s design work at MIT (illustration 13, 14) garnered him both national and international recognition for his involvement in the movement known as International Typographic Style or Swiss Graphic Design. Coburn worked at MIT from 1957 to 1988 while continuing to create an ambitious body of artwork in his personal studio. These compositions were influenced by the ideas of Swiss Design, but chance and randomness, important concepts to the artist, usually found their way into these grid-based compositions.

In the 1970s Ralph began exhibiting his current work in Boston, but the earlier pictures remained tucked away in flat files and storage closets. Finally, in 2002, several early works were included in the exhibition "The Visionary Decade — New Voices in Art in 1940s Boston," held at Boston University. This exhibition marked the beginning of Coburn’s early work coming to light. There is much work to be done on Coburn, and this catalog is part of an ongoing effort to record his artistic contributions. While the focus of this publication is on Coburn’s early art, work from the rest of his career is also presented, allowing the reader to see the breadth of his output.

—David Hall

Illustration 1
Landscape Motive, Paris, 1949
India ink on paper, 10 5⁄8 x 8 1⁄4"

Illustration 2
Collage, Sanary, c. 1950
Paper on paperboard, 21 1⁄4 x 23 1⁄2"

Illustration 3
Quincy, Massachusetts; A View of Squantum, Feb 1949
Ink on paper, 9 x 11"

Illustration 4
Terrace St. Germain, June 1949
Ink on paper, 10 5⁄8 x 8 1⁄4"

Illustration 5
Cross, 1950
Oil on four canvas panels,
each panel 10 x 8", 20 x 16" overall

Illustration 6
Beach at Bordrouhant, July 1949
Ink on paper, 8 1⁄4 x 10 1⁄2"

Illustration 7
White Abstraction, 1949/50
Oil on Canvas, 19 3⁄4 x 24 1⁄16"

Illustration 8
Forms from a Paris Street, Re-arranged, 1950
Oil on canvas, 18 x 13"

Illustration 9
Drambuie Advertisement, 1949
Source of ready made images
© Drambuie Liqueur Co. Ltd.

Illustration 10
Ready Made Composition,
, c. 1950
Oil on printed magazine page, 11 x 4 3⁄4"

Illustration 11
Composition Derived from a Ready Made Image, c. 1950
Oil on paper, 12 3⁄8 x 9 3⁄8"

Illustration 12
Black Abstraction, 1949/50
Oil on canvas with cut out oval forms, 19 5⁄8 x 24"
Photograph © 2013, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Illustration 13
John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Music of Indeterminacy
MIT Design Publication
, 1965
Ink on paper, 8 1⁄4 x 6 1⁄4"
©MIT, used with permission.

Illustration 14
Random Vibration
MIT Design Publication
, 1958
Ink on paper, 8 x 8 3⁄4"
©MIT, used with permission.




1941 - 1943
MIT, School of Architecture.

1944 - 1945
Called to register for military service then discharged due to poor vision. Works as a draftsman at the Miami Air Deport.

1945 - 1948
Returns to MIT to continue architectural studies. Withdraws to pursue a career in painting. Studies painting and life drawing. Develops friendships with Boston artists John Wilson, Reed Kay, Esther Geller, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, Jason Berger, Jack Kramer, Bernard Chaet, Ninon Lacey (Chaet), Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Polonsky and many others. Works at the Institute of Modern Art, Boston and later at the Mirski Gallery, Boston.

June 1949
Arrives in Paris, visits Ellsworth Kelly; travels to Brittany with Kelly. Meets John Cage with Kelly and visits Alice B. Toklas with Kelly.

Moves to Sanary for the Winter. February, visits Jean Arp's studio with Kelly. They begin making chance collages.
Exhibits at Salon Nouvelles Realites, Paris.
In June, Coburn and Kelly along with Jack Youngerman visit Jean Arp for a second time.
Collaborates with Kelly on surrealist "exquisite corpse" drawings.
Art Classes at Academie Julian, Paris.

Sanary with Kelly

Exhibits paintings in Caracas, Venezuala with Kelly. Paintings are lost.

1954, 1955, 1956
Returned to Sanary and Paris to paint and construct collages.

Hired by MIT to design publications and posters in their newly formed Office of Publications.

In the 1960s after working as a graphic designer at MIT, became influenced by the ideas of Swiss Design being promoted by Max Bill, Karl Gerstner, Josef Muller Brockmann as well as Joseph Albers.

Begins exhibiting his grid based paintings and collages at the Alpha Gallery in Boston.

Retires from the Office of Publications, MIT.

Two early works included in the exhibition and book "The Visionary Decade: New Voices in Art
in 1940's Boston". Boston University.

Ellsworth Kelly donates Coburn's Black Abstraction, 1949 - 50 to the permanent collection
of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Artwork in the following Museum Collections:

Boston Public Library
Brockton Art Museum
Cape Ann Historical Museum
Chase Manhattan Bank
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Museum of Modern Art Caracas, Venezuela;
Stedlijk Museum Amsterdam



1. Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, (New York, Guggenheim Museum, 1996), 19 - 20

2. E. C. Goossen Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art, (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 19

3. Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948 - 1955, (Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museum, 1999), 18