Burhan Dogancay; painter found subjects on city walls

Burhan Dogancay with his “Symphony in Blue” last year at the Istanbul Modern museum.
Murad Sezer/Reuters
Burhan Dogancay with his “Symphony in Blue” last year at the Istanbul Modern museum.

NEW YORK — Burhan Dogancay, a Turkish-born artist considered one of his country’s first internationally recognized abstract painters, died Jan. 16 in Istanbul. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Angela.

Dr. Dogancay, who divided his time between homes in Istanbul and New York, was the first contemporary Turkish artist to have his work included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


In a country commonly defined as the cultural international date line between the Middle East and the West, Dr. Dogancay was best known for his artwork on the subject of walls. Old urban walls covered in graffiti and posters interested him most. The more cluttered, weathered, and layered by generations of human announcements, the better.

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He traveled for years collecting wall images from more than 500 cities to make the paintings and collages he presented at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris in 1982 in a one-man exhibition titled ‘‘Walls That Whisper, Shout and Sing.’’

‘‘The walls I am drawn to have been worked on by nature and by human beings, so that they provide a mirror of their respective neighborhoods,’’ he once said in an interview. ‘‘They are speaking walls.’’

“The whole human experience,’’ he said, “has been reflected on walls, beginning with cave drawings.’’

Dr. Dogancay produced about 4,000 paintings, many of them abstract collages in three dimensions such as ‘‘Ribbon Mania,’’ a 1982 piece acquired by the Met in 2011.


His work has been exhibited in more than 70 museums, including the British Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Levent Calikoglu, the chief curator of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, said in an e-mail that Dr. Dogancay’s art drew from the many cultural traditions — European, Middle Eastern, American, ancient and modern — that intersect in contemporary Turkey. In Dr. Dogancay’s work, he said, New York subway walls and the walls of the most remote Turkish village speak to a common humanity.

Born on Sept. 11, 1929, in Istanbul, Burhan Cahit Dogancay was the first of three children of Adil and Hediye Dogancay, both members of Western-educated middle-class families. His father, an army officer and noted watercolorist, was his first art instructor.

Despite Westernizing influences in Turkey and the establishment of a democratic, secular government in 1923 after centuries of Ottoman rule, the country’s art remained fairly untouched by modernism during Dr. Dogancay’s childhood. Museums, which were state-run, displayed mainly traditional or representational art. He told interviewers that he did not see his first Impressionist or Expressionist painting, or a Picasso, until 1950, when he graduated from the University of Ankara and left for Paris.

He studied economics at the University of Paris; but from 1950 to 1955, when he received his doctorate, he took art courses and began painting in his spare time. He was director of the Turkish republic’s tourism office in New York in 1962 when he decided to become an artist full time. Within two years he had his first show in Manhattan.

His wall motif was inspired by the streets of New York, he said. ‘‘At first I was primarily interested in the decayed, deteriorated surface of walls,’’ he wrote in a 2009 book of his work. But in the kaleidoscope of posters and graffiti competing to be seen on the walls of the city, above and below ground, he began to recognize a kind of archeological depth, he said. It revealed ‘‘the testimonials of human beings expressing and communicating’’ their history.


In an interview last year with the online journal
Artlifemagazine, Dr. Dogancay was asked how urban walls had changed since the 1960s and ‘70s, when many of the posters and leaflets festooning them carried messages of political protest. ‘‘Walls are clean now, because there is social media and computers,’’ he said, adding, ‘‘The youth are not as angry as they were.’’