Local Obituaries

Artist Ralph Coburn, whose early days in Miami Beach influenced his works, dies at 94

Artist Ralph Coburn pictured with his niece Carol C. Medcalfe in 2011.
Artist Ralph Coburn pictured with his niece Carol C. Medcalfe in 2011.

Abstract artist Ralph Coburn's first childhood memories are of him growing up in a Miami Beach.

In his Oral history interview now stored in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Coburn described Miami Beach as "paradise."

"It was lovely there," he said in the 1995 interview. "It was palm trees; it was warm weather; it was swimming every day after school; it was sailing."

Coburn, whose early exposure to Art Deco and beautiful skylines led him in the direction of architecture and eventually art, died June 5 in Miami. He was 94.

"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," wrote David Hall, owner of David Hall Fine Art, in Coburn's biography on the gallery's website. "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."

Ralph Coburn's "Blue, White, Green” Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Coburn, who was born in 1923 in Minnesota, moved to Miami Beach in 1926 with his parents. His father, a Harvard graduate, ran a school. In 1941, Coburn moved to Boston to study architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went back to Miami to register for the draft, but was turned down because of his eyesight, according to the Boston Globe.

He returned to MIT after the war, but ended up leaving. He spent some time in Paris, according to his family, before settling in Boston. He moved back to Miami in 2010 to be closer to his family.

He got a job with the design services offices at MIT. Meanwhile, he created work in his personal studio, according to Hall's biography.

“Not enough people know about Coburn’s work, which is spare, beautiful, witty, and uncannily satisfying,” Sebastian Smee, the then art critic for Boston Globe, wrote in 2010. “Coburn himself, I’ve been told, is modest to a fault, which is no doubt one reason we don’t know more about him.”

Coburn's niece Jeanne Panoff said beyond being talent, her uncle was a "tender and kind man" who loved classical music and art.

"Art was his entire world," she said. "That's what he lived for — art and music."

In addition to Panoff, Coburn is survived by his niece Carol C. Medcalfe. A memorial service is being planned in Gloucester.