J. B. Harter: Self Portrait as Curator
Self-Portrait of J. B. Harter as Curator
oil on panel, 1983
36" by 36"
The Historic New Orleans Collection,
accession no. 2008.218.8

To many collectors, J. B. Harter is best remembered for his exquisite figure studies, including a good number of fine compositions focusing on the male body. His figure studies range from the classical studio nude figures to draped, partially draped and finished nude paintings, including a good number of self-portraits. A great admirer of Paul Cadmus (1904-1999), Harter credited Cadmus for having established a climate in which he felt able to explore the male nude and the relationships of men in art directly, without subterfuge.

Harter's art paralleled his exploration, evolution and identity as a gay man and his oeuvre contains a good number of gay genre scenes, documenting alternative lifestyle habits, especially of the 1970s. Most of these works convey a sense of camaraderie and affection and are filled with elements of fun and joy. Later, the artist participated in the AIDS dialectic which led to the creation of his perhaps most personal series, the AIDS Wall. Executed between 1992 and 2001, it is a tribute to friends and people he admired who died or were HIV+.

Harter's landscape paintings are as noteworthy, displaying a sense of time, space and mood much like Aaron Copland's music, often powerful, often lonely. The artist left a full archive of his oeuvre, often stating the source of his inspiration. Many landscapes are recorded as having been inspired by the artist's imagination or remembrances of past moments. Cloud formations of his Louisiana landscapes or watercolors of Gulf Coast pines best reflect the years Burt Harter -- as he was known to his friends -- spent in New Orleans and in the Gulf Coast region.

Harter's portraits are generally head studies of close friends and acquaintances. His still-life paintings were mostly created during the last two or three years of his life and are usually smaller works painted in a tight detailed style -- fine studies in texture, color and shape of one type of fruit or vegetable and flowers.

Harter's photography consists of architectural views, landscapes, cityscapes and people taken during his travels around the globe, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. With his keen interest in Hindu philosophy and mythology, favorite destinations included Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Tibet, Mustang, India, Morocco, New Zealand and Patagonia. Harter often used his own photographs as models for his paintings, at times taking elements from one and linking these to others to create his compositions.

Harter's body of work consists of over three thousand paintings, drawings, watercolors and photographs. Harter did some etchings, lithographs and woodcut prints as well, mostly during his formative years. With a few exceptions, it is only after his retirement in 1991 that Harter started exhibiting his work. The artist's untimely death in 2002, murdered at home in New Orleans by an unknown assailant, remains unsolved to this day.

The John Burton Harter Charitable Trust was established in 2002 per Harter's instructions in his will. The foundation aims to preserve, publish and exhibit his work in addition to funding scholarships, exhibitions and projects relating to his lifelong aesthetic and philosophical interests and involvements.