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    Ralph Coburn, 94, who created ‘spare, beautiful’ abstract art

    “Blue, White, Green” by Ralph Coburn.
    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
    “Blue, White, Green” by Ralph Coburn.

    Imagine the life of abstract artist Ralph Coburn as if it were one of the many artworks he created, such as his collage “Arranged by Choice,” a 1950 grid of triangles.

    One piece in the grid came from childhood. “I grew up in Miami Beach in the ’30s,” he told interviewer Eoin Vincent in 2010. “As a kid I was influenced by the great art deco architecture that was being built at that time in hotels, banks, and homes. I would design houses just for the fun of it and thought that maybe I should be an architect.”

    Just before World War II, his parents sent him away to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where another piece of his life’s collage slipped into place. While working on a collaborative project, he met students “from the Museum School, and they were so much more interesting and more glamorous than the architects that I said, ‘I got to be an artist.’ Architecture was just not that interesting to me, and I had to be an artist.”


    And so he was for the next seven decades. Never much interested in attention, he drew consistent admiration, but nothing approaching the fame afforded to some of his friends. Mr. Coburn, whose health was failing, was 94 when he died Tuesday in Miami, where he moved in 2010 to live closer to his two nieces. He previously had lived in and created art in Gloucester for many years.

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    “Not enough people know about Coburn’s work, which is spare, beautiful, witty, and uncannily satisfying,” Sebastian Smee, then the Globe’s art critic, 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.”

    In 2014, Globe critic Cate McQuaid called Mr. Coburn a “delirious colorist,” a modernist painter “who breaks landscapes and leaves down to pixels of color on graph paper.”

    “Collage was perfect for him. Coburn’s ability to see the world in discrete shapes led him to shuffle independent forms,” McQuaid wrote the following year, reviewing his show at David Hall Fine Art in Wellesley.

    Artist Ralph Coburn stood in front of his Gloucester home in 2011 with his niece, Carol C. Medcalfe.

    “In the cut-paper collage ‘Sunrise, Sanary,’ he distills dawn’s glory to several crisp horizontals (white, blue, purple) and one hot pink arc nudging over a span of gold — the sea, suddenly alight,” she wrote. “Another ‘Sunrise Sanary’ collage sandwiches black and white bands between hot-toned red and ocher ones, some curved at the bottom; the sun and its reflection become a rhythmic pulse of color and form.”


    And what, Vincent asked in his 2010 interview, inspired such work?

    “What I see and what I think,” Mr. Coburn replied. “It’s very hard to tell you. I am a visual guy.”

    In a critical essay accompanying “Ralph Coburn — France: Works on Paper 1949-1956,” a 2011 show at David Hall Fine Art, independent curator Rachael Arauz said Mr. Coburn’s art was “marked by elegant, restrained observations of the urban and rural forms around him.”

    At the urging of his friend Ellsworth Kelly, who would become a renowned abstract artist, Mr. Coburn had visited France a handful of times during those years. Along with developing his artistic techniques and approaches, Mr. Coburn met the likes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the composer John Cage during his sojourns in and around Paris, in Brittany, and in the south of France.

    Mr. Coburn’s drawings and collages in the 2011 exhibition at the Wellesley gallery, Arauz wrote, “reveal an experimental sensibility and a remarkably instinctual ability to see unusual spatial relationships and patterns of light and dark.”


    In an interview with David Hall, Mr. Coburn described his work with what Arauz called “typical modesty. His characterizations, she wrote, suggested “the intuitive nature of his drawing practice.”

    During his extended visits to France, Mr. Coburn told Hall, “I took what I felt was relevant to what I was thinking and I took elements — it’s not very serious. It’s kind of a random choice . . . I’d look at a scene and see some lines and some spaces and I’d reduce it to some geometric elements. It’s as simple as that, no more complicated.”

    The older of two children, Ralph Maurice Hazelton Coburn was born in Minneapolis. His father, Nelson Coburn, was a Harvard College graduate who could speak and teach several languages. His mother, the former Vera Marzouk, had been born in England and taught French. When Mr. Coburn was young, his parents moved to Miami and started a private school.

    Mr. Coburn once explained “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,” Hall wrote in a biographical sketch on the gallery’s website.

    Partway into Mr. Coburn’s studies at MIT, he returned to Florida to register for the draft during World War II. Eyesight problems kept him from serving, so he worked in a military-related drafting job.

    Mr. Coburn returned to MIT after the war but eventually left. He found work at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston and the Boris Mirski Gallery on Newbury Street, and more importantly began a lifelong friendship with Kelly.

    In 1957, Mr. Coburn took a job with the then-new office of design services at MIT, where he remained until 1988. His work with graphic design and typographic style “garnered him both national and international recognition,” Hall wrote.

    Throughout, Mr. Coburn continued “to create an ambitious body of artwork in his personal studio,” Hall added, though the candle of his fame burned low. In the biographical sketch, Hall quoted the late painter and Yale University art professor Bernard Chaet, a friend of Mr. Coburn’s since the 1940s.

    “Becoming a successful artist simply didn’t matter to Ralph — it was always about the exploration and execution of ideas, nothing more,” Chaet said.

    Mr. Coburn, who never married, was devoted to his mother, who had lived in Florida into her 80s, and to the family of his late sister, Nell Medcalfe.

    “And he was a great uncle to my sister and me,” said his niece Jeanne Panoff of Miami. Along with her sister, Carol C. Medcalfe of Miami, she helped take care of Mr. Coburn after he moved to Miami.

    Panoff said a memorial service in Gloucester will be announced for Mr. Coburn, whom she recalled as “the least judgmental person I’ve ever met, and just a kind person. He loved children, he loved animals, he was very tender. He was humble to a fault — he really was.”

    Though there was precision in the abstractions Mr. Coburn created, at home he was “the least rigid person I have ever met,” Panoff said, and he even avoided participating in conversations that took a negative turn.

    “He would rather listen to his classical music or read a book. He loved music and he loved good reading,” she said. “He listened to classical music when he painted, and NPR news. He listened to the radio all day — and into the night, actually. He kept it on. And that’s the kind of life he chose to live from an early age.”

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at