Burlin was born Isadore Berlin in New York, a name he quickly renounced. He grew up in London and New York where he studied at the National Academy from 1900 to 1912. Burlin is noteworthy for two aspects of his early career: He was the youngest artist to be invited to show in the important Armory Show of 1913 and he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1913 becoming the first modernist painter to reside and work there — preceding other early modernists such as Jan Matulka. He was both impressed and influenced by the spirituality of the Pueblo Indians as his work moved from representational to experimental and abstract.
In 1921 Burlin moved to Paris where his wife was killed in a traffic accident (this was the first of four marriages). He remained in France until 1932, absorbing the tenets of avant-garde painting and honing his skills. He was included in the 1930 Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans at MoMA in New York, though he did not attend. In 1932 he returned to New York where he lived for the rest of his life.
In the late 1940s Burlin's work moved further into the abstract expressionist mode although he always retained elements of mythic figuration, possibly attributable to his early exposure to American Indian influences. In the early 1950s Burlin taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri amid a little known hot-bed of modernist invention and innovation. Artists such as Philip Guston, Max Beckmann, Carl Holty, Werner Drewes and John Wehemer are also associated with the Wash U. school of art. After his death Burlin was honored with retrospectives at MoMA and the Pasadena Art Museum.