Alternative universe

Boston Expressionism in context
By GREG COOK  |  December 16, 2009


VIEWMore images of the works on display at the Danforth Museum

In the 1930s and '40s, Boston painters developed a moody, mythic realism. They mixed social satire with depictions of street scenes, Biblical scenes, and mystical symbolic narratives, all of it darkened by the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II.

It became known as Boston Expressionism, or sometimes figurative expressionism, and it was "for a time the center of this line of [expressionist] development" in America, as Brooklyn Museum of Art curator John Baur wrote in his 1951 book Revolution and Tradition in Modern American Art. The painter Bernard Chaet, who grew up around Boston and taught art at Yale for years, relates how Willem de Kooning told him that when de Kooning and Jackson Pollock discovered Boston Expressionist Hyman Bloom's fiery kinetic paintings of chandeliers and Christmas trees at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1942, they thought him the first Abstract Expressionist.

But the Bostonians have come to be left out of today's art histories and dismissed as backward provincials because their expressionist realism did not fit into the triumphant narrative of abstract art — particularly as it was made in New York. "I never delved into complete abstractionism because it didn't speak to me of human experience," Boston Expressionist Henry Schwartz explained last year. (Schwartz, who was born in 1927, died this past February.) "It was decorative. Kokoschka called it 'patches for the pants.' "

Instead, the official version of events goes like this: in 1907, Pablo Picasso and his pal Georges Braque invented Cubism. That launched a fine-art Manhattan Project aimed at breaking down art to its atomic essence — from Pollock's drips to Ad Reinhardt's minimalist black monochromes to Sol LeWitt's conceptual-art recipes for paintings and drawings that might or might not be executed. Yet now, with the rise of street artists like Shepard Fairey (who was featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art this year) and the "pop surrealism" of lowbrow art, Boston Expressionism — which is on display in the shows of Schwartz, David Aronson (born 1923), and Gerry Bergstein (born 1945) at Framingham's Danforth Museum of Art — looks more and more like an early example of a remarkably resilient movement.

Despite being ignored and even discouraged by New York–centered officialdom, the expressionist-realist strain kept sprouting across the country. It didn't matter that the artists remained ignorant of kindred spirits elsewhere off art's beaten path, or that historians failed to connect the dots among related developments in, say, Boston, Chicago, and California. This art remained invisible to most who didn't experience it first-hand in part because the artists themselves received scant national press. But it kept popping up as a genetic mutation in isolated archipelagos, willing itself into existence.

Boston Expressionism bears similarities to the social-realist art of Ben Shahn, to the works of American Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and to Alfred Stieglitz's circle of European-inspired Modernists (especially Marsden Hartley) of the 1920s and '30s. But the influence of socially engaged German Expressionism — both indirectly and directly via German Expressionist Karl Zerbe, who came to Boston after being driven out of Germany by the Nazis — may be its distinguishing characteristic. And that is what separated it from New York, which favored more apolitical French Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, with their focus on the formal nature of art.

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