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ART REVIEW

Painting with a Boston accent

Danforth exhibition traces paths of three local Expressionists

David Aronson’s “The Resurrection’’ (above) and “The Paradox.’’ David Aronson’s “The Resurrection’’ (above) and “The Paradox.’’
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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FRAMINGHAM - Over many decades, the artist David Aronson has produced a body of flickering, tousled, shadow-strewn work that is as fascinating to contemplate as it is uneven in quality. Aronson, now in his mid-80s, is one of the leading lights of the long-lived Boston Expressionists, along with Hyman Bloom, who died recently at 96, Jack Levine, 94, and Arthur Polonsky, 84.

Right now, he is the senior figure in a fascinating triple bill at Framingham’s Danforth Museum.

Under director Katherine French, the Danforth has made championing the Boston Expressionists and their heirs a major part of its mission. Boston Expressionism refers to a loosely affiliated group of artists who emerged in the 1930s and ’40s. Linked both to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston University, they shunned abstraction, the ascendant style in New York in the ’40s and ’50s, in favor of figurative paintings that addressed spiritual themes in the context of 20th-century moral catastrophes. They relied on a language that was poetic, symbolic, and deeply engaged with art history.

Rounding out the trio of shows at the Danforth are Henry Schwartz, who studied under Aronson and died this year at 81, and Gerry Bergstein, who studied under Schwartz and is now in his early 60s. It’s a descending stepladder of mentor and student that leads from the sincerity of Aronson’s spiritual striving to the entertaining histrionics of Bergstein’s resourceful but sometimes hollow wit. (Bergstein is also showing recent work at Gallery NAGA on Newbury Street through Dec. 19.)

The Jewish families of Aronson, Bloom, and Levine all moved from the Baltic to Boston in the first half of the 20th century (of the three, only Levine was actually born in Boston). Aronson’s father, writes French in a catalog essay, was both a rabbi and a “shochet’’ - a ritual slaughterer.

Life in Dorchester, where the Aronsons settled, was easier in many ways than in their native Lithuania. But Aronson’s interest in art set up tensions between him, his family, and the Jewish faith, which forbids the making of “graven images.’’

As if to test that commandment to the utmost, Aronson’s earliest interest was in trompe-l’oeil, or “deceive-the-eye’’ painting, as practiced by artists from 17th-century Holland to the 20th-century Surrealist Salvador Dalí. Aronson learned the technique from his teacher Karl Zerbe.

His first painting, made while studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and included here, was called “The Paradox’’ (1942). This small oil painted on a panel showed a group of figures in a jazz club, with Gothic windows simultaneously suggesting a more spiritual setting.

The figures are painted roughly. But taking up a good portion of the image at lower right is a 2-by-3-inch panel displaying jewels, gold chains, and other trinkets. It’s a bravura instance of trompe-l’oeil, and the effect, in context, is very strange.

It must have confounded Aronson’s family, and others in Boston’s Jewish community, when Aronson proceeded over many years to paint scenes from the New Testament. Yet the young Aronson was in blistering form in these years, painting extraordinary canvases that took up Christian themes such as the Holy Trinity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. In a variety of formats, he set smooth, hauntingly illusionistic heads (almost all with similar features) against dark, thickly painted backgrounds punctuated by outbreaks of psychedelic color.

His “Resurrection’’ (1944), which he painted after visiting the morgue at Kenmore Hospital, is a flat-out masterpiece - a bird’s eye view of Christ laid out in a casket that, because of its tall, vertical format, also suggests his resurrection. His head is wreathed in roses, and the smoky, insubstantial pallor of his chest is suffused by intense oranges and yellows, as if new blood were starting up an ecstatic pulse through his veins. His body is obscured by writhing boy angels, their bodies positioned so as to suggest a cross. They play musical instruments, sing, or simply look out with haunted eyes.

(Bloom, who would shortly become famous for his paintings of cadavers, accompanied Aronson on that same trip to the morgue.)

Strange as it may seem, Aronson was by no means the only Jewish artist painting overtly Christian themes during these years. In 1942, as French points out in her eloquent essay, the Puma Gallery in New York had mounted a group exhibition called “Modern Christs’’ in which most of the artists were, counter-intuitively, Jewish. Seeking to compare Christ’s suffering with that of the Jewish people, Marc Chagall had painted a whole series of Crucifixions during the Nazi period, and many Jewish artists in the United States, apprised of what was going on in Europe, saw fit to follow suit.

By the late ’40s, Aronson was one of a few key figures setting the pace on the Boston art scene. While organizing a Max Beckmann exhibition he fell under the influence of the great German artist. One painting here, “Marriage at Cana’’ (1947-52), is an homage that feels uncomfortably close to a rip-off. But it’s a remarkable painting, as is the similarly ambitious “Christ in the House of Simon,’’ inspired by Veronese’s canvas on the same theme.

After his father’s death in the early 1950s, Aronson found himself wrestling anew with his Jewish heritage, and his subject matter switched in focus from the New to the Old Testament. Many amazing images - most bearing the influence of Rembrandt - ensued, including “The Golem’’ of 1958.

Golems, in Jewish folklore, are mute beings brought to life from inanimate matter. They spread violence and fear among the enemies of their creators, but in some stories may turn back against them. (Golem stories anticipate the Frankenstein myth.)

Philip Guston, who was well acquainted with Aronson and his work from his days teaching in Boston, credited him with reviving his own interest in Jewish imagery; French draws a link between Aronson’s golems and Guston’s characteristic hooded figures.

For all its marvels, the Danforth show, which peters out in the 1960s, is a mercifully circumscribed affair. For there’s no denying that Aronson ceased making compelling images from the ’60s on. His work devolved into repetitive portraits of outsider figures painted in a desultory, evanescent manner reminiscent in places of Georges Rouault and loosely suggestive of Christ’s face on Veronica’s veil. He took up sculpture, too, with mixed results. Nevertheless, he was one of Boston’s most compelling figures in the postwar years, and this show makes it abundantly clear why.

The Henry Schwartz show is a much smaller affair, and less, perhaps, than this interesting figure deserves. The paintings, which include images of orchestras and self-portraits of Schwartz listening to music by German composers, lament the predicament of culturally inclined Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, without ever gaining much traction as art in themselves.

Bergstein, the subject of the third show, a career survey, loves trompe-l’oeil. The technique is everywhere in his paintings, making it all the more surprising that he and Aronson have, according to French, never met.

Bergstein’s early paintings are big, blowsy affairs that try to dramatize human isolation with awkward symbols (disconnected telephones, empty rooms, and the like) and crude, uningratiating colors. They’re the visual equivalent of Pink Floyd’s music in that band’s overblown, Roger Waters-dominated period of the 1980s. They’re terrible.

His later oils, in which he uses a grisaille, or monochrome, technique to make works resembling the free-associative doodles of a cartoonist undergoing therapy, are compelling enough, but too hectic for my liking. Later on, we see him growing ever more fascinated by trompe-l’oeil in paintings that throw together reproductions of famous images from art history, in the manner of postcards taped to a wall (Guston’s imagery reappears throughout). In these technically brilliant works - and particularly in a series of tall self-portraits made up of hundreds of other images - Bergstein reveals a manic gleam that’s hard not to like.

The recent paintings, collages, and mixed media works that round out the show treat art history as an almost arbitrary source of ideas and images. They’re bright, they’re vivacious, and there’s more of the same in Bergstein’s solo show at Gallery NAGA. A set of three linked works there give some idea of his modus operandi:

The first, called “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To,’’ is a three-dimensional collage that protrudes from the wall. A photograph near the center of the collage shows Bergstein and friends swimming in a lake at what I’m told was a school reunion. All around are pasted fragments of images by Guston, Henri Matisse, Robert Crumb, Lucian Freud, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Vincent Van Gogh, John Currin, Beckmann, and many others. The next in the series, a mixed media work called “It’s My Party: Ten Years Later,’’ plays with the idea of entropy (a longstanding interest of Bergstein): Actual sticky tape is set beside trompe-l’oeil images of tape; there are passages of heavy impasto, and the whole image is dotted with trompe-l’oeil holes, as if it were being eaten away by caterpillars. “It’s My Party: Twenty Years Later’’ is a smaller image, almost entirely painted, dotted with even more holes.

The wit and exuberance are hard to miss in these and other recent works. “War of the Worlds,’’ for instance, sets a reproduction of Freud’s “Naked Man, Back View’’ opposite Ingres’s “Bather of Valpinçon,’’ the painting that inspired it, and sets both against the backdrop of Bergstein’s studio floor. But impressed as I was by Bergstein’s technical fireworks, I came away unconvinced.

Works that make you feel repeatedly nudged and winked at by their creator eventually dampen the spirits, like canned laughter. Bergstein may say these works are about his lifelong struggles with art, the anxiety of influence, entropy, infatuation, image glut, and so on. But to me, they seemed more about showing off.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

DAVID ARONSON: The Paradox

GERRY BERGSTEIN: Effort at Speech

HENRY SCHWARTZ: The Eternal Footman

At: Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, through Feb 28. 508-620-0050, www.danforthmuseum.org

GERRY BERGSTEIN: Elements of Style

At: Gallery NAGA, through Dec. 19. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com

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