“Expressionism in Boston: 1945–1985”

DeCordova Museum

With art historian Pamela Allara as consultant, and a catalogue essay by critic Theodore Wolff, this exhibition constituted the first scholarly overview of the art produced in Boston in the postwar period. As such, it was welcomed. Unfortunately, both Allara and Wolff predicated their theses on a single, seriously flawed premise, arguing unconvincingly for a conceptual continuum among three generations of Boston artists. (As one member of the current generation commented privately, “When we were in school, artists like Jack Levine were mentioned with a sneer. We were looking at Jim Dine, or the Minimalists.”) Wolff identifies this supposed commonality as “primarily a matter of shared sensibilities and attitudes, of a distinct and unmistakable aura that pervaded the work of these artists regardless of how dramatically their individual styles and imageries may have differed” He goes on to assert, “It would be a serious mistake . . . to forget that the first significant indications of what is now so dramatically enriching the art of Boston and environs already existed decades ago in the paintings of the older generation of Figurative Expressionists.”

Riddled with critical blind spots, this analysis is a classic attempt to mold the complex vagaries of art into neat, readily comprehensible theory, and despite the contention of a regionalist continuity, the exhibition had the ironic effect of highlighting the artists’ stylistic and thematic differences. Works produced within the past four decades were subdivided into the following categories: “Figurative Expressionism” (postwar realists Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, and Karl Zerbe—the only fully credible regionalist grouping here); “Gestural Abstraction” (second- and third-generation Abstract Expressionists, including Katherine Porter and Greg Amenoff, segueing into late ’70s/early ’80s abstraction, as exemplified by Elizabeth Dworkin, John McNamara, Roger Kisik, and Rick Harlow); and, finally, “New Figuration” (contemporary artists, such as Doug Anderson, Gerry Bergstein, Jonathan Imber, and Adam Cvijanovic, who have been influenced by neo-Expressionism, or more specifically by Philip Guston).

The opportunity to examine the infrequently exhibited art of Levine, Bloom, and Zerbe was welcome. Initially hailed as the vanguard of American postwar Modernism, these artists were swiftly and categorically eclipsed by the ascendance of their more adventurous contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists. Incorporating the angular distortions and harsh social critique of German Expressionism, Cubist spatial organization, and the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism (tellingly, Wolff points out that both Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock considered Bloom the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America), the early Boston realists evolved a composite style whose matrix was the Jewish American intellectual’s response to the Holocaust. With Bloom’s horrific Corpse of an Elderly Male, 1944, Zerbe’s quiet, subjective symbology (the Picasso-esque Melancholia, 1944), and Levine’s caustic political satires, their oeuvre emerges as poignant and affective, a tenaciously salvaged realism honed on Judaic angst.

As the exhibition progressed through the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, however, the regionalist binding unraveled. The organizers appeared to have bypassed the first tenet of the Age of Information: everything is available to everybody. With the advent of computer technology and global communication systems, today’s young Bostonians matured only a shuttle away from SoHo. But why bother, anyway, since every cut edge was duly disseminated via art-mag glossies? (A fact gleefully reflected in the super-shiny surfaces of Anderson’s paintings.) Even in the ’60s and ’70s, Porter’s and Amenoffs dialogues were with the immediately preceding and contemporaneous New York-based movements, Porter, for example, amalgamating Abstract Expressionist brushwork with Minimalist austerity. By the early ’80s, the notion of an ingrained Boston esthetic was definitively reduced by the international explosion of figuration, the immediate availability of artistic information, and the ubiquitous presence of media imagery. Compounding its conceptual problems, the show was hampered by the inclusion of dubious examples of works by key artists. Both Porter and Amenoff were represented by lesser works, Amenoff’s inexplicably drawn from the early ’80s—yet another interruption of the ostensible historical flow. In the contemporary section, one found a single, minor work by McNamara and by Anderson; in fact, only Bergstein, Imber, Cvijanovic, and Ralph Helmick were represented by works indicative of their talents. (The inclusion of Helmick, a sculptor of anatomical precision and lyrical romanticism, was baffling.)

Theoretical incredulity coupled with a haphazard qualitative range lent “Expressionism in Boston” an enervated air. That said, it was nevertheless a commendable, ambitious presentation that validated by its existence the vitality of the current Boston scene, a show valuable for its contextual vantage point and as a stimulus for further critical analysis.

Nancy Stapen