100 Boston Painters

An Ambitious Publication by Chawky Frenn

By: - Jun 04, 2012

Chawky Chawky

100 Boston Painters
By Chawky Frenn
Schiffer Publishing
Atglen, PA
232 Pages, Illustrated
ISBN 978-0-7643-3976-9

Several years ago the artist Chawky Frenn contacted me about a project to publish a book identifying, and illustrating 100 Boston Painters with statements by and about the artists.

There was discussion about potential artists as well as suggestions of individuals who might contribute to the search and selection. Pursuing and refining the list of artists the author contacted individual artists, galleries, and estates to secure images and permission to reproduce them.

While there was lively discussion about the list, and some lobbying on my part and surely from others, Frenn opted to make the final decision. There were complexities in tracking down and securing rights to archival images. Even among living artists some who were invited declined to participate.

For this historic occasion I was asked to provide a critical essay. Considering that the book will be a valued resource for research there was a responsibility to be inclusive and fair in identifying leading artists, movements, institutions and events. Given the expanse of time, from the Boston Expressionists of the 1930s and 1940s, through the era of the Boston Arts Festivals of the 1950s, the reemergence of the Institute of Contemporary Art and artists of the Studio Coalition in the late 1960s, to the flux and change of the current arts community, there was the potential for a wide margin of error.

The essay follows as published in the book. I am very grateful to Arthur Dion of Gallery Naga who took the time to edit the manuscript. And, of course, to Chawky who provided me with this challenge and opportunity. The Boston arts community is in his debt for undertaking this seminal project.

100 Boston Painters

As the recent opening of the Art of the Americas wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts clearly demonstrates the region has been strongly rooted in traditions of painting. This spans from Colonial times, and John Singleton Copley, through the 100 outstanding artists who are the focus of this timely and insightful publication.

The designation Boston Painter requires some definition. Our approach is that an artist has spent a considerable part of their career living, working and exhibiting in the city. They may reside as far away as Northampton, Providence or Manchester. Having worked here for a period of their lives some artists opted to move to New York.

The primary and defining characteristic is that the artist has identified with and been an integral part of the visual culture and aesthetic of the city and its traditions.

A decision to concentrate on painting implies a conservative approach to contemporary art. During the early 20th century, the avant-garde, conceptual artist, Marcel Duchamp, abandoned painting which he pronounced as “too retinal.” Since then, at regular and predictable increments, painting is declared dead. There have been many such critical funerals. But the primal force and spirit of painting has Phoenix like continually risen from the ashes. To paraphrase, painting is dead long live painting.

Arguably, Bostonians have been particularly stubborn and resilient in holding to the seemingly limitless possibilities of paint, brush and canvas.

Deriving and writing about a list of 100 Boston Painters is a daunting and perhaps thankless task. It is likely that few will agree with the artists who have been included or omitted. There are some artists who would be universally mandated to be on any such venture. Primarily, these include established and deceased artists. The work has endured the test of time and the filtering process of critical evaluation.

The likely flash point of argument and debate entails the selection of younger and emerging artists. There are artists included in this publication whose work I am unfamiliar with. Nor do I agree with many examples of inclusion as well as omission.

Despite its limitations this will be an important and useful reference. It is a reflection of the taste and decisions of a fixed moment in time. In the future it will become obvious just what is right and wrong about this selection. It recalls looking back at catalogues for the Whitney Annuals which evolved into Biennials. We are always interested in the “batting average” of such shows and the decisions of curators. Being selected for these widely debated Whitney shows is no guarantee of longevity in the art world.

But we are intrigued by lists. It is fascinating to learn what exhibitions, films, plays and events make the annual “best of” reports of critics. They help us to recall memorable cultural experiences and provide insights into the taste and credibility of the critics themselves.

Just how did this project come about?  It was initiated by the artist, Chawky Frenn, who has served as the final judge, editor, and publisher. Early on he contacted a number of individuals. I served as a consultant and nominator. Also, I suggested other individuals- curators, artists, collectors, critics and gallerists- who provided invaluable assistance in bringing this undertaking to fruition.

This entailed a lively dialogue and many suggestions on ways to ‘skin the cat.’ One approach was to create a group of jurors. While the more conventional and obvious approach it was rejected. As the list evolved there were issues about contacting artists, finding images, and generating information. Many helped in this process and individual artists were asked to approve of their participation.

It has been a challenging and complex process and we are indebted to Frenn in bringing this important book to publication.

Reviewing the final selection it is remarkable for its range and excellence. While, in general, Boston Painting is most notable for figuration and expressionism there are also outstanding examples of approaches to abstraction. There seems to be a nice balance of generations, gender, and ethnicity.

While we enjoy the illustrations in a book it would be wonderful to have it serve as the basis for an exhibition. Having the works spread out on walls would be helpful in getting a sense of the characteristics of Boston Painting.

Looking back at a lifetime of participating in and writing about the visual arts in Boston there have been a number of seminal individuals, events, institutions, and cathartic moments. Let us begin with a brief summary.

During my teenage years, in the 1950s, I much enjoyed the annual tent shows and performances of the Boston Arts Festival on the Boston Public Gardens. There was a dichotomy between the conservative, traditional painters of the venerable, Copley Society, and the more progressive artists. I still recall being riveted by the network of welded rods comprising the prize winning, life size “Saint Sebastian” by Kahlil Gibran, the nephew of the poet.

The Institute of Contemporary Art was then located on Soldier’s Field Road in Brighton under the direction of Thomas Messer. He mounted the first Egon Schiele show in America and I recall being blown away. The ICA would move to Newbury Street under Sue Thurman where I saw the first museum exhibition of Warhol as well as “Barney’s Beanery” by Ed Kienholsz. Then the ICA for a time went dead, in 1967, and returned to its home on Soldier’s Field Road. It came back to life under Andrew C. Hyde.

Many of us, a new generation, rallied around Drew who organized “Boston Now” in the gallery of Boston City Hall. There were lively mural projects (Dana Chandler, Jr., Roy Cato Jr., Gary Rickson, Michael Phillips) under “Summerthing” and the “Act Now” project in the South End. The ICA occupied the Parkman House on Beacon Hill now a hospitality center for the Mayor.

Several gallerists- Phyllis Rosen, Joan Sonnabend, Portia Harcus and Barbara Krakow- ran a huge space Parker 470 across the street from the MFA. There were a series of artist panels and discussions. There was a mob when Perry T. Rathbone, director of the MFA, was invited to speak. The artists formed the Boston Visual Artists Union and the nation’s first Open Studios under the banner of the Studio Coalition. Led by Chandler, AMARP, the African American Artists in Residence Program, was formed at Northeastern University. Under Barry Gaither the National Center for African American Artists became a department of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The MFA organized its first contemporary show "Elements of Art: Earth, Air, Fire and Water" (1971), curated by the artist, Virginia Gunther. During the press conference I asked Rathbone when the MFA would appoint a curator of contemporary art?

The Smart Duckys- Martin Mull, Todd McKie and associates- staged a guerilla exhibition "Flush with the Walls" in the men’s room of the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum freaked, realized it was under attack, and within days, in 1971, Perry “Percy” Rathbone called me at the Herald Traveler to announce that Kenworth Moffett had been appointed as the first curator of Contemporary Art.

As one of Hyde’s last acts as director of the ICA , through a close relationship with Mayor Kevin White and Deputy Mayor, Kathy Kane, secured a new home for the ICA in a former police station on Boylston Street. Louis Kane was a trustee of the ICA. There was new life for the ICA under David Ross. He initiated the chaotic “Currents” series and revived “Boston Now” as an annual summer event. This was echoed by the “Brockton Triennial” at the Fuller Museum of Art and the series of “DeCordova Annuals.”

There were important artist run cooperatives including Bromfield Gallery and Kingston Gallery. Both continue to flourish in the South End.

After much discussion it was agreed to start this survey with the generation of the Boston Expressionists from the 1930s and 1940s. This focuses on the boyhood friends Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom who were discovered in a South End settlement house by their art teacher Harold Zimmerman. He took them to be tutored by Professor Denman Ross at Harvard University. Both artists passed away recently. After military service during WWII Levine moved to New York where he remained a Red Sox fan. The mystical Bloom was a recluse who lived for many years in New Hampshire.

The third founding member of Boston Expressionism was Karl Zerbe. While Bloom and Levine did not teach their work was regularly shown at Boris Mirski Gallery which also showed David Aronson. The influence of these artists was deeply felt at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and later at Boston University under Aronson. Younger artists in this tradition, including Arthur Polonsky and Henry Schwartz, continued the traditions of expressionism. Gerry Bergstein was a fully formed artist when he moved to Boston from New York but he embraced and continues the expressionist traditions at the Museum School.

The Museum School has been an important matrix for Boston Painting particularly through the teaching of Schwartz, Bergstein, Domingo Barreres, Miroslav Antic, the abstract artists, Natalie Alper and Sandy Slone, as well as, the now deceased realist, Barney Rubenstein.

The Massachusetts College of Art has also been a center of influence on Boston Painting. It is where the protest painter Arnold Trachtman trained. The eccentric landscape/ fantasy painter Robert Ferrandini studied at Mass Art where the realist George Nick was a professor. Most importantly the alumni Rick Harlow, Roger Kizik and John McNamara emerged as what came to be known as the Epic Abstractionists and for a period of time were a dominant force in Boston Painting. There was the Direct Vision group led by the late Jason Berger. 

Looking back over the past decades individual artists, curators and gallerists have had a significant influence on shaping the tone and direction of Boston art.

For a period of time Philip Guston commuted from his New York studio, as has Alfred Leslie, to teach at Boston University. Their influence on a generation of artists has been enormous. Jon Imber, for example, was particularly close to Guston. When he taught here the work was in transition and the subject of much debate. He had abandoned abstraction to return to the politically charged imagery of his paintings in the 1930s and 1940s. He made big, rough, edgy paintings of Ku Klux Klansmen, fragmented figures and smokers. The British artist, John Walker, has been a major presence at BU.

When Guston approached the Museum of Fine Arts about donating a painting they were only interested in his earlier, abstract work. At the time they could have had the pick of the studio.

This anecdote underscores the struggle that has prevailed with generations of artists receiving, at best, indifferent museum support, and an always too small pool of committed collectors.

In that complex mix institutions have played an important role in providing jobs and teaching positions. Many galleries have championed the work.

The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT played an important role in training and research related to arts, science and technology. The founder, Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian, and his successor, the German artist, Otto Piene, are renowned for their paintings as well as multi media work.

Before my time the legendary Boston art dealer was Margaret Brown. When I first started to write about art in the 1960s Boris Mirski had become a senior citizen. His heir was Hyman Swetsoff, a progressive dealer who showed Bruce Conner and Hyman Bloom. Swetsoff was murdered. Another former employee of Mirski was Alan Fink whose daughter Joanna continues to run Alpha Gallery. Both Fink’s wife, Barbara Swan, and son, Aaron, were represented by the gallery. During the 1960s, Phyllis Rosen ran the important Obelisk Gallery.  For Obelisk, the critic/ curator, John Chandler, organized the seminal “Three If By Air” which included Andrew Tavarelli, Katherine Porter and Tony Thompson. It was the first time that the new generation of painters was featured on Newbury Street, the traditional gallery row.

After decades on Newbury Street Nina Nielsen Gallery has now closed. She was the first to show Greg Amenoff, Liz Dworkin, later Porter and Walker. For a time Rosen partnered with Rosen/ Sonnabend/ Krakow and Harcus, first as Parker 470, and then on Newbury Street. Barbara Krakow, who showed the late Michael Mazur among others, remains active.

During the 1960s, briefly, Arnold Glimsher had a Newbury Street Gallery before founding Pace Gallery in New York. The Ward Nasse Gallery had interesting shows “Salon ‘70” and “Salon ‘71.”

Before moving to New York, during the era of David Ross at the ICA, Stefan and the now deceased Linda Stux were the dominant dealers on Newbury Street. They showed the major visionary painters Alex Grey and Paul Laffoley as well as Doug Anderson, Harvey Low Simons, Morgan Bukleley, Louis Risoli, Gerry Bergstein, Suzanne Vincent, Gina Fidel, Roger Kizik, Judy Haberl and others. There are oustanding abstract painters including Thad Beal and David Moore. The late figurative/ abstrated artist Ralph Hamilton fits no ready category. Vico Fabbris creates compelling botanical fantasies.

Other major influences have been the dealers Arthur Dion of Gallery Naga and Howard Yezerski. They continue to be vital forces in promoting Boston artists. There have been  important galleries many now closed- Judy Rotenberg, Clark Gallery, Eleanor Rigelhaupt, Kidder/ Smith, Mario Diacono, Joyce Creiger, Ali Akin Righter,  Hoffman/ Youngaus,  Ward/ Nasse, Vision Gallery (now Victoria Munroe after a lapse of years), Pucker Gallery, Arden and Chase Galleries (still active), Audrey Pepper, Thomas Segal, First Impressions, Oni, Gallery FX, Brent Sikkema (now in New York), Cutler/ Stavaridis, Helen Shlein, Levinson/ Kane, Lopoukine/ Naydych, Miller/ Block, Green Street Gallery, Nasrudin, Judy Goldman, Atlantic Gallery (Jeff and Jane Hudson),  Samson Projects, Genovese/ Sullivan,  Barbara Singer, Boston Sculptors, Carl Siembab, Robert Klein, Kiva, Cutting/ Brazelton/ Van Buren, Bernard Toale, Beth Urdang, Carroll and Sons, Arlette Kayafas, Steve Zevitas, Andrea Marquit, Mercury Gallery, Sunne Savage and Pierre Menard.

In addition to commercial galleries there are many museums and university/ college/school galleries with unique commitments to supporting local galleries.

Currently, the Danforth Museum director Katherine French, is collecting and showing the Boston expressionists. The DeCordova Museum is mandated to the artists of New England. Under Carl Belz, the Rose Art Museum was supportive of Boston artists, particularly women.

The galleries of Mass Art, the Museum School, Art Institute of Boston, Montserrat College of Art, New England School of Art & Design, Framingham State, Salem State, U. Mass Boston, and U. Mass Lowell, all show their own students and faculty as well as artists of the region.

There are galleries in the artist loft buildings of Brickbottom and Summer Street. To some extent the MFA, ICA, and MIT List support local artists. During her time at the MFA Amy Lighthill was supportive of local artists particularly women. James Manning has been an activist curator dedicated to finding new talent. When Bill Arning was at MIT nobody made more studio visits or knew the city better.

While the MFA continues to be indifferent to Boston artists a prize has been established in the name of the distinguished abstract painter Maud Morgan. It is a scandal that the prize to a mid career, female, Boston artist has not been awarded in several years. Significantly, none of the recipients of the Morgan prize are included in this list of 100 Boston Painters.

The MFA has indicated that it is interested in acquiring work by African American artists. Many noted with pleasure a work by Allan Rohan Crite, a graduate of the Museum School, who passed away at 97 in 2007, in the Art of the Americas wing. The ICA has revived a biannual exhibition and prize for Boston artists.

It is also a pleasure to note that this volume acknowledges the remarkable group of Northampton Realists including Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie, both now deceased, as well as Jane Lund and Scott Prior. Works by all of these artists, and Randal Diehl, are included in the permanent collection of the MFA.

Because of a lack of familiarity it has not been possible to discuss all of the artists who are included in this book.  No effort at a brief essay in this context is beyond criticism and second guessing. But it has been a challenge, pleasure, honor and delight to be involved in such a wonderful and ambitious project.

Let us hope that this book provides a jumping off point and signifier of the importance and impact of Boston Painting.