May 18, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Maryan, an Artist Once Reborn, Is Now Rediscovered

5 min read

Walking through Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018 as the new executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Chana Budgazad Sheldon nearly fell over when she confronted the paintings being displayed by the New York gallery Venus Over Manhattan.

She instantly recognized the lurid, cartoonish figures, erupting with bodily fluids and strange protuberances, from visits almost two decades earlier to the New York apartment of her grandmother’s friend Annette, wife of the artist known as Maryan.

Born in 1927 in Poland and the only member of his family to survive the Nazi concentration camps (he was imprisoned under his mother’s maiden name, using Pinkas Bursztyn), he moved to Paris in 1950 and studied with Fernand Léger, reinventing himself as the artist Maryan (pronounced Ma-ree-yan).

He immigrated to New York in 1961 and exhibited frequently with the Allan Frumkin Gallery before dying of a heart attack in his studio at the Chelsea Hotel in 1977 at age 50. His wife, Annette, had met Ms. Sheldon’s grandmother during the war when both were hiding at a French convent and had remained close.

When Ms. Sheldon was first starting out in the art world as a gallery assistant, she was among the few to be granted an audience by Annette, who lived within a time capsule of Maryan’s work after his death (and may have hobbled his legacy by protecting it fiercely in her lifetime).

Re-encountering Maryan’s artwork in 2018, now as the steward of a Miami institution, “felt unexpectedly impactful,” Ms. Sheldon said. “I immediately connected his experience as an immigrant, exploring his trauma and lived experience through his art, with something that would resonate with the significant immigrant community where the museum is located.”

In a full-blown retrospective on view at MoCA North Miami through March 20, “My Name Is Maryan” introduces the artist to a broad public convening this week for Art Basel Miami Beach. With new scholarship by the curator Alison Gingeras, who organized the exhibition, and a trove of works never before on public view, the show traces Maryan’s wildly expressive form of figuration, reinserts the work into a larger art historical context and connects it to universal human experience. The exhibition will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in March 2023.

“You would think they could be painted today,” said Adam Lindemann, the founder of Venus Over Manhattan, who discovered dozens of canvases by the unfamiliar artist when he bought Mr. Frumkin’s estate several years ago.

Since then, Mr. Lindemann has found a cultlike enthusiasm for Maryan among collectors such as Bernard Ruiz-Picasso and artists including Eddie Martinez. Mr. Martinez curated the Maryan show this fall at Venus Over Manhattan in New York and compared the artist’s biomorphic blend of representation and abstraction to artists such as Philip Guston, Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Murray, Dana Schutz and himself.

Mr. Lindemann, who is again including Maryan paintings in his booth at Art Basel Miami Beach, commented that the artist’s figures “are always basically vomiting or bleeding or being annihilated but it doesn’t look like that — it’s just these sort of magical things coming out of them or into them.”

“There’s some positive resolution of the turns and twists of humanity,” he said.

In the opening gallery of the retrospective, Ms. Gingeras offers a sense of Maryan’s eccentric studio at the Chelsea Hotel using unpublished photographs she found from the 1970s as a guide. His crucifixion paintings and tondos of distorted heads hang salon style with African masks, folk art and toy soldiers he collected.

“I wanted to start by foregrounding the aesthetic impact of his mature work and how he constructed this visual world,” said Ms. Gingeras, who has chosen to tell Maryan’s story almost backward. “He hated the label of ‘Holocaust artist.’ It was important that that be in the heart of the show but not the first thing you experience.”

From there, the exhibition focuses on Maryan’s “personnages,” a cast of single-figure caricatures begun in the early 1960s that are at once playful and monstrous.

Across a series based on Napoleon, recognizable in his military regalia, Maryan almost flays him alive, with things exploding from his sliced-open head.

Ms. Gingeras posited that such skewering might have helped exorcise Maryan’s resentment toward France, which denied his application for citizenship after a decade of living in Paris, as well as his traumatic memories of uniformed military at the camps.

At Auschwitz, he survived eight bullets to his body in a mass execution by the Nazis as the Russians were liberating the camps in 1945; one of his legs was amputated in Poland to save his life.

While Maryan was never part of a particular movement, his work was exhibited in Europe in the 1950s in dialogue with members of the CoBrA Group, an alliance whose rudimentary figuration was inspired in part by folk and children’s art. The Miami retrospective teases out these affinities in an installation of Maryan’s paintings with those by Asger Jorn, Egill Jacobsen and other CoBrA artists.

Another grouping puts Maryan in conversation with work by American friends and colleagues he exhibited with at the Frumkin gallery in the 1960s and 1970s, including H.C. Westermann and June Leaf.

Ms. Leaf, now 92, remembers Maryan as a theatrical person who liked to do magic tricks. “He had a kind of swagger,” she said of the way he leaned on his crutch.

Ms. Leaf described how he wouldn’t work for months but then would close himself off and “suddenly burst out with many, many paintings,” she said. “The paintings were very ugly but full of force. That meant everything to me.”

Maryan’s Holocaust experience is dealt with explicitly at the center of the show in the screening of “Ecce Homo,” an experimental film he shot with the artist Kenny Schneider. Maryan gives his first-person testimony of the Nazi camps directly to the camera.

In the opening minutes, Maryan incorporated a montage of photographs of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, civil rights protests and Ku Klux Klan members and other sociopolitical struggles, connecting all of this to the Holocaust as an extreme example of what can happen in the absence of democracy and freedom.

“It’s about his desire to speak to the human condition as a whole and understanding different forms of discrimination that he saw happening as a continuum,” Ms. Gingeras said. “This is really the political relevance of his work today.”

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