In 1972, the Guggenheim Museum invited a group of 10 artists to create an exhibition in which the curatorial team had virtually no involvement. Even if that show was “anti-curator,” as one? New York Times critic opined that the exhibition, entitled ‘Ten Independents’, was certainly not entirely anti-art world. The artists – many of whom were known at the time to curators and collectors such as Romare Bearden, HC Westermann and Red Grooms – chose the noted critic Dore Ashton as their emissary, neatly summarizing the ethos of the show in the catalog rather than a curator. Unlike some of his peers, however, one artist in that mix has remained in relative obscurity ever since. Maryan was a painter of vivid images of restless figures. When he died of a heart attack five years later, in 1977, at age 50, he received only a brief obituary in the Time and some other announcements.
At the time of his death, Maryan had already had an extremely full – and at times tumultuous – career. Born in 1927 under the name Pinkas Bursztyn in the southern Polish city of Nowy-Saçz, he spent much of the Second World War in multiple concentration camps because he was Jewish. After living in Palestine after the war, he moved to Paris and then to New York, where he was shown by the same gallery that also represented Westermann. Though not entirely unknown in their day, his most famous paintings—his “characters,” figurines depicting grotesque humanoids that seem to weep blood and disintegrate into arrays of imaginatively colored forms—have achieved lasting fame.
“Maryan is one of those artists who didn’t make it to the first draft of 20th-century art history, and I think in many ways that’s because the trajectory of his work and his life is incredibly complex,” says Alison M. Gingeras, curated a Maryan retrospective now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami in Florida. With that show, which will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum in 2023, Gingeras aims to re-contextualize Maryan and show that he was, in fact, one of the more intriguing figures of the time.
On the rare occasions Maryan has been considered over the decades, he has been seen as a “Holocaust artist” – a label Maryan herself found too restrictive. Art historian Ziva Amishai-Maisels once went so far as to claim that Maryan was the first to unwaveringly portray the horrors of the concentration camps. But Gingeras’ aim was to expose lesser-known sides of the artist’s work.
The star of the show is not a “character” but a movie: see the man (1975), the only work Maryan made in the medium. (The work’s title is a reference to the Latin translation of Pontius Pilot’s words when he presents Jesus to a cheering crowd before his crucifixion.) While the film’s premise is the Holocaust, Maryan links it to centuries of anti-Semitism, racism, fascism, and oppression. In the opening scene, Maryan edits images of his art along with photographs of the Ku Klux Klan, the My-Lai massacre in Vietnam and the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Throughout, Maryan appears in various guises—sometimes tied up, sometimes not, and often wearing a shirt with a giant Star of David on it—as he posits systematic murders. This is, as Maryan once put it, “a startling anti-genocide work of art.” “I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything like it,” Gingeras said.
More deep cuts from Maryan’s oeuvre can be seen in this show: his first image of a concentration camp inmate (it’s much less abstract than his ‘characters’ – but no less resonating), a series of paintings inspired by a Goya still life of a dead turkey and notebooks of musings in which the artist tries to preserve family histories nearly destroyed during the Holocaust.
Some of these works are institutionally preserved, but many are not, so Gingeras had to hunt for them himself. “There was a lot of Scooby-Doo,” she said, referring to the detective work it took to locate much of Maryan’s work. Her preparations for the Miami show took her from New York to Nowy-Saçz and back, often including extensive interviews with lesser-known figures who knew him, including the artist June Leaf, whose creations are likewise unclassifiable. Many of the works in the show have rarely, if ever, been seen in public in the US.
According to Chana Budgazad Sheldon, director of MOCA North Miami, it was important to maintain a global perspective with the exhibition. “When we think about our very high immigrant population in North Miami, which is also a majority-minority community, we’re always looking for ways to bring in local votes and other voices,” she said. The local chapter of Human Rights Watch was called in to help write a text on the Holocaust covering a global line of genocides, and art historian Erica Moiah James, an expert in African art, was asked to examine Maryan’s collection of masks and artifacts. of the Bangwa, Bobo, Teke and Bini peoples, examples of which are also included in the study.
At certain moments in art history Maryan’s work has an unexpected revival. In 1985, with neo-expressionism at its peak in New York, two galleries in the city gave the artist the closest to a retrospective prior to this new show. “Out of sync with Pop, Minimalism and Color Field, they seem to have found their moment now”, New York Times critic Grace Glueck commented on Maryan’s paintings. Now, as a figurine is on the rise again, Maryan could strike a new chord.
“Peter Saul or Carroll Dunham share a lot of affinities with Maryan,” Gingeras said. “At the same time, we are re-evaluating the canon to include artists who have been left out for reasons of gender or geography. Maryan really falls into that camp. There is a thirst to challenge our assumptions about who the most important artists of this period were.”