A Feast of Pure Reason: Expressionism in Boston

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Feast of Pure Reason, 1971 Etching And Aquatint On Canvas © Courtesy of Danforth Museum of Art
A Feast of Pure Reason: Expressionism in Boston

123 Union Avenue
01702-8291 Framingham

November 14th, 2010 - February 6th, 2011

United States
Wed-Thu,Sun 12-5; Fri-Sat10-5


It is with great regret the Danforth Museum of Art notes the passing of artist Jack Levine, who died in his home in New York City on November 8, 2010.  As part of its continued commitment to Boston Expressionism, and to honor of the memory of Mr. Levine, the Museum opens a new exhibition of Boston Expressionist works from its permanent collection. Tracing the historical roots of the movement from the 1930’s to its continued presence in the Boston art world today, the exhibit displays visionary works that offer up a distinctive blend of dark humor, religious mysticism or social commentary.

About the Exhibit

The exhibit takes its title from Jack Levine’s painting shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC in 1937.  The Feast of Pure Reason portrays a Boston politician, police officer and businessman conspiring together.  This suggestion of corruption raised concern on the part of MOMA’s Trustees who debated fiercely before giving permission to display the work. The Danforth Museum of Art is proud to display a print Levine subsequently made of this painting, one of two Levine prints now on display in the Swartz Gallery.
Like his good friend Hyman Bloom, Levine was not college educated, but widely read.  Levine’s title The Feast of Pure Reason visually quotes the "Nighttown" sequence in James Joyce's book Ulysses; an adage by Alexander Pope; and the writings of 18th century French intellectuals.  Like many of his contemporaries who continued to paint representationally during the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Levine sought to make rational pictorial sense in what seemed to be an increasingly unrational world.  Seen together, selected Boston Expressionist works from the Danforth Museum of Art’s permanent collection represent what these artists might have considered a “feast of pure reason.”

Works by Jules Aarons, David Aronson, Jason Berger, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, Henry Schwartz, Stephen Trefonidis, and Karl Zerbe showcase the historical roots of Boston Expressionism from the 1930’s through the 1960’s.  Humanist photographer Jules Aarons documents the West End neighborhood where Hyman Bloom grew up, and more recent paintings by Gerry Bergstein allows viewers to trace the influence and continued presence of Boston Expressionism in the work of a contemporary painter.

About Boston Expressionism

Boston Expressionism, which emerged just prior to World War II, has long existed outside the mainstream of contemporary art.  Early practitioners of this school, painted realistically at a time when abstraction was the trend.  Yet these artists explored human emotion and spirituality with color and imagination, pushing paint across the surface of the canvas in a way that influenced Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, providing the basis of Abstract Expressionism.

Artists Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine represent the fascinating story of how Boston Expressionism began.  Having grown up in the Jewish immigrant communities of Boston, these two artists often drew upon their Eastern European heritage.  Working from memory rather than directly from nature, they depicted scenes inspired by the Hebrew Talmud, classical music, or personal memories.

A second generation of Boston Expressionist artists included David Aronson, Jason Berger, Arthur Polonsky, Henry Schwartz and others.  Studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts under the direction of Karl Zerbe in the 1940’s and 50’s, these artists remained committed to representational figuration at a time when the contemporary art world embraced abstraction, pop and minimalism.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, a third generation of Boston Expressionist artists appeared, including such diverse painters as Gregory Amenoff, Gerry Bergstein, Aaron Fink, Jon Imber, Katherine Porter and Jane Smaldone.  While all unique—some working figuratively, others abstractly—their work continues a tradition of painterly expressionism to the present day, expanding a consideration of painting in the digital age.