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Personnage (Standing on Table)
Fearsome Visionary
by Robert G. Edelman

Maryan, "Works from the 60s," Sept. 5-Oct. 12, 2002, at Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

Since the late 1970s, when I saw Maryan's work for the first time, I have always thought of him as a forerunner of the bizarre figuration of the Chicago "Hairy Who" school, along with the so-called Monster Roster of the 1950s (which included Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky and Ellen Lanyon) and kin to the master of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet, who had given a lecture entitled "Anticultural Positions" at the Chicago Arts Club in 1951. However, this show confirms that Maryan's painting, his peculiar variety of biomorphism, distinguishes his work from the stylistic sophistication of Chicago artists like Jim Nutt, Ed Pashke and Christine Ramberg.

Maryan (1927-77), born Pinchas Burstein in Poland, had the deck stacked against his ever realizing his métier. As a Jew in occupied Poland, he and his family were herded from ghetto to labor camp to concentration camp before finally being liberated by the Russians in 1945, having lost all of his relatives and one of his legs.

He went from studying art in Israel after the war to Paris in 1950, attending the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, and later showing with the CoBrA group. He moved to New York, after an earlier visit to Chicago, in 1962.

His imagery, rooted in trauma and profound loss, offers, at its best, an incisive observation of the human condition. This can be seen in a series of linoleum cuts, depictions of men in the familiar Nazi Storm Trooper Brown Shirt and cap, their faces convulsed in an ambiguous display of emotion. It represents Maryan's vision of these anonymous purveyors of genocide as an inarticulate, rapacious and hysterical child. It also suggests, perhaps, the artist's sympathetic identification with the messenger of oppression as yet another victim of history. One painting from 1962 entitled Personnage shows a leering storm trooper (though his armband indicates a more generic identity), his tongue stuck out in juvenile defiance, wiping his hands of the remnants of some evil deed. The box strapped to his back and the red chess pieces on a table in front of him suggests a con artist in the midst of performing a lethal game of deception.

The paintings after 1965 are another matter altogether. Increasingly fragmented, Maryan's images of figures and animals from this period are both comic and ominous, bordering on the grotesque. This is the work that establishes Maryan as a possible influence on other extreme and fearsome visionaries of his time like Philip Guston and Peter Saul (and on a younger generation, such as Carroll Dunham) as well as his connection to the historical precedent of Goya and Bosch.

One small painting entitled Personnage (Standing on Table) of a figure from 1972 (the only work here not from the '60s) seems to encapsulate the human qualities that so intrigued and preoccupied Maryan. In military hat and draped in a cloak or sheet, the man seems to be shouting to no one in particular, his words cascading from his mouth like large spermatozoa, blood dripping down his body. In his folly, he could be one of those bellicose orators who always insist that wars can be won and the world will be a better place for it. Sound familiar?

ROBERT G. EDELMAN is an artist who writes about art. His monograph, David Kapp: Working the Grid, was published in 2001.