Edward Boccia described his art as dealing with “love, lust and life,” and anyone who has stepped back and taken in his creations would be hard put to disagree. With a vividness that reflects the influence of artists from Max Beckmann to Paul Cézanne while adhering to a unique sensibility, Boccia’s paintings and drawings just about reach out and pull the viewer inside them.
For many years a professor at Washington University’s School of Fine Arts, Boccia died last September at his home in Webster Groves. Boccia was 91, and he had seen a lot, including action as a soldier in World War II. And he transformed quite a bit of what he saw into a legacy of countless images.
Boccia’s work, which attracted the backing of nationally renowned art collector Morton D. “Buster” May, is the subject of two exhibitions: “Edward Boccia: Figurative Expressionist,” through March 3 at the St. Louis University Museum of Art, and “Edward Boccia: Early Work,” opening Friday at the Sheldon Art Galleries.
“He created his own world through his art,” said Petruta Lipan, director of SLUMA. “And his world is very complicated and multilayered.
“You look at his artworks, and you think you know what you’re looking at. But the more you look at it, the deeper and deeper it gets, because he mixes mythology and religion and literary themes within one work. And that’s what makes his work so interesting.”
Philanthropist May (of the May Department Stores, which owned the Famous-Barr chain) was an important figure in getting out the word about Boccia, said the artist’s daughter, Alice Boccia, who is an archeological conservationist.
“He was a huge art collector here in St. Louis, and every year he would come over to the house and look at all the work Dad had done for the past 12 months,” said Boccia, who now lives in Los Angeles. “From, say, 1952 until he passed away in 1983.”
May purchased hundreds of Boccia’s works, keeping them for his collection or giving them to museums, universities and acquaintances.
The exhibition at SLUMA focuses on Boccia’s large-scale paintings, including triptychs (three-panel paintings). The works are displayed with just enough room for spectators to stand back and ponder their meanings. Particularly striking are “Low Tide” (1983), which depicts a bearded man reading a book while impaled on what appear to be sticks rising out of the water, and “The Absolved” (1984), a portrait of a male and a female who have fish heads but human genitalia.
In contrast, “Edward Boccia: Early Work” is more intimate in scope. Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, director of the Sheldon Art Galleries, said the exhibition — which focuses on drawings and paintings made between 1941 and 1969 — sheds light on a different side of Boccia’s artistry.
“It gives people another view of what he was like as an artist, and his interests,” she said. Among the pieces are “drawings that he made during World War II, or right at the end of World War II, of fellow soldiers and people that he met in France and other places.
“You can see the influence of the Old Masters in his work,” Lahs-Gonzales said. “Also, people like Van Gogh.”
Boccia was born in Newark and studied art at Pratt Institute in New York (where he met his future wife, Madeleine Wysong). He is estimated to have created 4,000 paintings, and his work is included in more than 600 private collections, as well as being part of the permanent collections of SLUMA, the St. Louis Art Museum, Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Denver Art Museum and the National Pinakothek in Athens.
It was through May that Boccia became familiar with the work of Beckmann, a German expressionist painter who taught at Washington University in the 1940s, and who had his first U.S. retrospective in St. Louis in 1948.But whereas Beckmann merely passed through St. Louis, Boccia – who came to Washington University in 1951 as an assistant dean – spent most of his life here.
“I can look at his work for years, and I still find something new,” Lipan said.
‘Edward Boccia: Early Work’
When • Friday through May 18. Opening reception is from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday; galleries open until 8 p.m. Regular hours are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and beginning an hour before performances and during intermission.
Where • Sheldon Art Galleries, Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Gallery, 3648 Washington Boulevard
How much • Free
More info • 314-533-9900; thesheldon.org
‘Edward Boccia: Figurative Expressionist’
When • 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; through March 3
Where • St. Louis University Museum of Art, Aronson Gallery, 3663 Lindell Boulevard
How much • Free
More info • 314-977-2666; slu.edu/sluma.xml