Edward Boccia, American Artist and Teacher
The artist’s trust has donated two late works to the Art Students League’s collection.
Edward Eugene Boccia was born in 1921 to Italian parents in Newark, New Jersey. The artist began taking classes in 1940 at the Art Students League of New York, studying briefly with Gordon Samstag whose murals of vernacular scenes would have a decided influence on the young artist. When looking at the drawings made in the 1940s, it is immediately apparent that the young Boccia had a command of academic drawing, a fluidity with the pencil and pen, and in some works such as Nantucket Island, we see the beginnings of the Baroque sensibility of narratival movement that would inform the later dramatic work unfolding across the large-scale panel paintings for which he would become famous. The artist’s time studying fine art was cut short when he was enlisted in the 63rd Engineer Combat Battalion. Known today as the Ghost Army, the specialized World War II unit was comprised of artists and designers who created visual subterfuge to deceive the Nazis.
After the war, Boccia returned to the Art Students League of New York, taking life drawing classes with fellow Italian American artist Jon Corbino. In this formative period, Boccia would find his way through the tenets of life studies and academic drawing, as well as currents of muralism and contemporary interpretations of Mannerist and Baroque theatrics and the peculiar form of American Expressionism. Boccia obtained a BS in 1948 and a MA in 1952 from Columbia University, New York. While finishing his MA, he served as Dean of the Columbus Art School, Ohio, teaching painting and drawing integrating Bauhaus methodology.
In 1951, Boccia was invited to teach at Washington University in St. Louis by Dean Ken Hudson, whose other recruits included Max Beckmann, Werner Drewes, and Philip Guston. The young painter began as Assistant Dean at the School of Fine Arts at the university and would go onto teach studio art for over thirty years, fostering generations of young artists while continuing to develop his own body of independent work.
By 1956, in the confines of a small studio, Boccia developed a new genre of contemporary panel painting that functioned as devotional art and exegesis on ethical, religious, philosophical, and stylistic problems as embodied in the 1956 triptych Path of Redemption, 1956, oil on canvas measuring an impressive 7 x 12 feet.
Boccia was an astonishingly prolific artist; there are over 1,500 paintings in existence, including more than fifty monumental altarpiece-like panel paintings featuring allegorical scenes in a Surrealist and Neo-Expressionist style. A dedicated craftsman, Boccia pictured his work as a mediation of a universal moral struggle, a mode of transformation in the manner of many post-Romantic and post-Symbolist artists. Similarly, he is also linked to the mystical, occult, and theosophical traditions of modern art including the belief in the messianic role of the artist, formally expressed in the monumental altarpiece style as well as in paintings of traditionally Catholic subject matter.
Of the purpose of art, Boccia noted, “Those artists who present these bold ‘Avant garde’ viewpoints are warriors. Significant artists sometimes arise from these socio-artistic battles – But the truly significant Hero artist is really that individual who joins neither camp. He is not a warrior, rather he is a worshiper. He doesn’t fight ‘on the outside’ – because he prays on the inside – His artistic grammar – i.e., form, tone, color, etc. are the words of his prayers – his paintings are the prayers themselves.”
While travel, study of philosophy, religious art and texts and a hermetic studio practice would inform the artist’s lifetime oeuvre, it can be said that Boccia’s time at the Art Students League of New York was a formative period. This is particularly true in the artist’s commitment to monumental form and the study of naturalism. Specifically, we see the influence of Corbino, in the dramatic unfolding of scenes in Boccia’s monumental polyptychs, the heroic expressionism of Harry Sternberg, the fantastical imagery of Nahum Tschacbasov and, of course, the armature of all of this, the technical instruction of Frank J. Reilly. One must not forget the soulful imagery of the work of John Carroll whose elongated portraits meet somewhere between the sacral imagery of El Greco and German Expressionism.
In recognition of this formative artistic experience, The Edward E. Boccia Artist Trust recently donated two late works to the Art Students League of New York’s permanent collection: The Last Supper (1977) and Bathers by the Sea – Homage to Max Beckmann (1995). The Last Supper is one of a series of paintings of this subject by the artist and shows a centrally placed Christ with a halo and Judas to Christ’s left. Boccia’s work depicts the moment of Christ’s announcement of the betrayal and Judas is depicted wearing a Renaissance-like costume, his arm wrapped around Christ’s shoulder. On the table there is the loaf of bread, a symbol of the Eucharist as well as a fish emblematic of Christ. At the far left we see a hybrid figure who is likely a combination of the artist himself and Saint John the Evangelist with a bird on top of the figure’s head that seems a strange if not comedic interpretation of the saint’s customary eagle. To the right is a papal figure and a woman holding an apple who resembles the artist’s wife Madeleine. Boccia’s relationship to the history of art is complex. For example, as we see in historic religious panel painting and the modernist triptychs of Max Beckmann this enigmatic scene is punctuated with symbolism, the discarded napkin, the black stockinged feet of the woman, the sandals of the clergyman, the golden slippers of Judas, and the pointing foot of St. John. As well, like the work of Renaissance altarpiece painters, Boccia seeks to initiate contemplation and study of the emblematic objects while also arresting our attention with the use of bold and unsettling use of color: Christ’s right foot is the color of death, the left a quiet gray. This sensibility functions in part as a mediation of the redemptive power of Christ, a memento mori and while also echoing the artist’s crisis of faith, contemplating the eventuality of death and the confrontation of reason and religion in a contemporary world.
Conversely, Edward Boccia’s 1995 Bathers by the Sea – Homage to Max Beckmann sets a more secular scene and shows in part the influence of the work of Beckmann on the younger artist. When Boccia joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, he quickly became a favorite of the prestigious art collector Morton D. May. May had an entire carriage house overflowing with key Expressionist works such as Beckmann’s altarpiece format Argonauts(1950), Kokoschka’s The Painter (1924), George Grosz’ Paar (1913), and Ludwig Meidner’s Burning City(1913). When Beckmann left his visiting professorship at the university, fellow faculty member Werner Drewes would pass on the esteemed master’s easel to the younger Boccia who used it throughout his painting career.
In this late painting, three figures stand together as a contemporary representation of the trinity in an autobiographical context: a strange creature with a mask, a sorrowful woman, and a man who is likely the artist himself. The man holds the Christological symbol of the fish, and the female figure is an Icarus-like figure, a reminder of the untimely death of the artist’s son David.
In Bathers by the Sea – Homage to Max Beckmann and many others in the artist’s lifetime of work that spanned over six decades, there is an uncanny admixture of the surreal and magical punctuated by a sense of sorrow and mystery. Of his approach, Boccia wrote in 1971: “As a painter, I see and borrow things from external reality, but how I use them depends entirely upon my belief. I believe in the value of a thing only as it comes to me on the level of intuitive cognition (seeing as opposed to thinking) and by revelation, the sensed subject ‘out there’ is but a tool for the expression of a basic faith (in immortality).”
The gift of these two paintings to the Art Students League of New York pays tribute to Boccia’s formative time at the school, which would inspire the artist to continue to explore the heroic potential of painting as well as the tradition of teaching studio art. Of the love, commitment to religion, and driving passion for artistic work that remain intertwined in Boccia’s work and continue to have a universal and deeply emotive and engaging appeal, we may turn to the memories of the artist’s daughter Dr. Alice Boccia.
As a child, I often spent time in the studio while my father, Edward E. Boccia was working on one of his large oil paintings on canvas, always to the accompaniment of classical music. The huge canvases he produced formed the panels of what would prove to be a series of multi-panel paintings throughout his life. After I was born, he started producing monumental triptychs and would go on to create a total of 46 triptychs, 5 polyptychs, and 6 diptychs during his lifetime, making up but a small fraction of his oeuvre of approximately 1500 oil paintings on canvas. My brother David was born in 1949 with Down Syndrome. During my brother’s drawn-out illness in the hospital in 1984, my father painted a few canvases of hope, The Holy Family and the Pietà. “Fortunately my daughter was here (the studio) that summer … she’s a conservator… She was working on a painting, fixing it up. It was nice to have company in here.” (Holtgrave Interview, 1991, 43). My brother’s illness was one from which he could not recover, leading to his death in 1984, and culminating in the creation of the triptych David’s Death, after a long grieving period. The artist stated that the Descent from the Cross (now in the collection of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art) ”… was a premonition of what was going to happen to him because in a way the face on the figure is my son…” (Holtgrave Interview, 1991, 43). As a child, understandably, I was unaware of the powerful work my artist father was creating. Since my father’s death in 2012, It has been such a rewarding experience to review his legacy by cataloging and documenting his work with the goal of publishing a book. I can attribute my love of the visual arts and classical music to my father, to whom I am forever grateful, and I cherish the times we spent together in his studio.
ROSA JH BERLAND is the Honorary Curator and Director of Research of , which is currently producing the first monograph on Edward Boccia. For more information, visit the trust’s website.