On the landing between the first and second floors of the Humanities-Social Sciences Building sits The Sacrosanct, 1978, a triptych by Edward Boccia, an American poet and painter known for his large-scale paintings in Neo-Expressionist style. It was donated by Morton D. May.
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Edward E. Boccia, An American Artist is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of the book Edward E. Boccia, An American Artist.
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About the Book
This is the first critical survey of the artist’s oeuvre and will include over 100 color plates of the artist’s paintings, including a number of pieces never before seen in public.
Four thematic sections will highlight the complex and engaging iconography of Boccia’s practice while also discussing his work in the context of 20th century American art history. The book will be printed in 2022-23. The primary author is Rosa JH Berland, Art Historian with contributions by CC Marsh and Alice Boccia.
Our professional editorial team includes Matthew Dunleavy, Project Editor, and Lisa D. Berland, Copy Editor (Volunteer). Sabrina Xiyin Lin, Project Assistant with Steven Leible, Photography.
We owe a special thanks to the Phoebe Weil, Hillary Kapan and Dr. Kevin Berland for their generosity as well.
Edward E. Boccia Nereus Reborn, 1960, oil on canvas triptych, side panels 93 x 25, center panel 93 x 48, Collection of University of St. Louis, Missouri
Edward Boccia’s career as a painter may be poetically referred to as a grand house with many rooms. Some rooms, although elegant, are lived in briefly. Other rooms, made more comfortable by the artist’s personal associations, are occupied for years. No room is permanently closed. The artist moves freely from room to room, constantly borrowing ideas from where he has stayed before. The paintings and drawings in this exhibition are grouped by thematic concerns beginning with character sketches done in France during World War II and ending with a nine-panel painting, Eugene’s Journey (1996) that draws upon all of the artist’s skills as a painter and poet. (Museum of Contemporary Religious Art)
The American painter Edward E. Boccia’s most important works were large-scale, often as multiple panels. The oil on canvas pictures required a rather long process including a laborious building of composition, form, and pigment.
The artist was inspired in part by the traditions of ecclesiastical art, including altarpieces, while inflected with the tone, style and modern pictorial language of artists such as Max Beckmann. Often Boccia’s paintings seem alight with a sacral sense of light, and the eerie shadows and spotlighting of the Surrealist school. This admixture comes together to create an arresting pictorial language that remains quite his own.
This gallery offers a selection of key works by the artist, among them some of the largest and most ambitious works, as well as some of the more disturbing and puzzling pieces.
To see such work in reproduction is certainly no match for witnessing the presence and shocking iconography of Boccia’s work, that dance between desire, images of stigmata, crowded spaces peopled with strange creatures and self portraits, awash in ominous shadows and illuminated areas of paint.
Never the less, it is important to showcase these remarkable pieces in particular, and make images of this artist’s achievements accessible to the public. In many ways this curated galleries expresses the way Boccia saw style, as an ends to a mean, namely the creation of truly mysterious, atelier style painting that had echoes of historic greats, not in terms of formal cues, but in the sense that all art should evoke a sense of the anima, the spirit and soul.
On the occasion of Boccia’s monographic show at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in 1996, the elusive and complex nature of Edward Boccia’s practice was summed up beautifully as follows
It is with the open eye of the painter surveying the pivotal movements in 20th-century art that we will see the work by Boccia that touches on Cubism and Surrealism, American Regionalism of the 1930s, German Expressionism of the 1920s, and Neo-Expressionism of the 1970s. For Boccia all rooms are open today, and it is for us to decide where we should linger. Boccia’s career literally spans a lifetime. (MOCRA)
Edward E. Boccia Mystique Marriage, 1979, oil on canvas, triptych, Collection of Jennifer Paternikis, Athens, Greece
Photograph of Boccia’s painting The Wedding Reception, oil on canvas, 55 x 63 in the artist’s studio c.1979
Edward E. Boccia Dark Night of the Soul, 1987, oil on canvas, triptych, Private Collection
Edward E. Boccia Eugene’s Journey, 1996, oil on canvas, 68 x 184, nine panel polyptych, Collection of The Artist Trust
All Rights Reserved, The Edward E. Boccia and Madeleine J. Boccia Artist Trust.
Edward E. Boccia, Last Supper for Wayne, 1968, oil on canvas, 88 x 55 inches, Collection of St. Louis University Museum of Art, Missouri. Image courtesy of the Edward E. & Madeleine J. Boccia Artist Trust, St. Louis. ©
Today we are speaking with Rosa JH Berland, an art historian, author, and curator. For Deep Cuts, she’ll be discussing Edward E. Boccia, a late American painter and long time professor of fine arts at Washington University, St. Louis. Rosa is currently writing the first critical monograph on the artist in cooperation with the artist’s estate.
How would you describe Boccia’s work to the uninitiated?
I would begin by describing the artist’s career. Edward Boccia was a post war painter born in 1921 who had served in WW II as part of the elite subterfuge unit charged with creating visual distractions to trick the Nazis.
Boccia was from the NYC area, and studied art at Pratt and Columbia and went on to teach in the Bauhaus method, serving as the youngest fine arts dean at the Columbus School of Art. He was recruited by Ken Hudson to join the faculty at Washington University, St. Louis. Hudson was part of a circle in St. Louis that included expatriate artists, modernists, art collectors, teachers, and museum curators such as Perry Rathbone, H.W. Janson, Morton May, and the Pulitzers. Former Hudson recruits included Max Beckmann, Philip Guston, and Stephen Green.
Boccia would go on to teach for over 30 years at the university and his character and high standards of workmanship and artistic fidelity would influence hundreds of students who became artists. I also think it is important to note that the Midwest was full of monumental American painting including the great murals of Thomas Hart Benton. In fact, I was quite struck by the way Boccia’s work reminded me of the heroism of Mexican Muralism. And so, in my research I came upon Ellen Landau’s work on Phillip Guston’s connection to muralism. Guston traveled with Ruben Kadish to paint a large-scale mural in Moralia, Mexico in 1935. Boccia’s work shares the muralist emphasis on expression set within an architectural structure. The style of dramatic narrative and grandeur is a tradition that continues today with contemporary murals throughout cities worldwide.
To understand Boccia’s work, you must know that artist spent countless hours in the studio making large scale paintings, the most famous of which are triptychs –or panel paintings and measure up to six feet tall. They have a sort of shocking quality, in the sense that the technical aspect is remarkable, the subject matter at times is disturbing and gruesome, and absolutely imaginative. Recently the family uncovered a fascinating series of photos depicting the process of painting the monumental pictures, and this revealed a great deal about the artist’s way of working, the planning, the sketches, the technique of applying paint. It is as if you can see his ideas germinating and evolving as he works. I particularly find the 1979 wedding series fascinating. These paintings and studies were made the same year as the marriage of his daughter Alice. Like many of Boccia’s works, the series works within a rather enigmatic allegorical structure. There is an unsettling quality, and a density in terms of palette and detailing. Like Beckmann’s most well known works, you find yourself lost in the images, drawn to the spectacle, the color, the mysterious motifs, as well as a surreal form of brutality. Similarly Boccia’s iconography remains elusive, yet a rich source for analysis.
What distinguishes Boccia’s work from fellow neo-expressionists? Which of his contemporaries do you feel were also underrepresented?
Well, Expressionism changed the landscape of fine art, theater, and poetry in the beginning of the 20th century, and it transformed into many offshoots or neo-Expressionist forms allover the world. Most of the work is distinguished by disjuncture and fragmented forms often intended to create a certain dissonance, a rebellion of sort, and namely an emotional reaction.
As I mentioned Max Beckmann had briefly served as a teacher at Washington University, and the collector Morton May acquired the finest collection of Beckmann works as well as other important Expressionist pieces. This is important because May was also a great collector of Boccia’s work, and served as the artist’s most significant patron. As well, his family shared with me that he often visited May at his home, and was astonished at a carriage house full to the brim with Expressionists masterworks.
Therefore, we keenly see the influence of Beckmann and some other early 20th century Expressionists, particularly in Boccia’s works like Last Supper for Wayne, 1968. Nonetheless, I would add that later post war work like Boccia’s is inflected with a number of threads and styles including Magical Realism, historic painting, and post war politics. While I accept the label of neo-expressionist for the sake of situating his work, I actually think he has his own pictorial language that defies categorization entirely.
In addition, in response to your questions about underrepresentation, I imagine that there are, in fact, many artists in the world who may be underrepresented because they do not fit into a style that is deemed popular or avant-garde.
Boccia achieved some fame, but you believe he flew under the radar. How did that happen?
He did achieve fame, exhibiting widely, his work is in over 600 private collections, as well as major museums in the United States and Europe, and as I pointed out, important collectors sought his work. In many ways he was fated to fly under the radar as you put it, he made work that was very expressive and engaged in the idea of the sublime and with a complex iconography. However, his work simply did not fit into contemporary ideas of what constitutes the avant-garde e.g. American abstract painting.
In addition to this hierarchy of style, I wanted to know more about the artist’s way of working and why he seemed to be so close to obscurity. The artist trust generously granted me access to the archives and studio work and I have read many of the artist’s journal entries and letters, as well as his written plans for artwork, and lesson outlines for his students. The first thing I would point to is the fact that the sheer toil of making classically rendered pictures is immensely time consuming. It is my belief that rather than spending time promoting himself or trying to make his work commercially viable, he simply worked. The rest of the time was spent teaching. Boccia was a very well read and thoughtful figure, and prodigiously intelligent. He was purposefully disengaged from the world of commercialism and much of art criticism. Moreover, Boccia was acutely aware that his work which after the war was primarily figural, was not “in style” as there was what we might call a hegemony of style in the art world, e.g. the preference of abstraction, and the invested idea that abstraction was the deeper form of art.
As time goes by, do you feel as though abstraction is taking over more of the canon retrospectively than what was true at the time?
It may not even be abstract painting taking over. I wish to say that I love abstract painting, and in fact, my first memory of painting was a blue Helen Frankenthaler picture. I remember being lost in the color and a sense of beautiful nothingness. Boccia’s work demands something different of you, it is far more confrontational, there is no getting lost in the ether, it requires engagement, questioning, a sense of repulsion, and wonder. I would say just because it is stylized, it would be entirely unfair if not foolish to argue it is not a new way of painting. It is immensely complex and engrossing.
Nonetheless, on the matter of complexity, there is also the matter of abstract thinking; by this, I mean the intellectual gymnastics of art critics, the key figures of course are Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, and their many disciples, who in turn of formed the way we see modernism and the avant-garde.
Truthfully, I find such writing valuable, challenging, and even colorful, however, I think canons are often dictated by critics, who come to dominate the entire dialogue, art scene, institutional collecting practices, etc. I find too often artists are made to take a second seat to critical views. Nonetheless, the arguments of philosophers, literary critics, curators and etc. is in fact an expression of creativity in itself, and interesting because of that aspect. As an art historian, I try my best to engage in this dialogue, to enjoy the ideas etc., but also not to lose sight of understanding the artist’s way of working, and his or her motivation. My experience of using primary sources, interviewing the family, looking through racks and racks of artwork brought me to a place of meaningful investigation and well, ekphrasis.
Thank you for the interview, it is so very wonderful to talk about this artist and the book, which shall be the first of its kind. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has supported the project or contributed to the research including the artist’s widow Madeleine Boccia, his daughter Dr. Alice Boccia, Hilary Kaplan, CalTech, and CC Marsh, Lead Project Research Assistant, Emily May McEwan-Upright, American Painting Research Intern, and Wendy Timmons, German Expressionism Research Intern.
All Rights Reserved, Rosa JH Berland and The Edward E. Boccia and Madeleine J. Boccia Art Trust.
EDWARD BOCCIA/ PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANK DI PIAZZA
In the magazine world, there are a lot of aborted articles. In 2011, on a rainy September afternoon, I went to artist and poet Edward Boccia’s house to interview him for an article that would never make it into St. Louis Magazine. Not sure what to do with the interview, I transcribed it and waited, since he’d told me SLU planned to do a retrospective in 2013. Unfortunately, Boccia died in September 2012. He was 91.
Now, The Saint Louis University Museum of Art and the Sheldon Art Galleries are both hosting exhibits featuring Boccia. SLUMA’s exhibit, “Edward Boccia: Figurative Expressionist” opens today and runs through March 3. It includes many of the award-winning artist’s expressionist triptychs and paintings like his “Enigma Portrait.”
For “Edward Boccia: Early Work” (February 22–May 18), the Sheldon Art Galleries assembled 40 drawings and paintings that Boccia made between the ages of 20 and 48. Born in 1921, Boccia’s artistic talent was recognized at a young age. He studied at the Pratt Institute in New York before serving in World War II. When he returned to New York, he studied at Columbia where he got his bachelor and masters degrees. He became dean of the Columbus Art School in Ohio while finishing his masters. In 1951, he came to St. Louis with his wife Madeline, where he worked at Washington University’s School of Fine Arts until his retirement in 1986.
St. Louis Magazine: How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Edward Boccia: Well, when I was at school as a kid, arithmetic was my downfall. It’s too abstract. But I loved to write and, of course, I loved to draw and paint. I was the kind of kid that knew I was an artist from the day I was born. I knew what I was going to do, and I was very popular in grade school. The teachers would have me go to their different classrooms now and then and draw stuff on the blackboards. So I was just an artist from age 3.
SLM: And you’re a published poet. Did you start that early on, too?
EB: I remember one substitute English teacher in high school read a poem of his, and I was so startled by it. That was the first big influence. It only took a couple of minutes for this young man to recite his poem, and my head just flipped over. But I didn’t really take it seriously, because I was always the painter. [But while teaching at Wash U] one of the students asked me if I write poetry, and I said no. And she said, “Well, you sound like a poet when you give us crits. Maybe you should write poetry.” I let that go for a couple years. Then it finally hit me: “Maybe I ought to try it.” So there was this guy… he’s poet laureate of Missouri [now], Dave Clewell. While I was teaching, I signed up for a poetry thing at night in arts and sciences. He was a terrific teacher and, even though he was still a student, he just had it, you know. And he got me going.
SLM: Your work often uses religious imagery. Were raised in a very religious home?
EB: No. My father was born in Italy, so I’m of Italian descent. My mother was born here, but her parents were born in Italy. So it was Catholicism. And, as usual, as a kid they make you go to Sunday school and go to Mass. I didn’t realize it, but it had a profound effect on me, because I’m not, unfortunately, a strong churchgoer. I should be. I once did a big mural at Wash U in the Student Catholic Center.
SLM: It was pretty controversial.
EB: Yeah, some of the old folks in the congregation wanted to paint it out. One rich guy—I don’t know who he was. A priest told me this—He told the priest, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you paint that out.” But I heard that the students and a lot of people rebelled and wrote letters and saved it.
SLM: Was that your first mural?
EB: Yeah, well I’ll tell you. It really wasn’t because when I was a kid my parents were all for me being an artist.
SLM: That’s good.
EB: Well you see that’s the Italian background. The arts are considered spiritual in Italy. I was a teenager, and I asked my mother—we lived in a big house in Newark New Jersey where the walls were kind of tall—if I could paint a mural on the wall behind my bed. And she said “Oh, sure Ed, go right ahead.”
SLM: What did you paint?
EB: [Laughs] I painted four huge male figures, and I used house paint, just black and white and gray. I had big brushes and pails. I think back, and can you imagine my mother saying, “Go ahead?” That’s how they were. My parents thought it was terrific. My father sold the house years ago, and I assume the new people papered over it, but it would be nice if I could go back there and have them take down the paper. I’d like to see how it looked.
SLM: What did your parents do?
EB: My father was a salesman. He came to this country [when] he was really very young. He told me and my brother that he only had 18 cents in his pocket. But in downtown New York he got acquainted with somebody who knew somebody and got him in as a salesman of jewelry. He was just an immigrant speaking with an accent, but all of his customers were Italians [Laughs].
SLM: You have a brother?
EB: He died about 10 years ago… The war came, and we both went into the war as soldiers. He was badly wounded in one of the battles against the Japanese. He recovered, but then he developed a disease called Pagets. They have a cure today, but they didn’t then, and he spent the last 8 years of his life in bed.
SLM: What did you do in the war?
EB: I went into a camouflage battalion. [The U.S. Army] wanted art student graduates, because we would know something about seeing. [Laughs.] It didn’t really work out. One of the camouflage methods everybody used was to put this big net with garlands woven in [it] on the tank. Since we were artists, we would know how to color the garlands. We did that for about a year—training in the states. Then somebody manufactured rubber dummies of those big Sherman tanks. It fit in a bag. We’d pull it out and blow it up with a compressor. It looked real as hell.
SLM: Did you see much action?
EB: One [battle] I remember was the Rhine crossing. We put up all our stuff for hundreds of miles in front of the Rhine, south a bit from where the real troops were going to cross, hoping that the Germans would aim at us. It worked, and we got a citation. We were told we spent three years in the army just for that one week.
SLM: What did you do when you left the army?
EB: Well, I went back to Brooklyn, because all my friends were there. I was totally confused.
EB: I found civilian life very difficult, because you’re free. Well, it’s hard to be free. You gotta work! After three years in the army, you get to be completely dopey. You don’t have to think. They don’t want you think. They don’t allow you to think! And so the adjustment was terrible. And then some of my friends said, “Oh, President Roosevelt made going to college free.”
SLM: The G.I. Bill.
EB: Yeah, the GI Bill. And so I said, well OK, I’ll go to school because maybe I’ll learn something, and maybe I can teach art, so I won’t starve painting. Well, that was the best decision I ever made. I transferred [from Pratt Institute] to Columbia [University] it was a real school. Pratt was strictly an art school. You just got a certificate, but that’s where I really learned art and the grammar of drawing and painting. It was a great school. When I was about to graduate [from Columbia] I wrote letters out to other faculty members that I’d had before the war, and this one teacher wrote to me and he said, “Don’t take any job because I want to talk to you about a job in Columbus, Ohio.” The job was dean of a private arts school.
SLM: You were a young dean!
EB: Yeah, I say I started at the top. I started as a dean and it was terrible because there wasn’t enough time to paint. So, I decided I had to get out of there. I wrote letters to various universities looking for another teaching job, and I got a letter back from the dean of the Art School at Wash U [who was looking for an] assistant dean. A step down. So I got the assistant deanship here at Wash U, now that was a little better, but after three years of that I couldn’t stand it because I was forcing myself into a Sunday painter. I begged the dean then to get me out of there, and just put me on the faculty. The heck with all this deanship stuff. He said “But Ed! Ed! You’re going to take a reduction in salary.” As if I cared, you know. [Laughs.] He put me on the faculty. I taught three days a week. That gave me four days to paint, and I swear for 35 years I’ve painted four days a week.
SLM: What did you think of St. Louis when you got here?
EB: Well, I was impressed because New Yorkers—they don’t think they’re provincial, but anything west of Newark, and the hell with it. For them, it’s cowboy and Indians. They’re so dumb. One guy told me one night in New York, a native New Yorker, he said “Oh were do you come from?” and I told him St. Louis. He said, “Oh you’ve come up for air, right?” I could have punched him in the eye.
SLM: Before you went to Pratt, I read that you did the Art Students League of New York?
EB: When I was a kid in high school, I would take the train into New York City to the Art Students League. [I’d] come in and paint from the model and the teachers would come in now and then. I worked for a long time on this nude. I’m a kid you know, 17, I guess. And the painter professor saw it. He was a pretty well-known painter in those days. I had my palette with blobs of color and stuff mixed up, and I had a [bigger] brush among other ones. He took the big brush and picked up all the colors and squished them all together. He went up to my nude that I’d sweat over trying to reproduce a human being, which is nuts and he [makes large painting gestures]. “Oh,” I said, “That’s what painting’s about.” What do I think that I’m God trying to make another human being?
SLM: Do you still paint a lot?
EB: I try my best. You know, as you get older your body changes and now I realize that so much of what we do is not only from reasoning, using the mind and knowledge, but it’s the physiology. It’s the change in the body. It changes the rhythm of the body including the mind, which affects the way you paint.
Recent article on Boccia and his links to modernist mid century artistic practice and critical reception.“Cezanne’s Apple and Edward E. Boccia Hierarchy, Revolt and Artistic Innovation in 20th-Century America.” by Rosa JH Berland, Ekphrasis (2067-631X) . 2015, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p118-141. 24p
The reconstruction of the twenty-first-century imagination (ideologies that shape our “imagined world”) and aesthetic view through the “authentic” modes of abstraction, conceptualism, and the lens of media and digital technology has led to a new way of understanding and experiencing creativity. While these are certainly new or original critical experiences, there are other types of creativity, ideologies and imaginary worlds that are quite separate, and sometimes polemically opposed to this genre of making and looking. An example of this type of creative visualization and boycotting of the supposedly authentic gesture is the work of the late American artist Edward E. Boccia, who devoted much of his life to a series of panel paintings that take as their subject problems of politics and society, as well as religious experience in the twentieth century. Made between 1956 -2006, the large scale altarpieces represent the phenomenon of figural creativity produced in traditional studio mediums in mid- to late twentieth-century America.
For access to this entire article, please check with your college/university library, local public library, or affiliated institution.
Copyright of Ekphrasis (2067-631X) is the property of Babes-Bolyai-University, Faculty of Theatre & Television.