FROM MEURAL’S Deep Cuts, Episode 6: “Being lost in the color and a sense of beautiful nothingness.” 6.21.17.
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.