With this signature style, Anderson set up barely cohesive allegories like . Here, a flayed and burning central figure speaks into a stethoscope, surrounded by floating superstitious and religious charms. This strange and ambiguous work could be interpreted as a terrifyingly anxious expression of fear, fate, death, and desire at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Like the work of his colleagues, Andersen’s work calmed down in the nineties and became in turns more decorative and cerebral. Yet, despite his national recognition and local prominence, Anderson stopped painting and by the end of the decade left Boston for California to apply his creative energies to the widening world of the Internet.
Another artist who started out from the Museum School and eventually left Boston (but not painting) is Alex Grey. For a single year, 1974 to 1975, Grey attended the school, where he pursued performance art of a particularly exhibitionistic and ritualistic variety.77 By the end of this year the artist had two important formative experiences: he met his life and career partner, Allyson, and he dropped acid for the first time. Grey had a predisposition for all things mystical and continued, with Allyson, to take LSD as a spiritual exercise. This hallucinogenic quest for enlightenment came to fruition when the pair unlocked the mystery of what they call the Universal Mind Lattice. Grey explains this as
an advanced level of spirituality beyond the material realm of seemingly separate objects. My wife and I simultaneously experienced this psychedelic transpersonal state in 1976. We lay in bed with blindfolds on, as our shared consciousness, no longer identified with or limited by our physical bodies, was moving at tremendous speed through an inner universe of fantastic chains of imagery, infinitely multiplying in parallel mirrors. At a superorgasmic pitch of speed and bliss, we became individual fountains and drains of light, interlocked with an infinite omnidirectional network of fountains and drains composed of and circulating a brilliant iridescent love energy. We were the Light, and Light was God.78
Between 1978 and 1983, when the Greys left Boston for New York, Alex developed a personal style and iconography to communicate the spiritual insights gained from LSD, meditation, and readings from a host of religious and occult texts. In works like , an allegory of personal and universal love, Grey attempts to provide a visual analogy for the wholeness and unity of physical and spiritual being. He uses a tight academic drawing style that verges on medical illustration to reveal the inner, material workings of the human organism.79 Surrounding and connecting these idealized yet transparent bodies are waves of energy and symbols derived from various mystical traditions that describe the spiritual aspects of existence, and the unity of all things within the Universal Mind Lattice. Grey explained, “I show the physical form as well as other subtle energies. I approach the physical body with a hyper-real approach that then, in a way, seduces the mind into imagining these other disciplines as equally true.”80
Grey’s “hyper-real” style, tied to observations and diagrams of anatomy, is a far cry from the painterly physiognomic distortion usually expected from expressionist work. However, he does distort perceptual reality—most radically—and his intentions lie firmly within the ethos of expressionism. His interest in the profound depths of the human condition, and his desire to break down dualities of mind/body, matter/spirit, and the self/other—with their roots in personal transcendent experience—are directly parallel to the aims of Hyman Bloom. 81
Across town at Boston’s other bastion of Figurative Expressionism, Boston University, Philip Guston was working his influence on a large group of young painters.82 His most celebrated student was Jon Imber, who studied under the master in the mid-seventies and has never been shy about acknowledging the importance of Guston’s teaching to his work. About his beloved teacher, Imber has said: “When I first saw [his] paintings in the early ’70s, they struck me so powerfully that they changed my life; they pointed me in a direction that has lasted for … twenty years. The fact that I might be able to say something, really say something through my painting was a revelation to me in 1974.”83 And elsewhere: “In almost every aspect of painting I’ve bounced off his ideas, including formal questions like how to apply paint, use color, and also in matters of imagery and subject matter.”84 Guston’s direct influence was easily discernable in Imber’s early work, with its figurative narratives in shallow space that employed cartoony anatomic disproportions and odd shifts of scale. More important to Imber’s work as a whole, though, was Guston’s insistence on figuration, materiality of paint, and content dredged from one’s own life to express more universal humanistic concerns.85
Imber came into his own during the mid-eighties and was best known then for works like . This painting is from a series of monumental canvases that explore the complexities of male/female relationships with narratives in which men literally lift and carry women. While grounded in Imber’s personal life—a break-up of a long-term relationship—these images are also allegories for struggle, pain, loss, sensuality, responsibility, and a wealth of other feelings related to the complexities of love. The powerful physical presence of the figures, their central placement in an unidentifiable place, and their nudity elevate one man’s emotions to the level of myth—the various rapes and amours of Zeus come to mind.86 Imber continues to paint the figure, with a greater interest in portraiture, and has since the late eighties concentrated increasingly on brushy, sinuous landscape paintings that reveal an expressionist heritage that traces to van Gogh rather than Guston.
Candace Walters also studied with Guston and absorbed his ideas about both form and content., a narrative scene featuring a woman’s colossal and serene head set adrift down a river fraught with rocky dangers, displays severe figurative stylization, evocative shifts in scale, and an expressively textured surface. This painted metaphor of the journey of life is based on personal experience and assumes mythic proportions through its emotional complexity and intensity. Walters has said, “There are never men in my work . . . there’s something about expressing women that I feel compelled to do.”87 In her more recent work, she has remained true to this overriding interest in the female subject but with works that are more iconic, more finely drawn and richly colored, that deal with contemporary issues related to gender, identity, the body, and feminism.
Painting programs in and around Boston other than those at the Museum School and Boston University also began graduating expressionist painters. Robert Ferrandini (fig. 28) received his M.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1978 and soon began exhibiting paintings that participated in the emerging Neo-Expressionist discourse. He painted apocalyptic scenes influenced by television, comix, and science fiction that involved burning buildings, flying saucers, tank battles, radioactive monsters, environmental collapse, and natural disasters, all leavened with a nervous humor and often played out in his native Boston. In 1983, he wrote, “As a child I loved and feared seeing things destroyed. There were a lot of destructive elements in my environment. I grew up with the Bomb; it was there, I accepted it. I have this anxiety in me. I’m dealing with some very destructive elements that come out naturally. It’s a mechanism of the age.”88 Ferrandini’s anxious content, along with his virtuoso painting and drawing techniques, narrative and allegorical strategies, and sources in popular culture, closely allied him with Bergstein and Anderson. He also followed Guston’s example of using subject matter dredged from one’s own life and concerns to powerfully express more universal themes.89