In addition to the painters native to Boston and/or products of local academe are two transplants who have made significant contributions to the local expressionist discourse: Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship and John Walker. Yalovitz-Blankenship was born in Rome, Georgia, and began her painting career in Atlanta before relocating to Boston in 1974. She has always considered herself an expressionist and works in a deliberately aggressive and brushy style that relies heavily on the figure, narrative, color, and personal symbolism. Even though she never studied with Guston, her artistic intentions parallel his, as well as many of the expressionist painters she encountered in Boston. She forthrightly declares: “The story is mine, but it has universal content through ambiguity and metaphor.”95
Much of Yalovitz-Blankenship’s work is based either consciously or subconsciously on her experience of growing up in the deep south, and her attendant emotions of joy and menace. According to the artist, was consciously inspired by masks she had seen at Harvard’s anthropological Peabody Museum, and by her lifelong interest in magic. In the painting, masked and hooded figures participate in a mysterious event with ritual overtones. But Yalovitz-Blankenship admits that the imagery probably has roots in her own childhood memories: “The sleepy town of Rome, Georgia . . . offered periodic excitements of fairs, carnivals, the circus, and Halloween parades. These happy occasions were in contrast to long summer heat, silent, desolate Sundays, and news of lynching and cross-burning on Stone Mountain.” 96
John Walker is an Englishman whose peripatetic career has wound through London, New York, Connecticut, Oxford, and Melbourne, Australia. Since 1993, he has been on the faculty at Boston University, where he has substantially beefed up the school’s reputation as a center for expressionist painters and painting.97 Not only has he been the most prominent expressionist presence there since Guston, he also shares important affinities with Guston’s work and pedagogy. Both artists employ complex idiosyncratic iconographies to express universal humanistic themes based on deeply felt personal experiences. Both revel in the sheer act of painting—and the material of paint itself—as profound vehicles for meaning. And both (like Guston in his late work) refused to stray into complete abstraction. Walker has said about his painting: “It would only become totally non-objective if I could imbue it with feeling. Otherwise, it’s just design or decoration. I’ve always wanted some sort of reality. The forms have to have volume so they could imply other things.”98
During the nineties, Walker’s most significant body of work was a series of very large canvases based on World War I. He approached this theme from a number of vantage points: objective history, family biography, personal memory, and poetry. Walker’s father, John Henry Walker, fought at the Battle of Passchendaele and at the Battle of the Somme, where the painter lost eleven uncles in a single day. He survived these terrors and related his experiences to his son, who in epic works many years later attempted to come to grips with the enormity of war and its effects on his family. The paintings—dark, agitated, and heavily impastoed—contain a repeated symbolic image of John Henry Walker, a soldier with his head replaced by a sheep’s skull. Other symbols appear, like the painter’s easel and congested sets of Australian Aboriginal beads that the painter imagines as funerary vessels. Many of the paintings include text, transcribed from the war poetry of English poets David Jones and Wilfred Owen. In , the sheep-skulled figure is juxtaposed with an uncannily similar horned monster, appropriated by Walker from a drawing made by his own son Harry, then five years old. In this way, three generations—all emotionally inflected to various degrees by war—are brought together. The obscured text at the left edge of the painting is the word MEMORY, an inscription to Walker’s then-wife, art historian Memory Holloway, as well as a pronouncement of the artist’s sources, obsession, and task.99
The second wave of expressionist painting in Boston continues into the twenty-first century, even though Neo-Expressionism, with which it was first aligned, expired in the mid-eighties. The international movement collapsed under the weight of media hype, and the once rebellious and edgy moniker Bad Painting, adopted by supporters, turned into a term of derision applied by critics who quickly tired of slap-dash angst. Neo-Expressionism was abruptly dismissed in favor of an art that was cooler, crisper, and conceptually based in language rather than emotion. Nowhere was this more clearly apparent than in the massive Binational exhibitions, organized in 1988/1989 in Boston by the Museum of Fine Arts and The Institute of Contemporary Art, and in Germany by a consortium of museums in Diisseldorf.100 The Binationals were round-ups of what the curators considered to be the most important contemporary art in the United States and Germany. These two exhibitions contained few paintings and fewer expressionists. Emphasis was placed on sculpture, photography, and installation art. Julian Schnabel was gone, replaced by Robert Gober and Jeff Koons. Anselm Kiefer was out; Katarina Fritsch and Rosemarie Trockel were in. The Boston artists chosen for the Binationals were conceptual artist Annette Lemieux and renegade photographers Mike and Doug Starn-not Gerry Bergstem, Doug Anderson, or Jon Imber.
Expressionism in Boston, though, soldiered on, for two reasons: first, because of the long-standing regional acceptance of expressionism as a valued idiom and ensconced local tradition; and second, because there was no “bad painting” in Boston. This technical virtuosity, combined with a trust in what Kandmsky had called “inner necessity,” rather than a slavish attention to shifts in aesthetic and critical fashion, allows expressionists in Boston to survive, and to thrive. The artists discussed above, along with painters Alfonse Borysewicz, Mark Cooper, Adam Cvijanovic, Grant Drumheller, Gina Fiedel, George Hagerty, Thomas Halloran, Rick Harlow, Bruce Herman, Bryan McFarlane, Clifton Peacock, Ron Rizzi, Harvey Low Simons, and Cheryl Warrick—and many others—have secured Boston as a safe haven for expressionist painting.
The half-century-long, close identification of Boston with a distinctly expressionist sensibility is this city’s most reasonable claim to a place in the canon of American art history. During the second half of the twentieth century, expressionism was the only truly coherent painting style in Boston, with an integrity based on shared intentionality, pedagogy, emulated masters, documented lines of generational influence, and institutional support systems within academia and museums. Realism and abstraction— the other dominant stylistic traditions practiced in Boston and examined in this exhibition and catalogue—enjoyed no such art historical glue. Artists who painted in representational and non-objective modes in Boston over the past fifty years, while important as individuals, could never be considered members of a truly regional style. They just happened to be in the same place at the same time. Moreover, the Boston Expressionists of both the fifties and the eighties did not operate in a local vacuum. Their work is inextricably tied to the larger art historical continuum by virtue of their participation in, and contributions to, the ongoing international discourse surrounding the tradition of Figurative Expressionism.