Alternative universe

By GREG COOK  |  December 16, 2009

"David Aronson: The Paradox" is part of a series of Boston Expressionist retrospectives that director Katherine French has organized at the Danforth. It showcases 23 works by the Sudbury painter, who was one of the founders of Boston Expressionism, along with Bloom, Jack Levine, and Aronson's teacher Zerbe. Aronson paints religious and mythic scenes, often in shallow, stage-like settings. The Resurrection (1944), his finest work here, depicts a tall, skinny, blue-black Jesus rendered in distorted perspective; he's lying in a coffin and crowned with thorns. All is ashen except for the garland of glowing roses and the bright-blue musician angels floating around the body. What stays with you is that explosion of color and Jesus's fleshiness and serene, tender expression.

The German influence on Aronson is most apparent in his 1947-'52 canvas Marriage at Cana, a large busy scene of clowns and carnival barkers that closely echoes the style and composition of German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann's 1942 triptych Actors. Aronson helped organize a large Beckmann exhibition at the Boston Museum School in 1946. Like Beckmann, he suggests stories in his symbolic scenes, but just what those stories might be remains elusive.

“David Aronson: The Paradox”“Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman”“Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech” | Danforth Museum, 123 Union Avenue, Framingham | Through February 28 [March 14 for Bergstein]
As the years pass, Aronson's scenes take on a soft, shimmering quality and his figures often assume curiously detached expressions, whether they're crowning Jesus with thorns or dancing across a banquet table. Characters in his 1958 painting The Golem have lumpy gold faces resembling masks sculpted from clay. The golem seems to lie inside a coffin smiling as a man — a rabbi? — floats in the air at left. Three individuals observe at right. A parrot flaps above the group. Aronson is still dealing with heroic or mythic themes, but the urgency of The Resurrection has been pasteurized out. That corresponds with the way the air went out of the sails of Boston Expressionism in general — a development that, in retrospect, one can't help associating with Boston's becoming disconnected from the great art debates of the day.

The nine paintings in "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman" focus on his depictions of classical-music concerts and self-portraits (mostly while listening to classical music). Born in Winthrop, Schwartz studied with Zerbe after Aronson, and he was a fiend for classical music, but he wrestled with his favorite German composers' anti-Semitism. He was most interesting when his conflicted feelings led to subject matter like ghouls or scantily clad women — or scantily clad women as ghouls. Orient Heights: The Spirit of Anne Frank Singing "Das Lied von der Erde" (1991) depicts a showgirl or perhaps an opera diva singing Mahler as diamond tears drip down her face. Wraith-like racehorses charge up her arm. Smoking chimneys stand in a wreath upon her bosom, like an apparition of the Holocaust.

"Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech" presents 30 gonzo paintings and drawings by one of Schwartz's students. (More of the Cambridge artist's work is at Gallery Naga, 67 Newbury Street, through December 19.) The Danforth show starts off with 1980s allegories of isolation symbolized by neon-lit telephones in vast, lonely bedrooms. By the '90s, a canvas like Map #2 (1991) is resembling a jumble of Post-Its stuck on a wall. The parts seem to represent everything that's on Bergstein's mind — doodles of fruit, a chopped-up heart, a telephone pole, a slice of pizza, bones, eyes, fingers, test tubes.

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