The artist known as Maryan was born Pinchas Burntein to a Jewish family in Nowy-Saçz, a town in southern Poland. Maryan spent World War II separated from his family in various ghettos, labor camps, and concentration camps, before being sent to Auschwitz. The only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, Maryan’s private life and artistic practice were deeply influenced by his experience of the war: his signature style, which used abstract forms to render brutally deformed characters, helped reintroduce the figure to contemporary painting alongside his peers Jean Dubuffet, Enrico Baj, Karel Appel, and other artists associated with the CoBrA Group, Art Brut, and La Nouvelle Figuration.
After the war, Maryan moved between displaced person camps around Europe, and eventually moved for a period of two years to Jerusalem. While in Israel, Maryan began to focus in a sustained manner upon the development of his artistic practice; after two years of living in Jerusalem, Maryan mounted his first solo exhibition at the city’s YMCA. Looking for a larger creative community, Maryan moved to Paris in the early 1950s, where he quickly became a preeminent figure in the post-war European neo-avant-garde, exhibiting his work at the Galerie de France alongside Hans Hurting, Serge Poliakoff, Pierre Soulages, and Zao Wou-Ki, as well as at the Galerie Claude Bernard, where he showed with Francis Bacon, Balthus, and Peter Blake.
Maryan’s work boldly rejected the popular taste for total abstraction in contemporary art, and his brightly colored, expressionist canvases were immediately met with positive attention: he was commissioned to design a tapestry for the Monument to the Unknown Jewish Martyr in Paris, and was awarded the Prix des Critiques d’Art at the Paris Biennale. His successes brought him a number of international exhibitions, and his first solo exhibition in the United States was held at the famed André Emerrich Gallery in 1960.
Shortly after his exhibition at André Emmerich, Maryan moved with his wife, Annette, to New York, where he lived at the Chelsea Hotel until his death. He produced his most important works in New York, known as the “Personnage” paintings, which are marked by a centrally positioned, wildly animated figure that dominates the composition. As Grace Glueck described in The New York Times, after an exhibition of these works at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, the “Personnage” paintings began as “brutal, exaggerated Piccasoid forms in which could be seen the influence also of Dubuffet and the CoBrA group of young European painters that included Karel Appel and Asger Jorn. They were mocking, clownish zombies with mask like faces and lolling tongues, suggesting visual realizations of characters from Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum. Later, they got wider and more gestural, with maybe a touch of de Kooning, winding up as slobbering, almost illegible bundles of mouths, flailing limbs, and flying organs.”
Exhibited to wide acclaim in the years before his death, Maryan’s presaged not only the Neo-Expressionist figuration that dominated the New York art world in the 1980s, but also the contemporary prevalence of work that blends abstract techniques with figurative subject matter. Despite growing renown for his work, Maryan suffered a series of breakdowns and emotional disturbances beginning in 1974, related to his experience of the Holocaust. His health continued to deteriorate over the next two years, and just months after the French awarded Maryan the honorary title of Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Maryan passed away in his room at the Chelsea Hotel.