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More Than a ‘Holocaust Artist’: Miami Show Positions Maryan as an Unknown Giant of the Postwar Era

November 29, 2021

Maryan, Two Personnages, 1968

Maryan, Two Personnages, 1968. 

By Alex Greenberger

Back in 1972, the Guggenheim Museum invited a group of 10 artists to do an exhibition that had virtually no involvement from its curatorial team. Even if that show was “anticurator,” as one New York Times critic deemed it, the exhibition, titled “Ten Independents,” certainly wasn’t anti–art world altogether. The artists—many of whom were well-known to curators and collectors at the time, like Romare Bearden, H. C. Westermann, and Red Grooms—chose noted critic Dore Ashton to serve as their emissary, neatly summing up the show’s ethos in its catalogue in lieu of a curator. Unlike some of his colleagues, one artist in that mix, however, has languished in relative obscurity ever since. Maryan was a painter of vivid images of unsettled figures. When he died of a heart attack five years later, in 1977, at age 50, he received only a short obituary in the Times and few other notices. 

At the time of his death, Maryan had already lived an extremely full—and sometimes tumultuous—career. He had been born in 1927 under the name Pinkas Bursztyn in the southern Polish town of Nowy-Saçz, and had spent much of World War II in multiple concentration camps because he was Jewish. Then, after living in Palestine after the war, he moved to Paris and then to New York, where he was shown by the same gallery that also represented Westermann. While not entirely unknown during their time, his most famous paintings—his “personnages,” figurations depicting grotesque humanoids that appear to cry blood and disassemble into arrays of fancifully colored forms—have yet to obtain enduring fame. 

“Maryan is one of those artists that didn’t make it into the first draft of the 20th-century art history, and I think that in many ways is because the trajectory of his work and his life is incredibly complex,” said Alison M. Gingeras, curator of a Maryan retrospective now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami in Florida. With that show, which is set to travel to the Tel Aviv Museum in 2023, Gingeras is aiming to contextualize Maryan anew, showing that he was, in fact, one of the era’s more intriguing figures.

On the rare occasions when Maryan has been considered over the past few decades, he has been seen as a “Holocaust artist”—a label that Maryan himself found too limiting. The art historian Ziva Amishai-Maisels once even went so far as to claim that Maryan was the first to unflinchingly depict the horrors of the concentration camps. But Gingeras’s goal has been to expose lesser-known sides of the artist’s output.

The star work in the show is not a “personnage” but a film: Ecce Homo(1975), the only work Maryan made in the medium. (The work’s title is a reference to the Latin translation of Pontius Pilot’s words when he presents Jesus to a jeering crowd before his crucifixion.) Though the Holocaust is the film’s starting point, Maryan connects it to centuries of anti-Semitism, racism, fascism, and oppression. In its opening sequence, Maryan edits together images of his art alongside pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, the My-Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Throughout, Maryan appears in various guises—sometimes bound up, sometimes not, and often while wearing a shirt with a gigantic Star of David on it—as he intones about systematic killings. This is, as Maryan once put it, “a startling anti-genocide work of art.” “I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything like it,” said Gingeras. 


There are even more deep cuts from Maryan’s oeuvre on view in this show: his first image of a concentration camp prisoner (it is far less abstract than his “personnages”—but no less resonant), a painting series inspired by a Goya still-life of a dead turkey, and notebooks featuring musings in which the artist attempts to preserve family histories that had almost been destroyed during the Holocaust. 

Some of these works are held institutionally, but many are not, and so Gingeras had to effectively go on the hunt for them herself. “There was a lot of Scooby-Doo,” she said, referring to the detective work it took to locate much of Maryan’s work. Her preparations for the Miami show took her from New York to Nowy-Saçz and back again, and often involved extensive interviews with lesser-known figures who knew him, including the artist June Leaf, whose creations are likewise unclassifiable. Many of the works in the show have rarely been seen publicly in the U.S., if at all. 

According to Chana Budgazad Sheldon, MOCA North Miami’s director, maintaining a global perspective was key with the exhibition. “Thinking about our very high immigrant population in North Miami, which is also a majority-minority community, we’re always looking at ways of bringing in local voices and different voices,” she said. The local chapter of Human Rights Watch was brought on to help write a text about the Holocaust with regard to a global lineage of genocides, and art historian Erica Moiah James, an expert in African art, was asked to help elucidate Maryan’s collection of masks and artifacts from the Bangwa, Bobo, Teke, and Bini peoples, examples of which are also included in the survey.

At certain moments in art history, Maryan’s work has had unexpected resurgences. In 1985, with Neo-Expressionism at its height in New York, two galleries in the city gave the artist the closest thing he’s had to a retrospective prior to this new show. “Out of sync with Pop, Minimalism and Color Field, they seem now to have found their moment,” New York Timescritic Grace Glueck remarked of Maryan’s paintings. Now, as figuration is on the rise once more, Maryan could strike a new chord. 

“Peter Saul or Carroll Dunham share a lot of affinities with Maryan,” said Gingeras. “At the same time, we’re reevaluating the canon to include artists who, whether for reasons of gender or geography, have been left out. Maryan really falls into that camp. There’s this thirst to challenge our assumptions about who the important artists of this period were.”

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