Maryan’s Personnage (1962) is part of the show dedicated to the artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Collection of Anne Wachsmann Guigon
By Tom Seymour
Maryan was 17 when he arrived, already separated from his family, at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Polish-born Jewish artist, whose work is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, lost his entire family in the camps; he left Auschwitz in 1945 as the only survivor of his bloodline.
From there, his highly prolific life—one that encompassed the very beginnings of Israel, the avant-garde art schools of Paris and the bohemian subcultures of New York—has gone largely unrecorded and unremarked in the canons of art history. Maryan’s name remains obscure even to many art students. But now, thanks to extensive new scholarship, as well as the discovery of a huge trove of never-before-seen works, Maryan’s name may become established alongside some of the most significant and resonant figures in post-war art history.
My Name is Maryan, curated by Alison M. Gingeras, will be the first retrospective to holistically examine all periods of Maryan’s life and work across four decades.
Optical and painterly power
Gingeras first became aware of Maryan through “a small reference to his work in an archival catalogue from a group show at the Whitney museum in the 1970s”, she says. “I went down the rabbit hole of art history to find out about Maryan,” Gingeras says. “There was no catalogue raisonné, so it was unclear to me how prolific he was. As I learnt about his life, I realised he was extremely productive. And was just taken aback by the optical and painterly power of his work.”
Maryan, who was previously known as Pinkas, was born in 1927 to Abraham Schindel and Gitla Bursztyn, a working class couple from Nowy Sącz, Poland. After witnessing the rise of fascism throughout the 1930s, the family was captured by the Nazis in 1939. Under his mother’s maiden name, Bursztyn, Pinkas was imprisoned at various forced labour camps before finally being sent to Auschwitz during the war.
He survived the Nazi camps, but, while in a refugee centre for displaced survivors of the Holocaust after the war’s end, his injuries necessitated his leg to be amputated. Yet his disability did not stop him from seeing the world and pursuing his art. In 1947, he emigrated to then-Palestine and started to study art in Jerusalem. By 1950, he was studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
There, he shed his family name and adopted the name Maryan. He began exhibiting his figurative paintings in group exhibitions at Galerie de France and Galerie Claude Bernard alongside such artists as Francis Bacon, Balthus and Peter Blake. By the early 1960s, Maryan had crossed the Atlantic to New York and created a home-cum-studio for himself, with his wife Annette, in the now famed Chelsea Hotel, where he lived for the rest of his life. Maryan died in the studio of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 50. His death was preceded by a huge mental breakdown, which for a time forced him to live under psychiatric care. After his death, his wife Annette kept the artist’s work in place without sharing it with the art world. Now, his studio has been painstakingly recreated, from archival photographs, in an immersive installation in the exhibition’s opening gallery space.
“I wanted to reconstruct his studio to orientate the exhibition around that very productive and turbulent period of time for him in New York,” Gingeras says.
Maryan is now regarded as amongst the few major artists to have directly witnessed the most extreme and traumatic manifestations of the Holocaust. Yet he did not want to be defined as a Holocaust artist; he strived to make his life and work amount to more than the unthinkable horror he was subjected to as a child.
As such, Gingeras made the decision not to confront the war until mid-way through the exhibition. “Maryan is one of the first artists to have survived the Shoah and then made work that directly represented his experiences,” she says. “But I didn’t want to overly determine one’s experience of his work on an aesthetic plain. As you encounter the material that explicitly deals with his life story, what he went through is writ large in the iconography. But there’s a simultaneity to the show; his significance as a major witness of the largest crime against humanity in history, and what he was capable of making as an artist beyond that.”
The exhibition will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2023.