Maryan's “Two Personnages” (1968), oil on canvas. (Venus Over Manhattan, New York / Courtesy)
Guest curator Alison M. Gingeras recreated Maryan and Annette’s Chelsea Hotel apartment-studio. It is the first gallery in the retrospective. (MOCA, North Miami / Courtesy)
By Michelle F. Solomon
He shed his given name to reinvent himself from the person who was persecuted by the Nazis. While much of his work was born of the atrocities he suffered, the artist known as Maryan, was firmly against being labeled as a Holocaust artist. His wife, Annette, fiercely guarded his work for the same reason after his death at age 50 in 1977.
This aversion to what could be a rigid classification of his art explains why, after viewing the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami’s comprehensive and prolific exhibition, “My Name is Maryan,” one is left with the feeling that Maryan may be one of the most overlooked artists of the 20th century.
The exhibition is all-encompassing — “holistically” examining the chapters of the artist’s life and work, according to MOCA guest curator Alison M. Gingeras. Four decades of paintings, sculptures, drawings, plus his 90-minute, black-and-white film, take up 12 galleries inside. In addition to 176 of Maryan’s works, there are 36 pieces by his like-minded contemporaries included, and 29 ephemera.
“My Name is Maryan” was originally meant to run from December 2021 through the end of this past March, but it was extended through Oct. 2. After it closes at the North Miami museum, “My Name is Maryan” is set to travel to Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Chana Budgazad Sheldon, MOCA’s executive director, said the museum’s mission perfectly aligned with an exhibit of Maryan’s oeuvre.
“The work that we do is both focused on connecting with the community, lifting up diverse voices and stories, and featuring unexplored art and artists,” Sheldon said.
“It’s been three years in the making,” she added about the large undertaking.
The intent was to cast a new light on Maryan’s contributions.
“As comprehensive as this exhibition is, it really is a new beginning for understanding the artist,” Sheldon said.
So, who was Maryan? He was born in 1927 as Pinkas (sometimes written as Pinchas) Schindel in the Polish city of Nowy Sącz. In 1939, his Jewish family was captured by the Nazis, placed in forced labor camps, and in the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. He was imprisoned under his mother’s maiden name of Bursztyn and survived several near-death encounters. Injuries inflicted upon him made it necessary for his leg to be amputated. The rest of his family perished. He was 18 years old when Russians liberated the camps in Germany.
He then went to Israel to begin his art training and after that to Paris, where he adopted the name Maryan, a common Polish first name, according to Gingeras.
The story of how “My Name is Maryan” was born at MOCA comes from a personal encounter. Sheldon recalled touring Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018 when she spotted paintings, exhibited by the New York gallery Venus Over Manhattan, depicting wildly garish figures that seemed cartoonish yet sinister in their slyness. These were Maryan’s “Personnage” paintings.
“I recognized the work from catalogs that used to sit on the bookshelf of my mother’s house, that I remembered from a young age,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon’s grandmother was one of the “hidden children of the Holocaust.”
“She was hidden in a convent in France with the woman who ended up married to Maryan,” Sheldon said.
Though she never met Maryan, Sheldon said she had met Annette and knew of her husband, the artist.
“When I started working in the arts in my 20s, Annette invited me to her apartment on the Upper East Side. It was basically a trove of paintings and like a time capsule of all of his works.
His paintbrushes, his journals that she had been protecting for years were there. At the time I thought, ‘Someone should archive this,’ " she says.
After connecting with the Venus Over Manhattan gallery and reaching out to Gingeras, a writer and curator who is based in New York and Warsaw, the journey of “My Name is Maryan” began. “It’s been quite the adventure,” Sheldon says.
Gingeras explains that while Maryan’s widow physically preserved his work, she was also known for being “overprotective of his legacy.” She says Annette “thwarted the work of art historians and researchers,” especially those who were interested in the works that explicitly addressed his Holocaust experience. “This certainly was an impediment to his legacy,” she says.
One of the last works of the Polish-Jewish artist included in the exhibition is the 1975 black-and-white film shot on 16mm, “Ecce Homo,” which took a year to make. He is sitting in his Chelsea Hotel studio in a straitjacket, a Star of David drawn across his chest. He reenacts Holocaust memories, giving first-person accounts. The sketchbooks that preceded the making of the film are also included in the exhibit. The film and the books are compelling accounts offering a deeper understanding of the artwork on display.
Gingeras traveled to the artist’s hometown of Nowy Sącz. Back in New York, she visited friends and neighbors of Maryan’s from his days living in the Chelsea Hotel. That storied apartment-studio is re-created in the MOCA exhibition. It is, in fact, the first gallery in the retrospective.
“I wanted the viewer, especially one who had never heard of Maryan, to walk into the ‘Chelsea Hotel’ approximative installation and be immersed in his visual universe, to be saturated by the optical power of his painting when he was at the height of his artistic powers,” says Gingeras. She reconstructed the studio from photographs from his time there in the 1970s.
And, it was in New York where he once and for all changed his name to Maryan S. Maryan.
For the exhibition at MOCA, Gingeras was definite in her decision to not follow a conventional linear chronology.
“If we began with Maryan at the start of his artistic life, we would have immediately overwhelmed the viewer with the harrowing tale of his childhood under Nazi occupation and imprisonment,” said the guest curator. “It was important to me that viewers be able to read his work on multiple levels and not just through the lens of his trauma and survival.”
She highlighted key themes in his paintings, while also going into depth about his groundbreaking film and drawings he made while in therapy for his Holocaust-related trauma.
There is excitement about the next chapter of “My Name is Maryan” as the retrospective heads to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Gingeras is working with Noa Rosenberg, Tel Aviv Museum’s curator of modern art.
“She has unearthed new information about his time in Israel, which will be an important part of the Tel Aviv version of the show,” Gingeras said.
Rosenberg, speaking from Tel Aviv, said theirs won’t be a carbon copy of MOCA’s exhibition. Rather than an all-out retrospective, there will be more emphasis on the three years the artist spent in Israel and a larger conversation including, but not limited to, how Israel received Holocaust survivors.
“His time spent here is unfortunately a reminder of how difficult, how detached, and how misplaced he was. When you talk about this artist here, there are few people who know the work, and not many know who he is still,” said Rosenberg.
“It is very moving to me that his work would return to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where he had a major exhibition in 1977, opening just months after his untimely death,” added Gingeras. “The Tel Aviv project will contribute to our effort to tell as much of Maryan’s story as possible.”