Maryan S. Maryan’s early painting Crematorium at Auschwitz (1949) depicts an expressionistic tangle of greenish limbs, grasping hands, reptilian faces, and the flames of an incipient furnace. It was created in Israel when the artist, who was born in Poland in 1927 and miraculously survived Auschwitz (though not without losing a leg), still called himself Pinchas Burstein. The painting was one of several Holocaust-themed pictures that featured in the young Burstein’s first solo exhibition, in Jerusalem in 1950.
“Those paintings went missing, and no one knew where they were,” says Alison M. Gingeras, the American curator who eventually tracked them down in private collections. Their discovery is important in the context of what Maryan achieved. “I have just done an exhibition of another artist, called Erna Rosenstein, who was also Polish,” Gingeras says. “The two of them are among the first to create paintings that directly depict things they witnessed during the Holocaust.” In the 1950s, Maryan, who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, changed his name to rid himself from the persecution the Nazis had attached to it, but he would always be shadowed by the Shoah.
The early paintings, signed “Burstein,” are included in “My Name Is Maryan,” a sweeping retrospective organized by Gingeras, which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MoCA) next week. The exhibition will then travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in March 2023. Its centerpiece is a reproduction of Maryan’s home studio, where he and his wife, Annette, lived during the 1970s. Their room was on the tenth floor, just a few doors down from one shared by Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
During her research, Gingeras discovered an unpublished archive of photographs of the room, which helped her to re-create its layout and the way Maryan hung his work alongside Polish folk art and African tribal masks. “He needed this bohemian environment to create and work through what he was tortured by,” Gingeras says.
Maryan referred to his art as “truth-painting,” and in it he sought to give shape to the grotesque cast of characters—or “personages,” as he dubbed them in the 1960s—that crowded his imagination. His “Napoleon” is a sweating, gesticulating tin-pot dictator. Other characters lie on their backs with their legs flailing in the air. Still others wear donkey’s ears on their heads or conical hats that recall the victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
Maryan’s mature figurative style has drawn comparisons with the American artists Philip Guston and Peter Saul. It combines cartoonish elements and a vivid palette to evoke a human bestiary lacking any sort of control over its primal urges.
“I am fascinated by his story,” writes the New York art dealer Adam Lindemann in an e-mail. Lindemann’s Venus Over Manhattan gallery has helped to raise Maryan’s profile higher than at any time since his death, from a heart attack, in 1977, at the age of 50. “He grew up in Auschwitz and watched his whole family murdered,” says Lindemann. “But he never wanted people to talk about that when they see his art. He’s so funny—the darkest humor I’ve ever experienced.”
Lindemann first had an inkling that a market for Maryan’s work existed when he sold several of his paintings at Paris’s FIAC in 2018. Maryan had lived in Paris for several years before immigrating to the United States in 1962. “To my surprise,” he says, “it was a little hit there with people coming over and reminiscing.”
Since then he has seen Maryan’s prices continue to climb. “We sell everything from a work on paper for 20K to a masterpiece of a painting for ‘only’ 200K,” Lindemann writes. “But I am running out and the work isn’t so easy to find.” Lindemann recently presented his first solo exhibition of Maryan’s work at Venus Over Manhattan, curated by the rising American painter Eddie Martinez.
“Maryan is a bit of an artist’s artist,” Gingeras explains. “I put him in a group show in L.A. in early 2020, and I hung his work next to Carroll Dunham, who almost fell over when he saw it. It really resonated with Dunham’s type of figuration, and they share so many formal affinities, but he’d never heard of this artist before. So I think there’s a pattern of artists discovering Maryan’s work, first because of his visuality. They kind of lose their marbles when they start to dig in and learn more about him.” —Tobias Grey
“My Name Is Maryan” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami on November 17