"Harvey Breverman: Humanist Impulses, Selected Paintings, Drawings, Prints."
At the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, Center for the Arts, North Campus, and UB's Anderson Gallery through Dec. 31.
"There I was, high on a mountain in a large studio looking out over pastures enclosed in barbed wire with cows grazing outside my window," painter and printmaker Harvey Breverman was saying over mocha in a Williamsville coffeehouse the other day.
"I was from the city, so I'd never really seen cows before. And the barbed wire -- I had no idea how it was constructed, so I asked for a length so that I could see how the knots were configured."
Breverman was talking about his 1992 stay at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts located high on Mount San Angelo, Va. It is one of those art colonies that insists that its artist-residents take on the aspect of medieval monks and devote their every waking hour to the production of the modern equivalent of the holy article: a painting, a novel, a musical composition.
Breverman reports that once you enter the big iron gates of the place, you pretty much leave the everyday world behind.
The pastoral mood didn't hold long for Breverman. "I worked late into the night, and sometimes I would walk along the perimeter of the farm. Spotlights dotted the path. With the lights, the barbed wire, the iron gate -- it could have been Auschwitz. I began to feel as though I was living someone else's life. I was inside it and outside it at once."
Breverman, now 70 and a long-time professor of art at the University at Buffalo, had been grappling for two decades with an appropriate way to deal with the Holocaust. He knew that he didn't want to picture the particular horrors -- the human degradation, the corpses. He wanted to approach it more obliquely, to somehow enter into its black, inexplicable psychology through some unnoticed side door.
"It was then and there on that mountain that I started the 'Nightworks,' " he says.
The "Nightworks" series is at the emotional center of the two-venue survey of Breverman's work in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery and UB's Anderson Gallery. "Harvey Breverman: Humanist Impulses, Selected Paintings, Drawings, Prints," organized by UB curator Sandra Firmin, holds 120 paintings from the 1980s to the present, many of them of mammoth size, plus about 90 prints (all at the Anderson), beginning with 1965 etchings and ending with recent lithographs.
The "Nightworks" are executed on black paper in big fat oil pastels, what Breverman says are the same sticks used to mark livestock. The heavily worked paintings come in the form of complex images of synagogues destroyed during World War II -- big, ominous works with solid abstract structures -- or as solemn if almost bizarre portrait heads of Breverman's university colleagues and friends.
The wooden synagogues once stood in Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, and Breverman dramatically restages the loss of these structures as symbolic of human loss suffered in the Holocaust. Actual floor plans and elevations are intercut with starkly rendered three-dimensional buildings, while sinister emblems of the Nazi camps - railroad tracks, barbed wire, flaming openings, smokestacks - contest with fallen prayer shawls or drifting Jewish texts.
These grimly powerful pictures fit into the familiar category of fractured cityscapes where the real and the abstracted freely mingle. The portraits come close to making their own category. The subject's head is often seen poking up from the bottom of the page or in a couple of cases floating bodiless at the center. Behind and above these solid, self-contained heads are dense tapestries glutted with Hebrew letters, prayer books, various ritual garb and other religious markings and objects that range over a big chunk of Western Judeo-Christian history. Sometimes intermingled with these sacred references are symbols of the Holocaust - a prosthetic arm wrapped in phylacteries (or Tefillin, the Jewish leather prayer straps), again that piece of the barbed wire that Breverman so faithfully studied, canisterlike forms smelling of the gas chambers and bits of architecture that make reference to the concentration camps.
The subjects are real people almost all drawn from life. Among them are a few Holocaust survivors; some are Jewish, some are not. With the exception of playwright Samuel Beckett, all are people who are, or have been at one time or another, associated with UB: poets Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan; writers J.M Coetzee, Primo Levi, John Barth, Leslie Fiedler and Ray Federman; the painter Jim Dine; and many others. Federman's smiling face appears in many of the works.
Levi was one of a few to survive Auschwitz in 1945, and all his novels deal with the inexplicable evil of the Holocaust and the responses of its victims. In 1987 at age 67, Levi threw himself from his third floor Turin apartment. Breverman's portrait, "Levi: Lamentation" (2000), shows a somber Levi, his distracted eyes half-obliterated by reflections on his glasses and his white hair and beard in contrast to the blood-red and black of the vague, striated architectural forms behind. A rough arched doorway set right beneath his chin shows an ashen cluster of buildings with billowing smokestacks, perhaps a miniature view of Auschwitz itself. A finger of red emerges from the indistinct shape above, pointing at Levi's head like a single drop of blood.
None of the "Nightworks" stray from Breverman's dictum about the depiction of this incomprehensible manifestation of evil: "Not the Holocaust itself, but the backdrop to the Holocaust."
Somber as they are, something else is going on with the heads. Many of these portraits seem pressed down upon as from a great weight. Most appear to be forcibly enclosed by an impenetrable, claustrophobic space. In "Federman: Kol Nidre Elegy" (1999), for example, the still-smiling Federman lies horizontality and is backed by a black square, looking for all the world like a man peacefully ensconced in his coffin. This, like many in the "Nightworks" series, has a tone of redemption about it, some sense that faith will, in the end, actually prevail. As Breverman phrases it, "The context is of entrapment, but there is still a sense of possibility, of hope."
If there is any doubt, let me state it plainly: Breverman is that rare contemporary phenomenon, a sincerely religious artist. Today's typical "religious artist" is nothing more than a purveyor of sentimental religious claptrap. If a serious contemporary artist does evoke religion, it is usually to treat it ironically or satirically or outright mockingly.
Not so for Breverman: "Others may intend an ironic twist, but I think I'm cut from another cloth. It's not disingenuous. Religion continues to play a significant role in my work."
This religious thrust shows itself overtly in the "Mystery of a Prayer Shawl" series. The prayer shawls, other than being Jewish ceremonial vestments, are given no special status. They sit in ordinary light and space, and their folds are not expressively arranged to suggest transcendence. The shawls are distinguished by their restraint, by what they don't say.
Role of prayer
Breverman was brought up in Pittsburgh, as an Orthodox Jew. During World War II, his parents - his father was a shoe salesman - prepared him for the slowing and then the absence of letters from the family's relatives in Eastern Europe as the Nazi slaughter escalated. At 13 he began the prayer rituals of the Orthodox Jew and continues them to this day. "I'm not lapsed," he says.
On weekdays before seeing anyone, he gets up and puts on a prayer shawl and phylacteries and prays. Religious practice follows him into the studio, where he sometimes wears a skullcap and where the prayer shawls and ceremonial adornments find their way into his art.
"In the studio I can do the irreligious thing and include these things in my work," he says. "It's weird. I have one foot planted in each world."
The big paintings of his colleagues at faculty meetings or sitting around the studio in Breuer chairs would seem to be strictly secular. They are crowded, fastidiously composed compositions in which the subjects look off to one side, or turn unexpectedly like a figure out of Normal Rockwell to stare back at the viewer. Nobody's communicating, but the atmosphere is convivial with no special sense of anxiety. The realism is hard and unrelenting. But even here Breverman sounds a quiet religious note. The artist has made himself famous for his views of himself and others seen from the back.
"I show the back of myself, the back of a canvas (in "Interior: Studio Group III,' 1994) to indicate that doing art is a spiritual activity," Breverman says. "God is unknowable. One is only allowed to see God's back. . . . He's purposefully, intentionally unknowable, a spirit that hovers over everything."
Breverman says he is extremely comfortable with the use of religion in his art.
"I consider myself an artistic survivor. I just go along with abiding faith without worrying about contemporary trends."