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Art Review: Frick exhibits explore two artists' sense of loss

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Two excellent and affecting exhibitions at The Frick Art & Historical Center affirm the powerful impact that painting can have when visual metaphor shortcuts language and links directly to the viewer's emotional and intellectual centers.

"The Early Work of Henry Koerner" comprises 31 paintings and 27 drawings completed between 1945 and the early 1950s by the late artist and Pittsburgh legend. These pieces are a broad representation of his finest work during that period.

"My Parents no. 2" is one of 31 works in the exhibit, "The Early Work of Henry Koerner," at the Frick Art Museum.

In contrast, "Hoka-Neni: Seven Paintings by Valentin Lustig" is a progression that tells, through symbol, the story of one person, created in 2001 and 2002 by a Romanian-born artist who now resides in Switzerland.

While stylistically very different, the work of each artist is narrative, figural, attentive to detail, lively in palette and, according to Edith Balas, who guest-curated both exhibitions, influenced heavily by the artists' familial connections with the Holocaust.

Balas has a long and intimate relationship with her subject matter, having curated, in recent years, exhibitions of Lustig's paintings for galleries at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. A CMU professor of art history and research associate at Pitt, Balas is a Holocaust survivor who was born in Romania and immigrated to the United States in 1967 with her family. Among her several books are "Brancusi and Rumanian Folk Traditions, East European Monographs" (1987), "The Holocaust in the Painting of Valentin Lustig" (2001) and "The Mother Goddess in Italian Renaissance Art" (2002).

The paintings displayed are sufficiently rewarding on their own, but the informative essays Balas had written for each exhibition catalog -- both richly illustrated in color -- expand one's appreciation for the complexity of both artists' work.

The full title of Lustig's grouping indicates the scope -- personal and universal, actual and mythical, grandiose and humble -- that the artist was reaching for: "Hoka-Neni: Being the History of The Life and Deeds of The Incomparable Aunty Hoka, Truthfully Depicted in Seven Parts by Her Nephew Valentin Lustig, Painter in Zurich."

By using his aunt as protagonist, Lustig conflates her story, and by extension Everyman's, with those of heroic, if suffering, figures like Job and St. Anthony. As such, the text both honors her memory -- she is among 55 members of his family who perished during the Holacaust -- and serves as a cautionary. She also acts, Balas says, as Lustig's alter ego.

Koerner's "The Pigeons" employs distorted scale and perspective, and unlikely juxtapositions.

The casual viewer will not realize these layers of significance, but the fanciful scenes that at first appear light and humorous soon reveal ominous content served up in a blend of realism, surrealism and even folk styles and charged with art historical influence and reference.

"Hoka-Neni and Her Prisoner During the Grand Tour" has an aspect of Watteau disrobed. Balas has annotated "The Temptation of Hoka-Neni" in more than 20 paragraphs that include references to art historic heavyweights such as Flaubert, Bosch and Grunewald; Orthodox Jewry; Oscar Wilde; and the Young Pioneers Communist organization.

Balas writes that she found it "fascinating" to be able to discuss work with a living artist, but clarifies that much of the interpretation is hers and that she doesn't "pretend [it's] exhaustive or definitive."

This smaller exhibition, in the museum's rotunda, sets the mood for Koerner's less explicitly symbolic imagery, although it's apparent that his expression, too, is weighted by what Frick director of museum programs Thomas Smart refers to as "that absence, that loss, that mournful quality, that sense of trauma." In Koerner's work, he says, it's "very sophisticatedly and complexly disguised and camouflaged." In Lustig's work, it's more obvious.

Anyone who's been a part of the Pittsburgh art world during the past several decades has a favorite anecdote about Koerner. His work -- bold, confident, sophisticated -- reflects a huge persona with intellect, depth, verve, ego, pain, reflection, sensitivity, curiosity, tenacity and ability.

Born in 1915 in Vienna, Koerner trained as a graphic designer, fled to Venice in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and immigrated to New York in 1939, where he found work as a graphic artist. Inducted into the Army in 1943, he became a citizen the following year, was assigned to be an artist at the Nuremberg Trials, and in 1946, after receiving his discharge, returned to Vienna to learn that his parents and brothers had been murdered in the death camps. This wasn't the only irony in his life. After settling in Pittsburgh, in 1953, he returned to Vienna with increasing regularity, and in 1991 was struck by a car there while bicycling. He died July 4 in Austria.

Technically accomplished, Koerner could create as he wished and his style varies, but the most startling works -- the magnificent "Barber Shop" or curious "The Pigeons" for example -- employ the distorted scale and perspective, and unlikely juxtapositions, associated with Magic Realism. The fleshy nude of "The Garter Belt," on the other hand, is reminiscent of Degas' probing of private space, while "The Junkyard" is structured like collage.

"The Newborn Hoka-Neni, Keenly Observed by Her Ancestors" is among the Valentin Lustig artworks on exhibit at the Frick Art Museum.

The painting that probably will remain in most visitors' memories is "My Parents no. 2." It depicts an elderly couple seen from behind, isolated onto separate paths in the "gold-leafed" Vienna woods (symbolic of both art and religious worlds, as well as the autumn that presages winter). It's message of separation, which has its own meaning for contemporary society, becomes more somber when one realizes that Koerner painted it the year he learned of his parents' tragic deaths.

But throughout, the works provoke, converse and, ultimately, make one ask why we haven't seen more of them.

The drawings, selected by Koerner's widow, Joan, afford an opportunity for intimacy with the artist's process of observation and rendering that the larger paintings don't, offering a window onto that which shaped his outlook and thus his art.

It's a credit to the Frick that they're presenting these exhibitions of contemporary work, in recognition of the artists, in consideration of the themes and communities addressed, and to correct and supplement an overly simplified record of painting of the past century which ignored artists such as Koerner when Abstract Expressionism became king.

The exhibitions continue through Nov. 9 at The Frick Art Museum, Point Breeze. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. Tomorrow evening a writing workshop, "Art & Memory," will be held, and. Nov. 8 Smart and Balis will conduct a gallery talk. Fee and reservations required for both events. The Lustig catalog is $16; the Koerner, $35 and $25 (soft cover). For information, call 412-371-0600 or visit

Mary Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-1925.

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