St. Louis recently lost one of its artistic greats.
Edward Boccia, painter, poet, and teacher, died on September 3, 2012, at the age of 91. An exceptionally prolific artist, he noted, “For as long as I can remember, drawing and painting have been as natural to me as breathing. I can’t conceive of not producing artistic work.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921, Boccia studied at the Art Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. His time at Pratt was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Army from 1942 to 1945. But even war didn’t stem his creative output. He received art supplies from his mother back home, painted from foxholes and cafes, and sent the work to his mother. Upon his return Boccia married fellow Pratt student Madeleine Wysong. He joined the faculty of Washington University in 1951 and was named professor of art in 1966; he became professor emeritus twenty years later.
Boccia’s work is found in the collections of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the National Pinakothek in Athens, and more than 600 private collections.
Boccia developed a distinctive style that wedded abstract expressionism and figurative styles through a surrealist sensibility, resulting in visually arresting but enigmatic images. He described his work as dealing with “love, lust and life,” and brought together literary themes and archetypes both pagan and Christian in his work. He employed diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs (often on a monumental scale) to depict multiple dimensions of a single concept.
It was such canvases that were displayed at MOCRA in a 1996 exhibition titled Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter, mounted jointly with the McNamee Gallery at Samuel Cupples House (also on the Saint Louis University campus).
In the exhibition’s introductory texts we noted:
Edward Boccia’s career as a painter may be poetically referred to as a grand house with many rooms. Some rooms, although elegant, are lived in briefly. Other rooms, made more comfortable by the artist’s personal associations, are occupied for years. No room is permanently closed. The artist moves freely from room to room, constantly borrowing ideas from where he has stayed before. The paintings and drawings in this exhibition are grouped by thematic concerns beginning with character sketches done in France during World War II and ending with a nine-panel painting, Eugene’s Journey (1996), that draws upon all of the artist’s skills as a painter and poet.
While Boccia’s art reflects the influence of many artists, including Picasso, Cézanne, and Nolde, his great idol was the German expressionist painter, Max Beckmann. It happens that Beckmann taught at Washington University in St. Louis briefly in the late 1940s. Boccia arrived just a few years too late to be Beckmann’s colleague, but he did come into possession of the artist’s easel.
Boccia was introduced to Beckmann’s work by Morton D. “Buster” May, head of the May Department Stores Co. May became Boccia’s great patron and advocate. He bought hundreds of paintings and drawings, right up until his death in 1983. May made generous gifts of the works to friends, colleagues, universities and museums, including Saint Louis University. Generations of SLU students have encountered (and were likely puzzled by) Boccia’s paintings in the halls of DuBourg Hall, the reading rooms of Pius XII Memorial library, and other campus buildings.
Boccia’s work is also well known to people who worship at the Washington University Catholic Student Center Chapel, which is dominated by his grand mural Path of Redemption. A 1964 set of Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Catholic Student Center were part of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition (mounted in 2009 and reprised in 2010). Reminiscent of Matisse’s late works, they are made of collaged cut paper and use the motif of hands as an eloquent means of bringing out the deep pathos of the Stations.
Boccia was an inspirational example of an artist continuing to develop throughout his career. In his mid-60s, he began writing poetry. Several volumes have been published, including Moving the Still Life, and his poetry has won national and international awards.
Appropriately, then, an effort is underway to make Boccia’s artistic legacy an active one. Boccia’s daughter Alice is spearheading a Catalogue Raisonné of Ed Boccia’s works. Scholarly contributions and information regarding the location of Boccia artwork are requested for inclusion in the catalog. Entries may be submitted directly from the website. Also, Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) has an upcoming exhibition of Boccia’s work, titled Edward Boccia: Triptychs and Polyptychs, scheduled for February 22 – April 21, 2013.
The staff of MOCRA extend our condolences to Ed’s wife, Madeleine, his daughter, Alice Boccia, and his granddaughter, Jennifer Pateraki.
Some of the information for this post was drawn from remembrances published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Beacon. Both articles merit further perusal, and include additional images of Boccia’s work.
— David Brinker, Assistant Director