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Friday, September 6, 2013

Aaron Bohrod

Tangerine on a Burlap Ground, Aaron Bohrod, painted life size.
Self-portrait, 1937,
Aaron Bohrod
What do you call a painting that appears to be quite abstract at first glance, but upon closer inspection, turns out to be anything but? You might call it an Aaron Bohrod still-life. In classifying Bohrod as an artist you'd have to say he was a realist. Yet, you might need to follow that with an asterisk. Some of his work (mostly his still-lifes) are often more realistic than they might first appear, while at the same time, other pieces seem less realistic upon close inspection than their first impression might suggest. I might even go so far as to label Bohrod a surrealist--if Salvador Dali had painted still-lifes, they might well have resembled Bohrod's. We're trained to believe that there is a wide gulf between Abstract Expressionism and Realism. Aaron Bohrod's still-lifes would seem to suggest that this gulf may not always be as wide as we might think. In fact, it can be more of a thin line.

Aaron Bohrod, "covering" the war for Life.
Aaron Bohrod was born in 1907 in Chicago, the son of a Russian grocer. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Art Students League. There he was influenced by the Social Realism of John Sloan. In returning to Chicago in the 1930s, he painted urban views, both of the city as well as its working class population. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to travel broadly throughout the Depression ravaged country while also producing work for the WPA. When the Second World War came, he painted for the Army Corps of Engineers in the Pacific, then later as a war artist for Life magazine, eventually finding himself on its cover (right). His paintings of the war are both "gritty" in their combat realism while at the same time often displaying an ethereal element moving them surprisingly close to an anti-war theme (below).

Assault Groups Taking Cover (Rendova), 1944, Aaron Bohrod--combat art, yet still "art."
War and Peace, 1950s, Aaron Bohrod
One of the reasons Bohrod's post-war still-lifes appear abstract at first glance is that they are extremely "busy." This tendency, combined with the fragmentary nature of his tromp l'oel bulletin board items, creates the visual confusion and ambiguity associated with Abstract Expressionism. Photos and clippings are torn and folded, objects broken, text elements are layered one over the other, yet all come together to convey a message, as in his War and Peace (left). Rather than simply viewing the painting and admiring the artist's technical virtuosity, we quickly find ourselves deciphering it, interpreting it, and discovering it, perhaps even pursuing the avalanche of trivia into the deepest reaches of the artist's mind. We see the first steps in the direction of Bohrod's mature still-life work indicated in his plans for a post office mural, in which he combines the Midwestern influences of Thomas Hart Benton with what appears to be some familiarity with Cubism in conveying his History of the U.S. Mail (below) dating from 1933. On the opposite side of the coin, his earlier renderings of the Chicago's back streets, as seen in his Abandonment (bottom, right) displays a strident, stark, quality making them more surrealistic than their realistic first impression.

History of the U.S. Mail, 1933, Aaron Bohrod--
Thomas Hart Benton meets Cubism.

Abandonment, 1930s, Aaron Bohrod--
Dali meets the Depression.


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