Arts

David Aronson, 91; leading Boston Expressionist artist

Artist David Aronson in 1956.
Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications
Artist David Aronson in 1956.

David Aronson, a leading Boston Expressionist artist, died on July 2 after a long struggle with pneumonia and chronic heart failure. He was 91.

Mr. Aronson’s achingly poetic, often mystical works are in the collections of numerous museums around the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

He was instrumental in shaping the visual arts program at Boston University, where he was brought on as head of the fledgling art department in 1955 and taught until 1989, and he established the Boston University Art Gallery.

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“He had a profound influence on Boston art,’’ said Katherine French, director emerita of Danforth Art and curator of “David Aronson: The Paradox,” a 2009 exhibition at the Framingham museum.

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Figuration was key for Mr. Aronson and other Boston Expressionists, who shrugged off trendy abstraction to wrestle with moral, spiritual, and psychological conundrums in their paintings. The son of a rabbi, Mr. Aronson struggled with the tension between his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his artistic aspirations.

“His father did not approve of his work, and he continued to pursue it,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas department at the MFA. “Like many artists — their soul tells them what they have to do.”

In his early work, Mr. Aronson painted many New Testament themes. “It was contrary to his upbringing and faith,” said Davis. “Exploring the New Testament was a bold act.”

“[His art] was very passionate. It was conflicted. He portrayed himself as the young Christ,” said French, who added, “He was notorious, and he was also very respected. Major collectors all over the country were collecting his work.”

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Born in rural Lithuania in 1923, Mr. Aronson immigrated with his family to Dorchester when he was a boy. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1940s, where he studied with the patriarch of Boston Expressionism, Karl Zerbe. and later taught there. He met his wife of 60 years, painter Georgiana Nyman Aronson, when she was a student in one of his classes.

“She was very taken with him. He was a magnetic figure and a strong presence,” said Ben Aronson, the artist’s son.

Early on, Mr. Aronson’s work caught national attention. In 1946, he was included in the Museum of Modern Art show “Fourteen Americans.”

“The young Aronson was in blistering form in these years,” Globe critic Sebastian Smee wrote in a review of the 2009 Danforth Art exhibit.

Mr. Aronson’s work changed in the 1950s, after the death of his father. He began exploring Old Testament motifs and sculpting.

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“It was much less inflammatory,” said French. “There’s a whole generation who understand him as very traditional.”

In Boston, Mr. Aronson is represented by Pucker Gallery, known for its attention to Jewish art.

Mr. Aronson’s large-scale 1958 painting “The Golem” is on view at the MFA. It depicts a rabbi bringing a homunculus to life. The artist imbued the image with otherworldliness: Figures float and contort, space contracts, and colors glow.

“The Golem” was Mr. Aronson’s favorite painting, said Davis.

As director of the visual arts program at BU, Mr. Aronson bucked art-world trends just as he did in his studio. He hired figurative artists. He insisted students study anatomy.

“The rigor of the foundation program today is based on what he instilled in the school from the very beginning,” said Lynne Allen, former director of BU’s School of Visual Arts and dean ad interim for the College of Fine Arts.

“Aronson dissented from the concept of art history that it only moves in one direction,” said Bruce Herman, chair of the art department at Gordon College, who was Mr. Aronson’s teaching assistant at BU. “And of course, he was right.”

A key hire was painter Philip Guston, who abandoned Abstract Expressionism in the late 1960s and turned to gutsy, socially conscious figuration. Critics decried Guston’s move. Mr. Aronson offered him a position.

As a teacher, Herman said, Mr. Aronson “had impossibly high standards and a very light touch. He was a master of the well-timed word.”

Ben Aronson, now a painter based in Framingham, had the mixed blessing of taking his father’s painting class as an undergraduate. On the first day, Mr. Aronson critiqued each student’s work, saving his son’s for last.

“He tore me apart,” Ben remembered. “He nailed me to the wall, then gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Hopefully things will pick up for you.’”

Later, the aggrieved student ran into his father. “He said, ‘Ben, how was your day?’ I said, ‘I had my first painting class. My professor is really tough,’ ” Ben recalled. “He laughed and said, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ ”

“He had a wonderful life, filled with great love and success,” said Ben. “He had a tremendous commitment to family, and a fierce commitment to his own creative work.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Aronson leaves two daughters, Judith Webb of Los Angeles and Abigail Zocher of Sudbury. After a private memorial, the family plans to hold a public service in the next few months.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.