Abraham Yurberg: A Life In Art

By Chelsea Beroza

Walking into Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective at Ten43 Gallery is like walking into a moment trapped in time. Yurberg transports us through a lifetime of intense emotion and expression in the twenty-five paintings and twelve works on paper spanning the artist’s seventy-year career. It is incredible to consider that this exhibition marks the first time Yurberg has allowed his work to be shown since retreating from the public eye in 1967. Why he would hide such beauty from the world is unfathomable.

Upon entering the left side of the gallery is covered with colorful, deeply saturated paintings with heavy impasto representative of the Abstract Expressionist style. The works are hung in chronological order from the 1940s onward thus adding to the biographical narrative. On the right side of the gallery a series of drawings he created while fighting in World War II are on display. The drawings are wrought with conflict, as the young man experienced horrors of war while also trying to hold on to his own humanity. Faces and backgrounds are obscured creating a notion of displacement.  Both the paintings and drawings are visual memoirs from his past and although figural, his drawings suggest the abstraction he invokes later in life.

Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1912, Abraham Yurberg immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy where he was raised on New York’s Lower East Side. The harsh realities of the Depression prompted Yurberg to embrace the alternative reality offered by the city’s museums and galleries. When he started painting his style was defined by an emotional intensity. Following Yurberg’s first taste of critical success, he was drafted into the United States Army, serving on the front lines of Italy and North Africa. Art became a form of therapy when coping with the war’s trauma. As a Jewish soldier, his role in the war took on a more symbolic meaning. Not only was he fighting for his country, but also the lives of his people suffering under the most palpable evil the modern world had ever known. The works on paper during this time are evidence of his struggle to make sense of the war and the staggering loss of entire generations of Polish and German Jews.

The devastation and loss stayed with Yurberg upon returning to New York. He had difficulty confronting the horrors he experienced overseas and although he continued to show his work sporadically in exhibitions at Harry Salpeter Gallery, the British American Museum, The Riverside Museum and The Hanover Trust, in 1967 he retreated from the public eye completely though he continued to paint almost daily for the next forty-four years.

The paintings are a visual mapping of the artist’s emotional history. Yurberg’s art conflates the various stages of his life into a rhythmic pattern that breathes life and loss. Although specific to the artist’s experiences, his work also speaks to the shared history of the Jewish communities in New York and overseas. The Great Depression and World War II were the catalysts that drove his work.

Landing a solo gallery show so late in one’s career is not an easy task by any means. Yurberg’s obvious ambition so late in life speaks to a real need to share his artistic output. Yurberg honors the ghosts of his past and confronts them on the stark gallery walls with his brush, a moving tribute and catharsis for the 98 year old Polish immigrant.

Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective will be on view at Ten43 Gallery (1043 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10075) through February 19th, 2011. www.ten43gallery.com

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