I had never heard of the noted artist Matthew Troyan, and I’ll bet you haven’t either.
Five years after his death in 2007, the National Museum of Catholic Art is resurrecting the man who was eclipsed historically by his friend Jackson Pollock in every way. Speculating on why this happened is like determining the architecture of a burnt house by its ashes – but I’ll give it a try anyway, because Troyan was a great artist and person, and he deserves the effort.
Troyan’s life was James Bond dramatic and adventurous … but hardly pleasant. Born in Poland, he studied art until he followed the lead of his mentor Pruszkowski, who was murdered for helping Jews. Putting Christian compassion into practice, Troyan also fed and sheltered Jews until a knock at his door announced a 3-year Auschwitz vacation. Somehow he survived, but his entire family was gone. Miraculously he managed to smuggle art and journals out of the camps that informed and haunted his paintings throughout his entire life.
Symbols of death, war and loss are balanced with Trayon’s Catholic faith and religious themes. Hope struggles with despair and good with evil, manifested through paint and subject.
In his series “The Christ” the Savior of the World is almost unbearably vulnerable, naked, damaged and weak. Looking very human but mangled, Jesus falls from a cross into a pile of bones in the expressionist painting “The Christ 3.”
Another powerful and unnerving portrait shows the head of Christ barely discernible as human by patterning and distortion, like an African mask. Was he inspired by this description from the prophet Isaiah? “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (52:14).
This piece defies classification, although it’s ever so slightly reminiscent of Rouault or de Kooning. In “The Christ 2” Troyan also incorporates angular pieces of wood into the paint, creating the thorned crown and simplifying the face.
When Troyan immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 he was graciously accepted by New York’s avant-garde art community, particularly the “New York School” artists. Labeled “abstract expressionists,” although often neither abstract nor expressionist, Troyan’s comrades such as Pollock, Hoffman, Gorky and de Kooning shared a commonality of vision more than style.
Their collective vision was the subversive, rebellious, anarchist-activist artist with a little nihilism and sometimes atheism thrown in for good measure. A tendency toward socialism crept in too, even outright support for Stalinism was embraced by many artists at the time. Incidentally, that would still describe a majority of New York’s art scene 60 years later; add aversion to change to the list.
Most meetings took place in bars with the attendant inebriation and debauchery involved. Troyan wasn’t particularly impressed when Pollock famously kicked in a bathroom door in a frat-boy style pique. His response to Pollock and the general conspiratorial and revolutionary tone of the group was to bolt to Connecticut, cutting all ties to his former friends for good. So was Troyan excluded because he didn’t want to party? It’s a possibility.
Franz Kline, who considered Troyan “one of the world’s best colorists” and a brilliant painter, seemed almost awed by him. He begged him to return to New York to work with him and the others. Perhaps he feared Troyan would fade away so far from New York’s big spotlights, big names and big galleries.
Troyan explained his move when he said he was tired of petty melodrama and looking for wars and trouble that didn’t exist after he had suffered years of a terrible and very real war.
“The reason I came to America was to live in peace,” he claimed before burning most his bridges to city life.
Interestingly, almost all the European artists in the group fled their lands in advance of the war, while Troyan remained and joined the Polish Cavalry in 1939 to fight the Nazis. Once again he was miraculously spared when 70 percent of the unit was annihilated, including all its officers.
Painters who fared well from the New York School were generally favorites of patrons, critics or wealthy collectors. Tactics used to promote them were ignoring other artists in print, denying wall space or by running competition down in reviews, often labeling them as “followers.” Critic Clement Greenberg fiercely defended Pollock and Gottlieb, while Harold Rosenberg lauded Kline, de Kooning and Gorky.
Meanwhile, no one was championing Troyan.
Living a respectable, married and stable life in Connecticut, the painter quietly amassed a whopping 3,600 pieces of art, most still in his widow’s collection. He sold hundreds of private commissions to earn money but received almost no major recognition in his lifetime. There were only two one-man shows at the smaller New Britain Museum of American Art in 1954 and 1965.
He was a rising star by contrast in Poland and Stuttgart, where he attended school. Author and gallery owner Robert Baker, who is writing a book on his life, informed me that Troyan had spent time with big names in Europe such as Picasso and was very respected in the art community there.
Having access to his journals and art reaching back to Poland in 1928, Baker has become seriously impressed with the man and art. He describes being contacted by Troyan’s widow Mitzi to appraise the hoard of artworks. Assuming this was yet another widow of an amateur artist, he considered telling her to spare his time and her money but was blown away when he saw what the artist had been doing.
Baker not only accepted the challenge of selling the art, but has also taken on a personal crusade to restore Troyan to the world as a genius neglected by the art world for decades.
He describes how he first walked in to view the collection and “thanking God” he hadn’t brushed Mitzi off the day she first called.
“As an avid collector and dealer in modern art for the past 40 years and more,” Dr. Baker states, “I cannot begin to describe my sense of awe and joy when I discovered the range and power of Matthew’s work.”
Finally Troyan is getting a little respect. His first important New York show was held last winter at The National Arts Club in New York, more than 50 years after he had fled the city and its vices. The Catholic Museum of Art and the U.S. Holocaust Museum (both in Washington, D.C.) have expressed an interested in Troyan’s work, and Baker hopes more will be coming.
Baker’s upcoming biography, “A Date with a Monster: The Life and Works of Matthew Troyan,” appears this fall and promises to be a good read from what I’ve heard so far.
Troyan’s quiet existence in a small Connecticut town came after years of drama, heroism and rough, precarious survival. Its various threads as artist, resistance fighter, concentration camp portraitist, Jewish sympathizer and Christian believer would make a great epic film – a sort of reverse Superman who throws off his cape and exiles himself.
At this point Troyan isn’t even mentioned in Wikipedia entries as being part of the New York School or an abstract-expressionist or even in a list of notable artists and writers who fled Europe to shelter in the United States.
Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and the others continue to hold sway on the public imagination. As Hollywood makes movies in their honor, their legend expands to new generations. But I like to think Troyan ultimately got the best of the deal. After rebelling against a group of rebels, he faded off public radar but lived a long peaceful and productive family life.
By contrast, Pollock died at 44, drunk at the wheel. He was accompanied by two women, one his mistress, and he caused the death of the other. Painter Arshile Gorky suffered terribly with personal demons and tragedies leading to his suicide at the age of 44. Poets in particular from the New York group struggled with alcoholism, and many ended their own lives.
If fame and fortune are proof of success, they’re not the final designator of human worth for Christians. I think Matthew Troyan probably had a more successful, full and exciting life even if he never makes it to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
To see Troyan’s work, check with Chiurazzi International online. His work is included as part of a traveling exhibit along with ancient artifacts and sculptures. Chiurazzi intends on opening an art gallery in Naples, Fla., soon, where his work will also be featured.