Jason Berger : Directed Vision

Self Portrait, 1940
oil on canvas
24 x 20 inches

October 24, 2008 - March 1, 2009

Additional works on view at Judi Rotenberg Gallery

Opening Reception Saturday, October 25, 6 pm - 8 pm
Gallery Talks Wednesday, November 5, noon and Sunday, January 25, 3 pm

About the Artist

Jason Berger was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1924, the son of parents who could trace their roots back to Jewish communities in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. Growing up in the suburbs just outside Boston, Berger attended high school in Roxbury and studied in afternoon scholarship classes at the Museum of Fine Arts. Together with close friends Reed Kay and Jack Kramer, he received a scholarship to the School of Museum of Fine Arts in 1941, where he studied until being drafted into the army at the end of his second year. He served in Europe until 1946, and then returned to complete his studies at the Museum School where he met and later married fellow student Marilyn Powers in 1947. A protégé of Karl Zerbe, Berger was awarded the Museum School’s European Traveling Fellowship, and traveled to France with his wife upon graduation in 1949. First seeking out areas in Normandy where Claude Monet had painted, Berger eventually settled in Paris where he studied with the cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. While in France, Berger viewed numerous exhibitions and was able to meet both George Braque and Henri Matisse. With assistance from the G.I. Bill, the Bergers were able to stay in Europe for three years.

Upon their return, Berger managed to carve out a career that still allowed him to travel extensively. Beginning as a teacher at Mount Holyoke College in 1955, he then enjoyed a long tenure at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1956-69. He also taught briefly at Wellesley College, 1957-59; State University of New York at Buffalo, 1969-70; and Metropolitan College at Boston University, 1971-72; before teaching until his retirement at the Art Institute of Boston, 1973-88. Except for two years preceding the early death of his wife Marilyn in 1976, Berger spent summers in painting en plein air in France, Mexico, Portugal or Spain. Following Marilyn’s death, he returned to Portugal where he met Estela Cuoto who became his second wife in 1978. From then on, his summers were spent in Normandy, or other parts of Europe and Portugal where he and Estela relocated in 1994. Upon Estela’s unfortunate death in 1997, Berger remained in Portugal where he eventually married the painter Leena Rekola in 1999. The couple moved back to the United States in March 2008.

A prolific painter, Berger has enjoyed great success. He began exhibiting while still a student with Boris Mirski Gallery and Swetzoff Gallery, as well as the Institute of Modern Art (now Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston), which later gave him a solo exhibition in 1950. The artist has also exhibited in a number of museums, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; Art Institute, Chicago, IL; Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA; Fitchburg Museum of Art, Fitchburg, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA; Worcester Museum of Art, Worcester, MA. He has also exhibited widely in France, Mexico and Portugal. Berger’s work can be found in numerous private collections, as well as in the permanent collections of many institutions which include: the Chase National Bank, NYC; Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA; Guggenheim Museum, NYC; Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Rockefeller Medical Center, NYC, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA; and Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.

In addition to the European Traveling Fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Berger has received several awards, including the Grand Prize for Painting at the Boston Arts Festival in 1956 and the Clarissa Bartlett Traveling Award in 1957. The artist currently lives with his wife Leena Rekola Berger in Brookline, MA, where he still works on his painting both en plein air and in his studio.

About the Exhibit

Jason Berger began painting directly from the landscape at the age of thirteen, deliberately seeking to replicate the kind of art he saw in galleries on Newbury Street. Stretching a sheet across an orange crate, he created his first painting of a park scene near his Roxbury home. He gradually refined his techniques through participation in high school drawing classes, and by the time he entered the Museum School, Berger was regularly going out doors to paint. Long before he went to live in Paris or learned to speak French, Berger was dedicated to the idea of working en plein air, a practice that he still embraces today.

At times his work borders on abstraction, especially when he brings direct observation from nature to his studio. Highly associative, these paintings explore lines and shapes in the same way a musician might play variations on a theme. As an amateur musician, talented enough to play his saxophone professionally, Berger was well aware of the historical connection of jazz to the modernist painting. However, with the exception of a small number of paper collages (cat. 17-24) and a few abstract landscapes done in the 1950’s (cat. 15), Berger’s views are recognizable, always descriptive of a particular time and place.

His commitment to representational painting may have been influenced by the strong views of his first wife, the artist Marilyn Powers. By all accounts she was a forceful personality, as evidenced by one of Berger’s rare portraits (cat. 12), and dismissed abstraction in favor of direct observation. Together, she and Berger formed a group of painters called Direct Vision, and promoted shows of their work. Although it has been suggested that Marilyn Powers influenced the direction of her husband’s work,1 those closest to Berger agree that he was temperamentally suited to landscape painting from the beginning. “An artist is responsible for what he or she chooses to do, and I chose landscape.”2 But it is important to note that he chose landscape at a time when many artists across the country chose to work abstractly. Despite Berger’s admiration for Pollack and DeKooning and a natural impulse towards abstraction, he has spent most of his life painting his experience of the natural world. This has much to do with his early training at the Museum School, and the humanist goals of a group of painters who later became known as Boston Expressionists.

Berger came of age during a particularly interesting time in the history of Boston painting. During the first half of the 20th century, New England attracted waves of new immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the cultural landscape became increasingly diverse. Like many of his contemporaries, Berger spoke Yiddish at home, but embraced a secular understanding of Judaism—one which allowed for a more liberal interpretation of the commandment that forbids the representation of human form. By the time Berger arrived at the Museum School, he and other young artists were eager to create a vocabulary that spoke to their personal experience. Boston artists Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine had already realized success with shows in New York galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art, featuring work that explored their cultural background. And, under the tutelage of Karl Zerbe, the group not only became aware of the German Expressionists, but also the paintings of Chaim Soutine.

In his 1948 painting Quincy Market, Boston (cat. 7), Berger tried to use “everything about painting I knew up to that point.” 3  He had learned important lessons from Rembrandt, Bonnard, and certainly Soutine; but was most directly influenced by Hyman Bloom’s paintings of decayed and rotting flesh made in response the Holocaust. Berger completed many paintings of butcher shops, partly as application for his traveling scholarship to study with Ossip Zadkine in Paris. Once in France he grew friendly with a butcher, watched him slaughtering cattle, and painted L’Abattoir after his return in 1953.4  Yet despite the title of the work, Berger only speaks of the influence Bloom had upon his choice of warm colors—not the subject matter.

Many have remarked on Berger’s jovial nature, his tendency to make puns, and his ability to remain consistently pleased with life. Even when interviewed about a tragic railway accident that occurred while he was in the service, Berger conveyed the facts in an off handed manner and almost declined to talk about something that had happened so long ago.5  Instead Berger prefers to live within the moment. He makes playful use of color, and pushes his brush across the surface like an improvisational jazz musician. He’s happy to move things around, introduce elements from another work, and create multiple paintings in order to describe the shifting nature of his experience.

While Berger’s earliest paintings of butcher shops may have been inspired by dark events in WWII, the artist returned to this theme with Boucherie Chevaline (cat. 25), a painting that transforms the carcass of a dead horse into a cheerful, yellow shape. “Everything exists in nature, but it has been symbolized” said Berger.6  Like many of his art school contemporaries, Berger used representation to express emotion. However, his emotions are typically upbeat, a spontaneous response to the world. A different artist might have seen the butcher shop as a dark and sinister place, but Berger chose to focus on stripped drapes above the chopping block. His remembered interior is filled with exuberant color. For him, the associations are pleasurable.

1 Berger has observed that Marilyn’s interest in portraiture might have dissuaded him from figure painting, saying “I guess I thought it was her bailiwick and I stayed away.” Jason Berger, quoted by Lois Katz, The Paintings of Jason Berger (Boston, MA,Kikaku America International, 1997), p. 89.
2 Ibid.
3 Jason Berger, quoted by Lois Katz, The Paintings of Jason Berger (Boston, MA, Kikaku America International, 1997),
p. 109.
4 L’Abattoir was selected for the 1985 exhibition Expressionism in Boston: 1945-1985; curated by art historian Pamela Allara for the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA.
5 Jason Berger, quoted by Esmond Clements in an e-mail dated May 11, 2007.
6 Jason Berger, quoted by Lois Katz, The Paintings of Jason Berger (Boston, MA, Kikaku America International,1997), p. 129.

Essay by Katherine French, Director, Danforth Museum of Art

Danforth Art logo

123 Union Avenue
Framingham, MA 01702
T: 508 620 0050
F: 508 820 0258

General information
Exhibitions & Collection
Museum Programs
Art Classes

Support Danforth Art
Sign up for eNews


Supported in part by:

Masschusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Masschusetts Cultural Council

Copyright © 2005-2016 Danforth Art. All rights reserved.     |     Privacy      |     eNews      |     Danforth Art on Facebook    Danforth on Twitter    Danforth Art on Youtube

Related Link