Aaron Berkman (1900-1991)
Oil on Canvas, 22 x 18 inches. Signed lower right: “ABERKMAN.”
Hendler, Jeanette, "Aaron Berkman (1900-1991): The WPA Master Teacher and Artist," originally published in Fine Arts Trader (2009), posted at https://web.archive.org/web/20110927084445/http://www.fineartstrader.com/berkman.htm
Acquired from the artist in 1960s by Jeanette Hendler (NYC dealer); unidentified collector; acquired from Clarke Auction Gallery, Larchmont, NY, December 5, 2021, Lot 46.
Inscribed: “GALLERY TALK"/ BY/ AARON BERKMAN/240 E. 80 ST./N.Y.C. 1942/ $200.00 on reverse. Simple 2-3/4-inch frame with liner (probably original).
Born in Hartford at the dawn of the twentieth century, Aaron Berkman studied at the Connecticut League of Art Students, Hartford Art School (where he met fellow student and lifelong friend Milton Avery) and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before relocating to New York City in 1929 following a two-year visit to Europe. In 1931, he was appointed director of the WPA Art Center of the 92nd Street Y (the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at a salary of $23.50 per week. Berkman continued in that role for almost a quarter of a century following the termination of the WPA program in the early Forties, teaching, writing (two art instructional books and regular columns for Art Front and ARTnews), painting and exhibiting widely. The artist was featured in solo exhibitions at Associated American Artists (1945), Kaufman Art Gallery (1945, 1952, 1962 and 1966), Newhouse Galleries (1952) and Babcock Galleries (1954), while participating in group exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and many other public and private venues.
Berkman’s works reflect the vitality of New York City, depicting its neighborhoods, workplaces and institutions with a keen and often wryly critical eye. The artist pokes fun at the art establishment in works such as The Opening (Portrait of Walter Pach) (Fig. 1) and this collection’s Gallery Talk. In the latter work, a docent regales a quintet of five well-heeled and generously-proportioned ladies about the finer points of a tapestry whose regal subject threatens to leap from the wall while two males (a curator, perhaps, on the left and the cantankerous figure looming from the portrait above) observe. While likely meant as a gentle dig on the pomposity and self-importance of the art world, the picture takes on a new meaning in the current cultural environment, reflecting the privilege and lack of diversity historically associated with the museum world.