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Work, war, and remembrance

Harvey Breverman’s narratives mix personal and global histories

Discontinuous Sequence: Triumph, 1972

Images courtesy of the artists and/or galleries


The Contradictions of Being: Composite Works by Harvey Breverman is on view through February 24 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Visit burchfieldpenney.org for more information.


History may seem to follow a straight timeline in books, but it is not experienced that way. The question, “Where were you when [a certain thing happened]?” is a common one for a reason. Our understanding of monumental historic events is colored by personal incident, especially as time goes by and memories take shape, with certain aspects crystal clear and others shrouded or distorted.


How can these shadings and overlays between personal and collective experience be expressed? Harvey Breverman, in his Discontinuous Sequence series (1970–75), comes as close as a painter can to articulating the montage of public happenings, day-to-day routines, and personal observations that combine to create reality. Those who have followed Breverman’s work over the past few decades will likely be surprised—and delighted—if they have never seen this series. It contains elements and icons with which Breverman’s fans may be familiar, but they are presented as sharp, disparate, painted snapshots. The subject matter is often war, including global conflicts and war-related campus unrest, but the military or violent imagery is combined with more mundane scenes from departmental meetings, places Breverman has visited, and cryptic fragments. It’s easy to see what the artist, who was deployed in Korea, and who lost family in the genocide of WWII, may have been summoning as he processed the turbulence of the early seventies, and distilled it into these compelling artworks.


From Discontinuous Sequence: Charter, 1974; Span, 1973


From Discontinuous Sequence: Charade, 1973; Decline of the West (in two parts)


Each painting in the series is arranged in a more or less vertical stack of imagery that sometimes blends, sometimes doesn’t. The paintings can be chilling, even jarring, as with Discontinuous Experience: Triumph, which combines, from top, a military (WWII?) fragment, two large outtake pipes, a vintage vehicle, and the heads of six University at Buffalo faculty members, including that of Raymond Federman, a Holocaust survivor. The painting is structured carefully, including geometric abstract forms and some expressive brushwork. Tone and texture vary throughout with vivid pops of color at center and bottom. It’s a beautiful painting that mixes apparent documentation with the way artists often experience reality—through form, line, and color. In this and many of these works, realistically rendered images are partially painted over, as if to suggest the erasure of time.


Breverman is known as a brilliant experimental printmaker who has also made wonderful, complex portraits of his academic colleagues. With this series, Breverman emerges as an inspired painter who’s willing to take risks and let the interpretation of his disconnected narratives  change with time. Because the show also includes works on paper from the artist’s Terezin, Poylin, and Finstere Medina series, it’s easy to see how Breverman began to combine observed realities with metaphoric elements in different, no less powerful ways, placing more focus on a single image. With this show, the Burchfield Penney offers the most multifaceted view of Breverman’s art Western New York has seen in some years.   


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