Written by Paul Schmitz, docent
Miriam Beerman is a prolific artist, still alive at 97. She was born in Providence, RI and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. In the 1920s, Beerman moved to New York to pursue a career as a painter. She continued her studies at the Art Students League under Yasuo Kuniyoshi. His influence on her was strong, especially his treatment of the figure, composition, and his sometimes jarring use of color. Making something “pretty” was not Kuniyoshi’s goal, nor has it been Beerman’s.
After struggling along with occasional recognition for years, Beerman won two consecutive Fulbright Scholarships to study in Paris. After returning, Beerman married and moved to Brooklyn, had a son, and later moved to Montclair, NJ. Her husband died unexpectedly within a year. Beerman stayed in Montclair, developing her own art, creating large paintings with angst-ridden characters and scenes with active, thickly painted, expressive surfaces. She painted (mostly on paper) scenes with reptiles, birds, and other animals that often held the same haunted and tragic aspect.
Beerman had the first one-woman show mounted by the Brooklyn Museum—Enduring Beast, 1971—which was panned by the New York Times critic. He later wrote that he hadn’t understood the work and rescinded his earlier writing. She made works on the Biblical Plagues of Egypt with heavy allusions to the Holocaust, works featuring skulls and decapitations, and vulnerable nude bodies. Some of the paintings contain “ugly” color contrasts and visceral imagery that is not always easy to look at. Beerman’s work became increasingly dark and violent.
So, what does this have to do with the work in the Montclair Art Museum’s Uncaged: Animals in the Collection exhibition, Swimming Turtle, 1973? The work is a large painting in black on white paper, with the turtle emerging from the lower right thrusting upward to the center-left. We see the turtle from beneath, its head looking forward and front legs out and open-clawed. At first it just appears to be a nice, loosely painted but accurate depiction of the animal. Where’s the drama, the anxiety?
We are seeing this giant turtle as if it is gliding over us. The turtle does not appear to be aware that we are below. The paper surrounding the turtle is a brilliant white as if we are looking up at the water surface. We are participants in the scene; it’s imperative that we remain silent and motionless so as not to alert the behemoth to our presence. The size of the beast is far bigger than us, heavier and stronger.
We are seeing this giant turtle as if it is gliding over us—a literal Passover. We know that Beerman’s art is often driven by her pained awareness of our capacity for inhumanity toward each other. Her figures, both human and animal, are frequently vulnerable, damaged, and isolated. But in this case, is it the turtle she has painted for us that is in danger, or is it we, the viewers interacting with the painting that are threatened? What do you think?
Left in image above:
Miriam Beerman (b. 1923)
Swimming Turtle, 1973
Oil on paper
35 x 45 in.
Framed: 41 x 51 ¼ in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Jacob
Morris Graves (1910-2001)
Bird and the Sea, ca. 1941-42
Gouache and watercolor on paper
22 ½ x 26 ¾ in.
Framed: 31 1/8 x 41 1/8 in.
Museum purchase; Michael Lenson Fund
Wolf Katsina, n.d.
Wood, pigment, feathers, hide, shell, yarn, upholstery tacks
18 1/8 x 11 ½ x 10 3/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Shirley Kleinman and Family