Bagel Take Out, a rather large (54” x 50”), oil painting by Simon Gaon, confronts the viewer with a typically challenging New York sidewalk vista. As in our tumultuous city, people, food and signage are constantly being thrust into our field of vision, loudly competing for attention and patronage. It is exactly this breathless experience that Simon Gaon thrives on and has effortlessly captured in literally hundreds of paintings over his 50-year artistic career, spent mostly in our fair town. A recent late afternoon visit to his Upper West Side apartment/studio revealed not only the vast scope of this master Expressionist painter, but also a small cache of his overtly Jewish-themed works.
As I described Gaon in a review in June 2001 (“In Search of Ancestors, Sculpture by Simon Gaon” at Yeshiva University Museum), his Bukharian Jewish roots are deeply embedded on both sides of his family, echoed in his early yeshiva education. And yet the lure of the art world was irresistible; attendance at the venerable Art Students’ League on West 57th Street and then the prestigious McDowell Traveling Scholarship opened the doors of the European art capitals for years of study, travel and work until the early 1970’s when he settled down (if you can call it that) in his New York home. Formally supporting himself with landscapes, cityscapes and flower paintings, his subject matter matured into what might be called essentialist New York Street Painting; so much so that he helped found an artist’s group called “The Street Painters” in 1978. Passionate works reflecting the ceaseless flow of drama and tragedy leapt off his street-based easel as Gaon set his artistic sights on Times Square, subways, the waterfront and nightscapes as well as the kind of storefront views like Bagel Take Out.
There is an inherent ephemerality in the two figures depicted that reflects the transitory nature of take-out restaurants. Everything, including that which is consumed in the store, is “on the go.” These men, barely caught in the thick paint that depicts the harsh florescent light, are only pausing for scant nourishment in a larger journey implied by their buttoned up street clothes. The “take-out” is them.
Sukkoth has understandably (and paradoxically) a totally different feel. Here the family – wife, husband (dressed in an echo of Bukharian costume), two children and a mother-in-law – (perhaps) feel quite at home in the lush green environment of the thickly decorated sukkah. Gaon divides the painting horizontally to emphasize the equal importance of the seated individuals performing the mitzvah with the lush environment of the sukkah itself. He is so concerned with the halachic nature of the event is so much so that he bends the perspective to show the blue sky peeking through the s’chach above their heads, demonstrating that the sukkah is indeed kosher.
Simon Gaon proudly affirms his association with a wide range of Expressionist artists from Van Gogh, Derain, Vlaminck, Corinth, Kokoschka, as well as his teacher Arthur Bressler. Portrait of a Lubavitch Hasid acknowledges Soutine’s influence. The slight figure, off center and engulfed by blue vehement brushwork, seems to imply a man engulfed by techeles, the holy blue dye, and the awesome reflection of Heaven’s majesty. Gaon’s feverish brushstrokes, especially in the face, and barely recognizable hands easily confirms this meaning.