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    Arthur Polonsky, Boston Expressionist artist and teacher, dies at 93

    Mr. Polonsky in his studio in 2013, in a screen grab from a documentary directed by his son.
    Gabriel Polonsky
    Mr. Polonsky in his studio in 2013, in a screen grab from a documentary directed by his son.

    Photos from a late-1940s magazine capture Arthur Polonsky as a youthful artist gloriously at work in Paris: slender and handsome, hair curly and tousled, hands clutching a sketchpad, Notre Dame Cathedral looming over his shoulder.

    He was living and painting in a garret that was once the home of Arthur Rimbaud, the French Symbolist poet. Rimbaud, he would later say, “believed the universe could be humanized by art.”

    In the eyes of many critics, Mr. Polonsky expressed a unique humanity in the subjects he painted during his career as one of the Boston Expressionists. He was 93 when he died April 4 of advanced dementia.

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    For years he lived in Newton, where he painted in a suburban version of his Paris garret — an attic studio he had transformed into a place of creativity and magic. He taught for four decades — first at what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, then at Brandeis University, and finally at Boston University.

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    “In the 20th century, Arthur Polonsky was one of the most important painters in Boston, period. He was immensely influential as an artist, as a teacher, for decades,” said Nick Capasso, director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, in an interview for a documentary directed by Mr. Polonsky’s son Gabriel.

    Reviewing a 1987 retrospective, Globe art critic Robert Taylor called Mr. Polonsky “one of the authentic visionaries among figurative painters.”

    “His major theme is the conflict of light and darkness,” Taylor wrote, “and his imagery is the equivalent of that conflict, hovering between the figurative and the abstract, dream and consciousness, passion and meditation, apocalypse and renewal, and landscapes where a glowing cleft plunges through a dark thicket of strokes.”

    In Gabriel’s documentary “Release From Reason: The Life and Work of Arthur Polonsky,” which is still being completed, a chorus of curators, artists, and gallery owners assess Mr. Polonsky’s work and impact as one of the Boston Expressionists.

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    Richard Baiano, co-owner of the Childs Gallery in Boston, which has exhibited Mr. Polonsky’s work, said that “when the final history of this movement is written, he will have one of the most important chapters in it.”

    “He’s someone who doesn’t look at the world the way that it’s supposed to be,” said Katherine French, emerita director of Danforth Art in Framingham and now gallery director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, Vt. “He looks at things and tries to invent something new.”

    Born in 1925, Arthur Polonsky was the younger of two siblings whose parents were Benjamin Polonsky and Celia Hurwitz — both Russian immigrants and tailors.

    Until age 13, Mr. Polonsky grew up in Lynn, in what “would now be described as a state of chronic poverty,” he recalled in a 1972 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

    He didn’t consider such a beginning burdensome. There was, he said, “a lot of time for reading, drawing.”

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    For art materials, he and his older sister used leftover cardboard from cloth samples, and Mr. Polonsky took note of the way their father used chalk marks to sketch clothing patterns on black paper: “He was making descriptive designs that one day would become three-dimensional.”

    After the family moved into Boston, Mr. Polonsky attended Roxbury Memorial High School, where, he said in the oral history, “I began to paint portraits during the summers, after school. Made some money with it, but still I didn’t feel that this was the precise goal of all my efforts.”

    While in high school, he won a competition to take afternoon classes at the Museum School. He also studied at Hebrew Teachers College, but when he graduated from high school, the Museum School offered him a scholarship.

    His religious teachers told him: “You can be a Jew and an artist — go,” he recalled in an interview published in “Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism.”

    A photo of Mr. Polonsky at work in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral in the late 1940s.
    Polonsky estate
    A photo of Mr. Polonsky at work in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral in the late 1940s.

    After he graduated from the Museum School, a traveling fellowship took him to Paris in its intensively creative years after World War II. Picasso lived a few streets away, and Mr. Polonsky was featured in Life magazine.

    Upon returning to Boston, he was represented by the Boris Mirski Gallery, and he began his teaching career while continuing to exhibit his work.

    Mr. Polonsky “is what might be called, for want of a less general term, a humanitarian in paint,” Globe art critic Edgar J. Driscoll Jr. wrote in 1951, in an early, long review of the young artist’s work. In Mr. Polonsky’s paintings at the Mirski Gallery, “the old, the young, and the in-between, and their longings, hopes, and dreams are the substance of his work.”

    As Mr. Polonsky’s profile began rising as an artist and teacher, he met the painter Lois Tarlow, who had read about him in Life. They married in 1953. Their marriage ended in divorce.

    As the couple and their three young sons lived in Newton, Mr. Polonsky found ways to contain costs with creative home repairs and artistic approaches to gifts.

    “Instead of buying me a new bicycle,” Gabriel said, “he’d paint stripes on mine. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d say my bike was now a bumblebee.”

    As a father, Mr. Polonsky “really encouraged our creativity and encouraged us to think for ourselves and learn for ourselves,” Gabriel said.

    Through the years, Mr. Polonsky exhibited in venues large and small. In a 1990 show at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, his “often marvelous thoughts on drawing are written on cards set near the art. ‘Hair can be a liberty to abstraction’ introduces a man’s head with unruly hair taking off, flame-like,” Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote.

    Mr. Polonsky’s “drawings have the excitement of a direct response to a subject, a daring use of line or tone, a sense of charged intensity,” the painter Barbara Swan wrote that same year for a Fitchburg Museum of Art exhibition.

    “You will never find a boring area in one of his paintings,” wrote Swan, who died in 2003, in the essay, which was reprinted as a forward in the catalog for “A Thief of Light,” a 2008 exhibition at the Danforth. “The dialogue between color, texture, and subject is always alive.”

    Solitude Solidarity, oil on canvas, from 1975.
    Polonsky estate
    Solitude Solidarity, oil on canvas, from 1975.

    In addition to his former wife, Lois of Newton, and son Gabriel, who lives in Belmont, Mr. Polonsky leaves his two other sons, Eli of Somerville and D.L. of Allston.

    Family and friends will gather at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Stanetsky Memorial Chapel in Brookline for a slide show of Mr. Polonsky’s life and work. A memorial service will follow at 2:30 p.m.

    Critic Charles Giuliano, once a student of Mr. Polonsky’s, wrote for his Berkshire Fine Arts blog that his mentor’s “design lectures were whimsical performances with many dramatic pauses, gestures,” and added: “Not surprisingly he was adored by students.”

    Offering instructions even in his last years, while being interviewed for Gabriel’s documentary, Mr. Polonsky mused that “it isn’t so important to know what the purpose of art is. It’s important to know that it has all sorts of purpose, that it means one thing to one person, and to the same person, another thing at a different time.”

    Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.