Trefonides Exhibition Catalogue

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Steven Trefonides:


A Catalogue to accompany an exhibition

held at the

Tides Institute & Museum of Art

Eastport, Maine

August 18 - September 18

Curated by: Martha Lewis

Cover: Two Girls in Tree, Framed charcoal drawing, 2000

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life . . . Life holds the mirror up to

Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by a painter or sculptor, or

realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. . . . For what is Nature? Nature

is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she

quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see

it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. . . . At present, people see fogs, not

because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious

loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I

dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about

them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted,

fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and

the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the

cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. “

~Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying: An Observation’, 1889 1

I have a strong visual memory from sometime

in the 70’s, of standing and looking at the objects propped on a mantelpiece in

the Trefonides’ South End house. The long white marble mantle had a couple of

vintage photographs resting on it, portraits. Old, detailed images of men in strange

heavy clothes obviously a part of another world and time. One in particular

riveted me: his craggy gaunt face, the hooded eyes. Every detail was there-craters

and pocks and hairs, in forensic detail. It was so intimate, as if he were a neighbor

or visitor, who could stop by for at any moment.

I am not sure how or where Steve got this photograph of Abraham Lincoln, but

this was my first experience of the historic past as a living reality. Cozied up to

this startling image was a series of ordinary objects, small clutter: playing cards,

toothpicks, a clock or maybe candle and some beautiful delicate things from India,

various bits from a multitude of times and places all as concrete as myself.

Is this memory accurate or have I embroidered on it over time, altering it with each

re-visitation into a fiction I truly believe?

Probably both.

This visual syncretism, an eclectic merging of past with the now, comes back to me as I sit

here writing this essay on Trefonides’ work,

as an emblematic image. It seems poignant

when considering his complex and detailed

works presented here in this show.

The mantle for me acts like a maquette of the

dynamic which takes place in his images:

dramas which include layered presences,

figures from old photographs, real and

imagined, shuffling among ordinary things in

places that blend and shift their

references. The eroding strata of meanings,

colors and surfaces merge into unique wholes

that defy explanation.

Certain words come to mind again and again

when looking over Steven Trefonides’s oeuvre:

rich, detailed, sensual, intricate, loaded.

Essayist William

Corbett writes of his work:

“At times I thought of him as

Love in the Bathroom

a conjurer…shifting weather often

surrounds, like smoke, the images that Framed woodcut print | 29” H x 32 7/8” W | 1968

form in a Trefonides. His pictures have

a dream-like clarity and the muzziness,

the unconscious we are in when we are dreaming. That is a way of saying that the quality of

Trefonides’s imagination, as sensuous and peculiar as one could ask for, is always on view in

his work.” 1

1 Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. 1891.

as published in his book Intentions

1 Corbett, William. “Creiger-Dane Gallery Show.” Artmedia Magazine.

“Timelessness” was once thought to be an essential ingredient to great art. 1 Like the

eternal cycles on a Greek vase, our collective being and recursive dramas were what

counted. Archetypes, Truth with a capitalized “T,” Universal dramas, religious and

secular, were everything; they drove the Renaissance, neoclassicism, the academy with

a capitalized “A.” Then, around the 19th

century, perception swung 360 degrees the

other way: to be interesting, one had to evoke

one’s era, location, culture, its discontents and

social morays. One was nothing as an artist

who did not reflect their time with a gimlet

eye. The particular became essential. Details of

technology, dress, and behavior: the Flaneur in

the city became the ideal 2 for the images artists

produced for their audiences.

Both approaches traffic in the subtext of sex

and mortality and Steven Trefonides puts it all

in there: archetypes, real people, a pell-mell of

images and scenes that have attracted him, in

unsettling settings. Like real dreams or

fairytales, there is often a menace below the

surface, people cluster in groups but stay alone,

and eye each other jealously. These are liminal

spaces, and Something is always about to



Framed oil on paper | 39 1/8” H x 31 1/2”

W | 1987

Steven Trefonides was one of my first examples of a professional artist but I didn’t

have context, didn’t know about what the other artists were doing-the Boston

Expressionists, for example-or why that work would be different from the art coming

out of New York in the 60’s and 70’s, where Abstract Expressionism morphed into

Minimalism and Pop, away from ”post-war figuration”. 3 Now his nuanced, moody

dramas seem to make sense with the whole zeitgeist of the Boston art scene, with its

celebration of personal narrative and its resistance to minimalism.

Boston was a magnet to an international, intellectual crowd, with a thriving art scene

of galleries, artists, schools and museums. The artists were eclectic and loosely knit

– a band of individuals, collective mainly in the sense that they were all somewhat

reclusive individualists, and that they were all committed and intent on their personal


Trefonides’ own relationships with various artists- Hyman Bloom, Nina

Bohlen, David Aronson, answer certain questions: these sets of interests

were not born out of a vacuum, yet Trefonides’ work has a unique humor

and psychological drama that is all his own. He was younger than the

core of the Boston Expressionists, and is generally considered to be from

the second generation of BE artists, mostly graduates from the Boston

Museum School under the influence of teacher Karl Zerbe. But they all

did know each other, spend time together, and there is a synergy: that’s

important to the story too: it was this community which drifted up north

and congregated in the cool of Lubec. It’s central, in fact, to the story of

how the Trefonides family came to be in Lubec for the summers, and

how, in turn, Lubec came to be important to his work; the landscapes and

spaces working their way into his intricate dramas.

It was Nina 1 that had brought Hyman 2 to Lubec, and then later Steve

and Phyllis, and others. The first time, they stayed at Nina’s while she was

away. The next year, they rented a place for themselves and Steve drew

with charcoal on a large sheet of paper pinned to the dining room wall.

“Nude in Hammock” was his first large work made in Lubec.

Nude in Hammock

Framed charcoal drawing | 48” W x 48” H | 1966





1 Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In The Poetical Works of John Keats. 1884.

2 Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life. 1863.

3 This term usually refers to Art in Britain after the war- but also applies to

American artists like Ben Shahn, Phillip Guston, The Ashcan School, and others.

1 “Nina Bohlen - Artist.” Nina Bohlen. Accessed July 2016. http://


2 “Hyman Bloom.” Hyman Bloom. Accessed July 2016. http://www.


Something about the place spoke to them both, and in 1968 when he won

the Blanche Colman Prize for Painting they took the money and got a

place of their own. Houses were plentiful and cheap, plus Phyllis was

gifted: She had always been able to find the most wonderful housesbargains

with remarkable features. Once they got the white house with its

yard and old tree they set up there for every summer from then until now,

packing children and supplies into a blue VW bus, making the journey

from the South End and the sweat of urban Boston summers to the far

end of Maine.

In the 1960s, Lubec began to have a summer art scene with a flow of city

visitors and locals cooking out on the beaches, sharing food and life. Lois

and Ryerson Johnson 1 instigated parties, and there were tides of visiting

artists. It made sense that many of them became seasonal migrants, prices

were low, space was available. Steven Trefonides, Hyman Bloom and Nina

Bohlen, Paul Caponigro, Marie Cosindas, Harold Tovish, Kahlil George

Gibran, Marianna Pineda, Iso Papo, and many others all came through,

spending time and working. For this exhibit we have featured a selection of

their output on the second floor gallery: Bohlen’s luminous mono-printed

trees, Bloom’s tumultuous piles of rubble, Caponigro’s

cathedral-like forests. We have works owned by Trefonides by Bloom and

Bohlen which echo his own sensibilities. There is something special about

seeing works artists give each other, works they surround themselves with.

These are plein-air observations which sometimes make their way into his

studio work, and we also have some examples of the

stereopticon slides and early photographs in his collection that so fascinate

him; frozen, often funny, moments from the past that echo throughout

his oeuvre. This is being paired with the Tides Institute’s own collection of

such images- which feature scenes of Cobscook Bay, Machias, Eastport,

Lubec. All of this is to give a more in depth-perhaps secret-glimpse into

the role time, place and circumstance play in the creative life of the artist.

End of The World

Unframed ink on paper | 14” W x 11” H | 1962

Two Girls in Tree

Framed charcoal drawing | 36 1/3” W x 28 3/4” H | 2000

1 Lois Johnson, an illustrator, and her husband, pulp-fiction author Ryerson,

were famous for their parties

Despite the groups’ scorn for the stereotypic “Maine Landscape” genre, the

environment and the culture of the place seeped into their work as if by osmosis:

tangled woods, coastlines, filtered dappled light all feature. Steve may not be a

landscape painter, and rocky shores and mossy forests are not his subject matter,

but the years of drawing here, living here, sleeping here, dreaming here, the long

summers spent working outside and in the studio have meant that the place and

its particularities permeate his work, appearing as naturally as the sly and

sophisticated people who inhabit his images.

Lubec Wall

Matted unframed ink drawing over

black chalk | 23 3/4” W x 18 1/2” H

| 1970

Fact and fiction meld, characters

reappear-women in trees, card

players, men fighting, poets and

their admirers-again and again

mixing and remixing like the flow

of guests at a cocktail party. The

spaces they inhabit are familiar and

fraught-dark antique looking

bathrooms, fields at sunset or

dawn, tangled woodlands, rocky

outcroppings near ponds. There is

a combination of innocence and

experience-operators and ingénues

in his troupe of players. As art critic

Sebastian Smee put it in his

Introduction to Trefonides’ 2012

exhibit Through the Looking Glass:

“his forms of pictorial dreaming

have a frictionless quality, a “

perhaps this, but why not that?”

aspect, that keeps him-and us-on our

toes.” 1

Firefly Green

Framed pastel on paper | 32” H x 26” W | 1996

His sensibility is grounded in turn-of-the-century French avante garde

painting and in the history of photography. The early uses of photography as a

means for telling of jokes 2 or as erotica, or as a form of travel-all permeate the

worlds he creates within his images.““ we used to go rummaging through the

junkshops at the North station”,…” I’ll never forget my excitement at first

coming across a stack of stereopticon slides of Victorian Egypt. Some of these

images have haunted me ever since.”” 3

Quoddy Head

Unframed black ink on paper | 14” W x 11” H | 1973

1 Smee, Sebastian. “Smee Introduction to Through the Looking Glass . Botolph

Club Catalog, 2012.

2 See: L’Arroseur Arrosé. Directed by Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière.

Performed by Benoît Duval and François Clerc. France, June 10, 1895. Film.

3 Taylor, Robert. “The Haunting of Steven Trefonides.” Boston Globe, March 25,


As an artist, he moves masterfully, flexibly, between drawing, painting,

printmaking and pastel. Strains of Vuillard, Degas, Watteau, Bonnard and

Goya filter in and out. The colors in Trefonides works are pungent and

intense, with rich dark masses and layers, and surprising citrusy punches.

He was drawn to, in the words of Maria Morris Hambourg, "The haunting

power of photographs to commingle past and present, to suspend the world

and the artist's experience of it in unique distillations.” 1

Like the impressionists before him, he uses photography with its

unpredictable framing and blurs to inform his compositions, unlike the

impressionists, he uses photography as an independent art-form going back

and forth between media, without complex.

“Indeed, you can feel the influence of photography in his love for strange

body postures and in his resistance to conventional compositions.

Trefonides embraces the arbitrariness of the camera’s framing, so that, for

instance, two figures will overlap, even while a significant portion of the

picture remains empty.” 2

For Secrets, we wanted to get a closer look at the way he works and reworks

his cast of players and imagery, honing his subjects, recontextualizing them,

moving with them around over time. They might dress differently but we

get to know them-they reappear in slightly altered guises. Trefonides has

said that the role of costumes in his work: “partly that comes from the old

photographs; but partly, too from my interest in social roles. The

characters who are dressing up in these visual dramas are obviously

assuming a role….” 1 They are detailed and ambiguous, drawing the viewer

in-to spend time in what is clearly an existential drama, a theater of being.

He “takes on the manner of a diviner, picking up vibrations, subterranean

whispers.” 2 “ The Spell,” a work in which those vibrations and whispers are

particularly disturbing and palpable, gets shown here in three versions using

three very different media, offering a change to really look at what makes

the works tick and examine where their unique power comes from.

Both photography and painting are a form of observation, both capture our

shadowy realities, and reveal what we wish to mask, our lurking fragilities,

anxieties, neuroses and desires. What are secrets and why do we create

them, guard them, generate more? We are taught not to lie, to be

apparently transparent and up front and yet none of us really are or even

can be.


Framed woodcut print | 29” H x 32 7/8” W | 1966

The Spell

Unframed oil on canvas | 48” W x 50.5” H | 1985

1 Maria Morris Hambourg is Curator at the Department of Photographs,

The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. This text is from the exhibition catalog: The Waking

Dream: Photography’s First Century. Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection by

Maria Morris Hambourg, Pierre Apraxine, Malcolm Daniel, Jeff L. Rosenheim, and Virginia Heckert

(1993) The title comes from Keats: Ode to a Nightingale (also the carter family song: Winding


2 Smee, Sebastian. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Painting.” Boston Globe, April 26, 2009.

Accessed July 2016. http://archive.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2009/04/26/the_man_who_


1 Taylor, Robert. “The Haunting of Steven Trefonides.” Boston Globe,

March 25, 1980.

2 Smee, Sebastian. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Painting.” Boston

Globe, April 26, 2009. Accessed July 2016. http://archive.boston.com/ae/


For the series of works involving women in trees we see them iterated in a vast

range of moods, implications and materials: pencil, ink, oil paint, print. “Nude in

Hammock” from 1966 reverberates through 1973’s The Nest, 1993’s In the Forest

and 2001’s Two Women in The Trees.

“Often described as a romantic painter, he nevertheless has a streak of mischief,

and is always seeing the comedy in romance. He describes the figures in one

painting as having "desires percolating around them." Another drawing, from the

1960s, shows four naked women in a vigorously drawn Maine landscape,

Trefonides's saucy answer to the conventional New England genre of windswept

coastal landscapes. "Four women on the rocks," he says wryly, after moving it into

view: "It's like a drink."” 1

Two Women in The Trees

Oil on canvas | 20” H x 22 3/4” W | 2001

Two Women on Swing

need info | |

1 Smee, Sebastian. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Painting.” Boston Globe, April

26, 2009. Accessed July 2016. http://archive.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2009/04/26/the_man_who_wouldnt_stop_painting/.

His process is introverted-as a studio artist works alone and needs to enjoy that

solitude-but he has always been generous artist as well. Steven Trefonides was one

of my first examples of a professional artist, and as a child it seemed

perfectly normal that he should have his large Newberry street studio, that black

and white photography of a spare and candid nature would also go hand in hand

with energetic and colorful paintings, drawings and prints, that, of course, one

traded artworks for exotic items like canopy beds and went to India to take

photographs, and that one’s practice above all meant working very, very hard.

Notebooks, sketchbooks, and reams of paper got filled with drawings, and when

that wasn’t happening, and pictures weren’t being taken with cameras, then there

were other’s images to be looked at. Art books with pages marked everywhere,

stereopticon slides and relics from the photographic past to be perused,

consumed, enjoyed. Visual messages were everywhere.

One theme may have began years ago, a thread left dangling might be picked up

again years later, re-worked into a new set of meanings. This is the privilege of

time and of mastery-repetition yields richness and understanding that cannot be

reproduced without this process of hard labor. It’s earned. “For many people, there

is nothing quite so moving or inspiring as the sight of youthful talent blazing

away with total commitment,” writes Smee, “But in fact, there is something more

moving and, in its way, more impressive. It's the sight of creative talent at the

other end of life. The painter or performer who has dedicated a whole life to his

or her calling; the artist who has stamina, who has gone on creating, who, despite

setbacks, has never given up, and keeps on finding more to discover, more to

express. Steven Trefonides isn't done yet.” 1

Nor should he be: At age 90, Trefonides is still in his studio, still drawing, still

avidly reading, consuming the images in books, still looking, still making, because

art is life. He and Phyllis still make the drive 50 years later, breaking up the trip,

going more slowly, this time with dogs in tow instead of children, the now adult

children popping through with their own offspring and spouses, to run in the yard

and poke around the rocky beaches, the farmers market, Quoddy Head.

The real secret that Trefonides shows us, performs by turning out the pockets of

his mindscapes for us again and again, is this: his realities are now informing the

landscapes and places that surround us. Maine’s woods and horizons echo a

Trefonides-or start to look very much like a Bohlen, a Caponigro, a Bloom.

Martha Willette Lewis,

Resident Curator, The Institute Library, New Haven CT.

June, 2016

The Rainbow

Framed pastel on paper| 33 1/4” W x 29 1/2” H | 1985

As a young artist, he offered me studio visits, advice, support and help over the

years, and his model of work ethic and intellectual curiosity have stuck with me.

He always has been wonderful at treating other artists-including art students

and those just starting out-with respect and interest. One of the most impressive

aspects of a visit to Trefonides’s studio is the commitment to drawing-he has

chests full of works on paper, years of notebooks, years of inky scrawled lines,

of gestures and movement. His drawing hand is relaxed and assured with some

areas being intensely detailed and others left as open-ended lines dissipating into

the light of the page.

1 Smee, Sebastian. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Painting.” Boston Globe, April

26, 2009. Accessed July 2016. http://archive.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2009/04/26/the_man_who_wouldnt_stop_painting/.

Steven Trefonides: Timeline


Pastel on paper | 24 W x 18 H | 1999

1926 Born New Bedford

Attended The Swain School of Design, New Bedford

1944-1945 Air Force WW2

Attended Vesper George School of Art 1924-1983

1950-1954 G.I. Bill painting major at the Boston Museum School, met

Hyman Bloom there

1951 William Maynard, Steven Trefonides – July 15, Watercolors

The Decordova Museum of Art, MA.

1954 Louis comfort Tiffany Grant to travel: Italy, France, Spain, Greece

1954- 1955 Photography Show – 5 Photographers -Steven Trefonides, John Brook,

Henry B. Kane, Donald Robinson, Phokian Karas,

Decordova Museum, MA.

Retrospective exhibit at Fitchburg Museum

Taught at Vesper George for 3 years

1956 Photographs by Stephen Trefonides, Decordova Museum, MA.

1958 Summer grand prize for painting at Portland (Maine) art festival

1959 Fulbright to India

1968 Blanche Colman award-bought Lubec house with prize money

1968 Retrospective exhibit at Brockton Museum

1968 Exhibit at Fuller Art Museum (now the Fuller Craft museum)

1969 Produced book, India, a collection of photographs, Grossman-Viking press

1969-1975 Taught art at UMass Boston

1971 Retrospective exhibit at University of Storrs CT

1978 Book From Shtetl To Suburbia: The Family In Jewish Literary

Imagination written by Sol Gittleman, drawings by Steven Trefonides

1980 Artist of the Year St. Botolph Club, Boston, MA.

1984 Fellow, The Camargo Foundation, Cassis, France

1986 Prints and drawings exhibit at Boston Public Library

1988 Exhibit, Alfred J. Walker gallery, Newberry Street

1989 Book: Photographs: Beacon Hill, Boston 1989 By Steven Trefonides

2012 Retrospective Through the Looking Glass, St. Botolph Club, Boston, Ma.

2016 Retrospective Steven Trefonides: Secrets at The Tides Institute & Museum,

Eastport, Maine

Major collections for painting and photographic works include:

MFA Boston, MET NY, MoMa NY, Dartmouth College, Wadsworth Athenaeum, CT.,

The New Britain Museum, CT., The Decordova Museum, Brandeis University, MA.,

Chase Manhattan Bank, NY.

Steven Trefonides: Secrets

List of Works in the Exhibition

Title Medium Year Size

End of the World

Nude in Hammock

Lubec Wall


Scallop Man

Filleting Haddock

Quoddy Head

The Nest

The Spell

The Spell

The Spell

The Rainbow

Unframed ink on paper

Framed charcoal drawing

Matted unframed ink drawing

Unframed drawing charcoal on


Unframed drawing black ink on


Unframed drawing black ink on


Unframed black ink on paper

Unframed Editioned

Lithograph (more available in

TMA flatfiles)

Gouache and ink on paper

Matted mono-print

Unframed oil on canvas

Framed pastel on paper













11 x 14

48 x 48

23 3/4 x 18 1/2

30 x 22

14 x 11

14 x 11

14 x 11

22 3/4 x 31

14 x 11

11 x 14

48 x 50.5

33 1/4 x 29 1/2


Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life. 1863.

Corbett, William. "Creiger-Dane Gallery Show." Artmedia Magazine.

"Hyman Bloom." Hyman Bloom. Accessed July 2016. http://www.hymanbloom.com/.

Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In The Poetical Works of John

Keats. 1884.

L’Arroseur Arrosé. Directed by Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière.

Performed by Benoît Duval and François Clerc. France, June 10, 1895.


"Nina Bohlen - Artist." Nina Bohlen. Accessed July 2016. http://


Smee, Sebastian. "The Man Who Wouldn't Stop Painting." Boston

Globe, April 26, 2009. Accessed July 2016. http://archive.boston.com/ae/


Smee, Sebastian. "Smee Introduction to Through the Looking Glass."

Botolph Club Catalog, 2012.

Taylor, Robert. "The Haunting of Steven Trefonides." Boston Globe,

March 25, 1980.


Love in the Bathroom

In The Forest

Framed oil on paper

Framed pastel on paper

Framed charcoal on Paper




39 1/8 x 31 1/2

44 7/8 x 37 1/2

33 x 41

Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. 1891.

as published in his book Intentions

Hurricane in the Ukraine

Women in The Trees

Framed pencil drawing

Unframed watercolor and



13 3/4 x 12 3/16

14 x 17

colored pencil

Firefly Green

Framed pastel on paper


32 x 26


Framed woodcut print


29 x 32 7/8

Two Girls in Tree

Framed Charcoal drawing


36 1/3 x 28 3/4

Two Women in the Trees

Dog In Chair

Oil on canvas

Unframed ink drawing


20 x 22 3/4

Our Tree

Unframed drawing

Nina Bohlen monoprint

Unframed monoprint

Hyman bloom ink drawing

Framed ink drawing

Nina’s Steven Trefonides

Framed ink drawing

3 monoprints by Nina Bohlen

Framed monoprints


Thanks to: Nina Bohlen, Steve and Phyllis Trefonides,

and their extended family, in particular Tony Rinaldo

for the photography- Tides Institute & Museum of Art,

framers, donors, who else?

Designed by: Lanie Nowak

Printed by:


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