Biography

Viennese émigré Henry Koerner found the motivation to develop his artistic talents in the wake of World War II. His elaborately crafted and often surreal paintings spoke to the complexity of memory and kindled a sense of the fantastic. Koerner was born to Jewish parents Fanny and Leo in 1915. Growing up in Austria his emerging interest in art was fueled by his father’s work as an amateur draftsman and his aunt Sofie’s career as a post-impressionist painter and etcher. Koerner enjoyed the macabre of writers Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde, in addition to the artistic styles of Hieronymus Bosh and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His artistic talents were put to use by his brother Kurt, who charged Henry with the design of posters and handouts to support his Communist activities. 

Koerner was educated in commercial art at the Graphic Academy of Applied Art in Vienna. After learning practical working methods in lettering and design he earned a position with influential Viennese graphic designer Viktor Theodor Slama. When Austria came under Nazi rule in March of 1938 Koerner left for Italy. With an affidavit from his great uncle Rudolf Theumann, he traveled to New York in the spring of 1939. He married Viennese girlfriend Fritzi Apfel and worked designing book jackets for detective and mystery novels at Maxwell Bauer Studios in Manhattan. He designed winning entries for the poster competition of the American Society for the Control of Cancer in 1940 and the Museum of Modern Art’s National War Poster competition in1942. 

Koerner joined the Office of War Information in 1943 designing graphic posters. Working alongside artists Ben Shahn and Bernard Perlin prompted Koerner to learn the techniques of egg tempera, gouache, casein, and eventually oil. His parents, whom he had now lost contact with, served as inspiration for his first completed painting. Once he became a US citizen enrolled in the army, Koerner moved to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. In 1944 he was reassigned to London, and constantly sketched his surrounding. Inspired by current events, he became committed to working directly from life. At the war’s end Koerner was transferred to Germany. Having proved himself as an efficient draftsman he was selected to portray the war criminals of the Nuremberg trials.

Upon his demobilization Koerner made his return to Vienna and received confirmation that his family had died in a Nazi extermination camp. He photographed the war-torn city, beginning to search and collect images that would inspire his paintings. Speaking of his return, Koerner described a “feeling that I would not come back to that life I had left behind…Reality had turned into surreality…‘normal’ life into existentialism.” [1] This perspective informed the works of his first exhibition held in 1947. Hosted by the Haus am Waldsee in Berlin, it was both the city’s first major art exhibition and the first display of an American artist postwar. The standout work was perhaps My Parents, in which the isolated figures of his mother, father, and a locket containing images of himself and his brother are pictured in a desolate Vienna wood where the family once walked. The picture’s reunited family offers a humble yet powerful resolution for a tragic narrative. These early paintings showed Koerner’s unfolding interest in plays of proportion and perspective, and the essentiality of juxtaposition to create meaning from the memories and experiences of life. 

The artist later wrote, “Juxtaposition, in my paintings, is the conscious and unconscious assembly of familiar objects (nature and man-made) with human beings, who, in their attitude towards each other and the objects, mean something very deep to me—though they may be separated by time and space. This affinity manifests itself only as a result of personal experiences and persistent memories.” [2]

 

The positive public and critical response to the Berlin show designated Koerner an emerging success for the postwar era. Months later these paintings were remounted for his New York debut at the Midtown Galleries. This American show was similarly praised with subsequent articles on the artist in Time and Life, and Koerner was placed at the forefront of postwar painting. Now divorced and residing in Brooklyn, he turned to American culture and industry for inspiration. In Oh Fearful Wonder of Man a crowded canvas layers a picturesque landscape with industrial constructions, a crucifixion scene, and nude and clothed figures of varying scale. Tunnel of Love, meanwhile, brought a Coney Island carnival theme to life with jumbled crowds, ghostly and monstrous figures, and assorted debris. Koerner proved his great talent to be in producing enigmatic scenes that made simultaneous use of the strange and the familiar. He became linked to the genre of Magic Realism for the mystery, action, and uncertainty he brought to his works’ settings.

In the 1950s, heavily influenced by post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, Koerner spent two years working solely in watercolors. His return to oil brought a new impressionistic approach to his brushwork and handling of light. Koerner left the New York art world for Pittsburgh, accepting an artist-in-residence position at Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1952. The year after his arrival Koerner married violin student Joan Frasher, and the couple had a daughter and son in the following years. He took up numerous teaching positions at California College for Arts and Crafts, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Washington University, Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and Park College.
empty line Between 1955 and 1967, Koerner served as a cover artist for Time magazine. Most of the 41 published commissions were painted portraits of celebrities and newsmakers, completed wholly from life at Koerner’s insistence. During these years he began to visit Vienna more frequently, finding new artistic inspiration and eventually purchasing an apartment where he stayed during the summer months. He continued to be the subject of numerous exhibits in the US and Austria. Koerner died in 1991 after being injured by a car while biking. Several retrospective exhibitions were held in the years after his death. His vibrant artistic career brought together the truth of experience with a provocative and profound sense of the obscure.

 

Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate

 

Footnotes:
[1]A Taped Interview between Henry Koerner and Dr. Paul A. Chew,” Henry Koerner Retrospective Exhibition, Greenburg, PA: Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 1971.
[2]Henry Koerner, “Contemporary Documents: A Sense of Purpose, College Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring, 1951): 265.