Bessie Boris was born on June 6, 1917, in the coal mining town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of three siblings. Her parents, Sadie and Hyman Boris were immigrants from the town of Mozyr in what is now Belarus. Hyman was a traveling salesman whose wares ranged from bootlegged liquor to ice cream pops, religious images, and picture frames. He was also an inveterate gambler. When Boris was ten years old her parents separated and Sadie moved with her children to the Bronx, New York. Boris later recalled that art classes kept her in school long enough to graduate. She accepted a scholarship from the Pratt Institute but left after a year, supporting herself by teaching children's art classes at a New York settlement house. In 1939 or 1940 she resumed study at the Art Students League, where her mentors were George Grosz and especially, Vasclav Vytlacil.
Boris left New York in 1942 when she married George S. Klein, a recent Ph.D. in psychology, who served in the Air Force during World War II. Through the war years, the couple lived near military bases in Nashville, Tennessee, Montgomery, Alabama, and Hampton, Virginia. In 1946 they moved to Topeka, Kansas where Klein accepted a position at the Menninger Clinic – a national center for psychological research and magnet for European psychoanalysts fleeing the Nazis. Four years later they moved again – this time to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The birth of their daughter, Rachel, may explain why the Cambridge years constituted an uncharacteristically fallow period in Boris’ work as an artist. In 1953, the family returned to New York City where Klein became co-director of New York University’s Research Center for Mental Health, a position he held until his death in 1971.
During her time in the South and Topeka, Boris won several awards and participated in a number of exhibitions, including group shows at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC and the Denver Art Museum, but it was in New York City that she found her professional footing. She was fortunate to have representation at the Cober Gallery where she had four solo exhibitions from 1960 to 1968. This was no small achievement not only because she was a woman in a male dominated field, but also because she was a figurative artist at a time when abstract expressionism overwhelmed the New York art scene. Boris, who forged a distinctive style, also had solo exhibitions at the Babcock Gallery in New York and at the Image Gallery in Stockbridge Massachusetts. She participated in a number of group exhibitions including a joint show with her friend, Alice Neel.
Several years after her husband’s death Boris made her permanent home in Western Massachusetts. It was a difficult transition because her work had been so rooted in urban subjects, but after a period of adjustment, she found new inspiration in Berkshire scenes and botanicals. During her later years she showed her work at the Ute Stebich Gallery in Lenox Massachusetts and at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery in New York City. In 1987 she had a one-person exhibition at the Berkshire Museum curated by Debra Bricker Balken. By the time of her death her work was represented in a number of public collections, including the Smith College Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Berkshire Museum. Among the posthumous exhibitions of Boris’ work was a one-person show at the Williams College Museum of Art.
Boris’ technique and subject matter evolved over the course of her life, but there are striking continuities in her work. Portraiture was an abiding interest, and Boris remained a masterful, exuberant colorist, fascinated by the cycle of youth, aging, and death not only among her human subjects, but also in nature. Above all, her art remained grounded in direct observation. As she put it, “For me the entrance to the painting is always concrete, a face, a flower or a cloud…I begin with what I see and move into a more abstracted form, but I always return and touch base with the original object.”*
*quoted in Gloria Russell, “Berkshire Museum showing works by Bessie Boris, The Sunday Republican (Springfield, MA) May 24, 1987, G-6.
Bessie Boris: An Artist at Work (:38)
A Video by Paul B. Holzman & J. Mira Koppel