My Happenstance with Henry Koerner
By Caroline Boyce
“Happenstance: chance, especially when it results in something good” – Oxford English Dictionary
My relationship with the Henry and Joan Koerner House can be summed up in one word: happenstance. Happenstance, both in finding it and in the journey of discovery that I have been on ever since—learning about Koerner and engaging with the extraordinary people who knew him. Each event has led to another, giving me purpose and enjoyment along the way.
In March 2021, I began my search for a new home. It happened that the Koerner house showed up on Zillow one day and it commanded my attention immediately. By happenstance, I grew up a few blocks away from it and, along with many in the neighborhood, thought it peculiar because of the Putti (cherubs) on the patio wall and the unexpected bikini-clad ladies on the front door. We passed by the house regularly, and it caught my eye every time. I remember the feeling of not liking it because it wasn’t what I was used to. I had no idea who lived there nor how the house came to be. I always wondered, though … until March 2021.
The Zillow pop-up piqued my curiosity. Having disclosed to my real estate agent that there was no way I would buy it, I went to see the house … I just needed 10 minutes to see the inside. I knew nothing about Henry Koerner until I dived deeper into the property listing description. I happened to look up his Wikipedia page and my education about Koerner began. When I stepped inside the house that he was instrumental in designing and saw the open, naturally lit, gallery-like space with his original picture hanging system, my admonition to the realtor fell by the wayside. It was love at first sight.
I found a house that I knew would work as a home for me. It connected with my historic preservation background, my love of art and the mid-century period, and my eclectic design sensibilities. What I didn’t realize at the time is that it also, by happenstance, opened the door to a purpose and a journey that would never have happened had I not clicked on the Zillow listing.
I have come to appreciate Koerner’s significance as an artist and the eventfulness in his life. This man, with Jewish roots, who fled Austria at the beginning of WWII to escape the Nazis, ultimately settled in Pittsburgh because it reminded him of his beloved Vienna. I am compelled to raise awareness of this national treasure, who, despite his accomplishments, many do not know. Sam Berkowitz, owner of Concept Gallery, describes Koerner as “the most important artist to have lived in Pittsburgh. One might try to make a case for Andy Warhol, but he lived in New York.” In 1948, Life magazine called Koerner the most important artist to come out of the WWII period. In several publishers letters, Time magazine lauded Koerner’s work, comparing him to Cezanne. He designed award-winning war posters, sketched the Nuremberg Trials, was a leader in the Magic Realism movement, painted 41 published Time magazine covers, and painted countless scenes of Pittsburgh and his beloved Vienna.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s award of a historic landmark plaque for the house was a significant beginning to drawing attention to this iconic “artist’s house” where Koerner lived, raised his family, and produced and displayed his work. Henry’s son, Joseph, has been invaluable to me in understanding the purposeful design of the house. As of this writing, I am preparing the nomination for listing of the house on the National Register of Historic Places. My ongoing research continues to take me on happenstance adventures connecting me with people who knew him.
I am writing this from Charleston, South Carolina, where I have been interviewing Frank Conrad Russen, Koerner’s former student and assistant, and who describes Koerner as his best friend. Russen, who for seven years, catalogued Koerner’s work after he died, describes him as “one of the top three Magic Realists in the world—Hieronymous Bosch, Salvadore Dali and Henry Koerner. He was dedicated to painting and painted every day. He was passionate and a master of every medium—watercolor, pen and ink and oil.”
A most amazing happenstance occurred in the course of my conversation with Russen. I am now fairly certain that I met the Koerners and Frank Russen in the mid to late 1980s. At the time, I lived and worked on Pittsburgh’s South Side. My office was located next door to Studio Z, Kathleen Zimbicki’s gallery. Zimbicki, a well-known Pittsburgh watercolor artist, was another of Koerner’s former students and a close friend. Russen drove the Koerners to Studio Z openings, which I attended regularly, as well. Her openings were an intimate setting for seeing art and enjoying the company of the interesting people spending the evening there. Henry Koerner was one of them. Little did I know at the time that I was truly in the presence of a great artist whose home one day would be mine.
(Top Left) “Koerner in his New York studio, 1949,. photo by Stanley Kubrick” (Copy of original photograph, from the Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty,Yale University. Used with permission.)
(Bottom Left) Portrait of Sylvia Porter for Time. By Time Inc., Illustration by Henry Koerner. From Wikipedia.
(Bottom Right) Photo by Amy Laurent, 1978. Used with permission.