Ever wondered about the intimacies and private lives of the artists? There are plenty of places to turn. You can read Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo or Diego Rivera’s autobiography. You can take a walk through Frida Kahlo’s diary, or read about Titian, da Vinci or Botticelli in Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists.”
And now you can see the “Anniversary Art” of the late 20th century artist Stephen Csoka at a small gallery in the Unitarian Church on Shelter Rock Road, thanks to the careful curating of his son Frank Csoka, of Sea Cliff.
While Stephen Csoka doesn’t share the limelight with the world’s most famous painters, he’s well known in art circles, with work in the permanent collections of more than 30 museum in the United States and abroad, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, the Whitney and the Library of Congress.
Moreover, a visit to the Shelter Rock Art Gallery is sufficient to come away with the belief that the Hungarian-born, New York-based artist’s personal life is at least as accessible and intimate a vehicle for retelling his story as are those of the pantheon of greats.
The exhibit, which includes some of Csoka’s arresting works of art, highlights 22 of the “Marital Milestones” he created for his wife and family between 1935 and his death at 92 in Kings Park in 1989.
The works are so named because each has a “road marker.” Infused with humor, they provide a record of a family moving through the important events in members’ lives.
“My father had a good sense of humor, but times were hard,” said Frank Csoka, who organized the exhibition.
The concerns revealed in the drawings range from financial pressures to career challenges, from adjustments in the husband-wife relationship to the changes in their children’s lives. And while the Marital Milestone series is decidedly anecdotal and casual, it’s also unflinching.
The very first Anniversary Art piece, an endearing and signature piece for the exhibit, shows the artist’s wife, Margaret, cuddling Stephen on his side of the bed, with a “space to let” sign on her abandoned side of the bed. Milestone 7, dated 1941, illustrates the big moment when Stephen and Margaret bought a home in Brooklyn. Milestone 27, from 1960, depicts Csoka struggling to meet a deadline for a book he wrote on pastel art.
Other drawings show Csoka transporting his young bride on a WPA steed-drawn chariot; Csoka interrupting his painting of a nude to mix house paints for his side job as a house painter; and one of Margaret pregnant, with hospital bills in hand. Milestone 14, from 1948, depicts Stephen winning a $1,000 prize for his painting — and Margaret winning $5,000 for writing a ditty for a national laundromat contest that took first prize. “My dad was knocked off his cloud by that,” said Frank.
According to Frank, this is not the first time that his father’s work has been shown locally, In fact, there was a 100-year retrospective in 1997 at the Hofstra Museum of Art. But the Anniversary Art series has not often been available to the public, so Frank was particularly happy with the arrangements at Shelter Rock, and was gratified by the response to the opening on April 30.
And if the intimacy and accessibility of the Shelter Rock exhibition isn’t sufficient reason for art lovers to drop by, there is another important reason, according to Frank: This may be the last show of his father’s work that he ever mounts. “These shows take two to three years to put together,” he said. “At my age,  it’s tough.”
“Marital Milestones: Anniversary Art of Stephen Csoka” continues through June 6. The Shelter Rock Art Gallery is located at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, 48 Shelter Rock Road in Manhasset.