Ab Ex painter James Brooks exhibition at Parrish Art Museum

The Parrish Art Museum (East End Long Island) presents James Brooks: A Painting Is a Real Thing—the first full-scale retrospective in 35 years of the celebrated Abstract Expressionist painter. Brooks was a member of the 1950s New York School, embracing experimentation and risk throughout his seven-decade career. On view August 6 through October 15, 2023, the exhibition comprises over 100 of the most important paintings, prints, and works on paper by Brooks (1906–1992) from the 1920s to 1983, primarily selected from a major gift to the Museum by the James and Charlotte Brooks Foundation in 2017, as well as loans from public and private collections.
A Painting Is a Real Thing is organized by Klaus Ottmann, Ph.D., the newly appointed Adjunct Curator of the Collection, with support from Assistant Curator and Publications Coordinator Kaitlin Halloran. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated, 176-page catalogue with interpretive essays by Dr. Ottmann and contributing essayist and artist Mike Solomon, a detailed chronology, a complete plates section, and an exhibition checklist.
“James Brooks was not only a principal creative force in defining and expanding the Abstract Expressionist canon, but an early acolyte of a Southwestern abstract regionalism that emerged out of Dallas, Texas, in the 1920s,” said Dr. Ottman. “He was one of the most accomplished muralists of the WPA era, and one of small group of ‘combat artists’ during World War II—all of which is represented in this exhibition for the first time thanks to the significant gift of works to the Parrish by the James and Charlotte Brooks Foundation.”

Organized chronologically, A Painting Is a Real Thing begins in the 1920s with work by James Brooks shaped by Social Realism and further developed in New York where he worked as a sign letterer, WPA muralist and studied the Art Students League (1927–1930). These are followed by abstract works from the ‘30s.

The exhibition picks up after Brooks returned from service in WWII as a combat artist, with works that reference the military, and through his period of experimentation with abstraction that led to a career-defining development in 1948. As he worked on an oil on paper series that involved gluing paper to canvas, the paste bled through, essentially creating another painting on the reverse side. The unexpected consequence was the genesis of a new direction the artist would pursue for decades: a staining technique that inspired a more improvisational approach, as in Maine Caper (1948), in which swaths of shape and color overlap in a free form composition.
In 1949, at the urging of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Brooks and his wife Charlotte Park (American, 1918–2010) began to visit the East End of Long Island and rented a house in Montauk. By 1957, Springs (East Hampton) became their permanent residence.

Exploring scale and an expanded use of materials, Brooks pushed the limits of the stain technique, working both sides of a painting. Unprimed Osnaburg cloth allowed paint to seep through the surface in a conflation of chance with choice, resulting in spontaneous forms as in G (1951). Crayon gave definition to paint in Untitled (ca. 1950), and sand was a significant element in Dolamen (1958).

Brooks dramatically increased the scale of his work with Obsol (1964)—an 80 x 74-inch oil painting. To emphasize the abstract nature of his work, the artist titled paintings with his own invented words, devoid of connotation, context, or reference to representation.

Two additional developments arose in the ‘60s: a shift from oils to acrylics, prompting the use of a wider range of color, and a move toward simpler compositions. In Juke (1962–70, a more expansive gestural sweep replaces the density of previous work. Brooks reached a new level of simplicity in Ypsila (1964), a monochromatic painting where wispy, free-form black lines blow across the white canvas.

By 1969, Brooks moved into a purpose-built studio of his own design where a larger space and expanse of skylights led to an increase of scale and productivity. A selection of acrylic paintings and lithographs dating from 1970 and onward reveal the artist’s commitment to color as a consistent and essential ingredient in his pictures, where plain white canvas was often replaced with colored ground.

Later large-scale paintings like Yarboro (1972), with its biomorphic shapes and restrained palette, and Cambria (1983), where that concept is further developed, reveal how Brooks continued to seek new territory each time he approached the canvas.

About the Artist

James Brooks was born in St. Louis and raised in Texas and attended Southern Methodist University. The artist relocated to New York in the mid-1920s, supporting himself as a commercial artist while studying painting at the Art Students League. B

rooks worked in the popular realist style of the day, exhibiting in various Manhattan galleries, and participating in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, for which he completed three public murals, most notably Flight, a monumental work extending some 235 feet in the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport.

After serving in Cairo during World War II, Brooks returned to New York and married the painter Charlotte Park, a 1939 graduate of the Yale School of Art. While closely studying the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and Braque, Brooks began teaching at Columbia, Pratt Institute and Yale. A series of shorter teaching residencies punctuated his career, including time at Southampton College on the East End of Long Island, New York, in 1968.

The Museum of Modern Art included Brooks in its major exhibitions Twelve Americans 1956 and the watershed New American Painting 1958.

Brooks and Park set up painting studios in Montauk as early as 1947; many of their works were destroyed in a hurricane in September 1956. In 1957 the couple established a home in Springs, East Hampton. 

About the Parrish Art Museum

Inspired by the natural setting and artistic life of Long Island’s East End, the Parrish Art Museum illuminates the creative process and how art and artists transform our experiences and understanding of the world and how we live in it. The Museum fosters connections among individuals, art, and artists through care and interpretation of the collection, presentation of exhibitions, publications, educational initiatives, programs, and artists-in residence.

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