This summer, the Parrish Art Museum presents “James Brooks: A Painting Is a Real Thing” — the first full-scale retrospective in 35 years of work by the Abstract Expressionist, a celebrated painter of the 1950s New York School, who embraced experimentation and risk throughout his seven-decade career.
On view Aug. 6 through Oct. 15, the exhibition comprises over 100 of the most important paintings, prints, and works on paper by Brooks (1906–1992) from the 1920s to 1983.
“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 Curator Klaus 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 Brooks shaped by Social Realism and further developed in New York where he worked as a sign letterer and WPA muralist and studied the Art Students League, 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 began to visit the East End of Long Island and rented a house in Montauk. By 1957, Springs 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 Brooks’ work in the 1960s: 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.
The Parrish Art Museum is open Thursdays through Mondays, with hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday. More details are at parrishart.org.