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James Brooks: The Lyrical Painter of Abstract Expressionism

By Sol Libsohn - [James Brooks], 1940 Aug. 21 / Sol Libsohn, photographer. Photographic print : 1 item : b&w ; 21 x 26 cm. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965, bulk 1935-1942. Archives of American Art., Public Domain, Link

Creating the skilled, rhythmic compositions of abstract shapes, textures and color values, carefully orchestrated in shallow space of the canvas, the American abstract painter, James Brooks, is celebrated for his murals, abstract paintings, and unique staining technique, developed by experimenting with mixtures of commercial enamels and oils.

One of the most technically accomplished members of the New York School, Brooks was born on October 18, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri. In 1916, he moved with his family to Dallas and studied art at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Art Institute. In 1927, he came to New York, where he attended night classes at the Art Students League and worked as a commercial artist by day.

In 1936, Brooks joined the Federal Art Project as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, remaining with the project until 1942. His best-known project was a mural titled “Flight” (1940-42) at the International Marine Terminal building at LaGuardia Airport. From 1942 to 1945, he served with the United States Army as an art correspondent.

At the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Brooks returned to New York in 1946. Turning toward abstraction, Brooks reconnected with Jackson Pollock, a friend from the WPA days, and began experimenting with Automatism and free brushwork after discarding the Social Realism of his early career. A pioneer in the use of staining, dilution and accidental deterioration of canvases to create uncontrolled abstraction, Brooks often applied his mixtures of commercial products and paints directly from the tube to create thick, deep surfaces, before adding fluid lines and abstract shapes.

In his first one-man show at the Peridot Gallery in 1950, Brooks presented his stained and “dripped” canvases, in which stains made on the reverse side of the canvas were used to generate “spontaneous” painted shapes on the front. In 1951, he participated in the historic “Ninth Street Exhibition”, an artist- organized show that included the work of Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Franze Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. In 1956, his work was a part of the “Twelve American” show at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Modern's influential “New American Painting” show in 1959, which traveled through Europe.

In 1963, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, mounted a retrospective that travel to Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts; Baltimore Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C.; and University of California Art Galleries, Los Angeles. In 1975, Martha Jackson Gallery and Finch College Museum of Art, New York, jointly organized a retrospective, and in 1983 another retrospective was shown at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Brooks received several major prizes, one was awarded by the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1956 and another by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957. He also received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1969.

At the age of 85, Brooks died on March 9, 1992, in East Hampton.



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