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April 17 - May 8, 2004, at Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood

by Bill Lasarow

“Elybrook,” 1983, acrylic
on canvas, 60 x 60”.

"Apthorp”, 1975, acrylic
on canvas, 64 x 76".

"T," 1954, o/c, 64 1/4 x 60".

"Gair," 1973, a/c, 64 x 64".

Among the first generation of prominent Abstract Expressionists, James Brooks occupies a middling place rather than the foreground. This exhibition serves as a reintroduction to a painter whose graceful formal skills outweigh the originality of his contribution at the center of the first great American art movement. This exhibition not only puts those skills and limitations on display, but also keynotes Brooks’ capacity to absorb and respond to subsequent developments, such as color field painting and minimalism.

Like so many New York-based artists of his generation, attendance at the Art Students League, federal art program work during the Depression, and wartime service preceded and informed the development of a mature aesthetic. Once committed to pure abstraction, Brooks dedicated himself to exploring in those terms for the remaining four decades of his working life.

The strong sense of rhythmic cadence executed with a limited palette in B (1952) and T (1954) helps us to understand the restless character of the work that brought Brooks to prominence. The vertical stacking of red-orange and blue-gray shapes in the former swings the eye from side to side. The individuality of each rough “object” calls up fresh and distinct associations. The suggestion of a nocturnal forest pervades the latter image. Green brushstrokes play off of dark brown and black color spaces that read as a ground. Yellow and flesh tones in the foreground push up from the bottom of the image to end as the suggestion of a horizon line.

If the architectonic of mark-making drives Brooks’ mid-career work, he seems more interested in scale in the later work. Gair (1973) can be read as space opera and, just as readily, a microbial ballet. A reduced quantity of forms--some larger and more worked into, others small squiggles and splatters that pulse with organic animation-- float against a distinct background space. It is a masterful performance, every nuanced mark seeming to start and stop on a dime.

In Apthorp (1975) the colors go completely neutral, and a handful of black, calligraphic forms dominate, perhaps in homage to Brooks’ late colleague Franz Kline. Three smaller continents curve in diagonally from the upper right in deference to the primary heart-shaped universe to the upper left that is full of little points of light. A single handprint near the bottom signals a faint “here I am” that could hardly be accidental.

The saturated primaries of the late work Elybrook (1983) come as something of a surprise, as though a certain resistance to color broke down. Four primary shapes, one each red, green, blue and purple, vie for the foreground. A misty neutral color that reads as background space enters as a funnel shape at the top and exits at the bottom, meandering into a few jaunty lines along the way. To the right just a bit of active brushwork from the old days lets rip, little alien visitors taking in the lyrical grandeur of what paint can do.

It would be easy to conclude that Brooks’ engaging, at times masterful brush sense makes for a fine viewing experience and leave it at that, but it also encapsulates a dilemma of his generation, which after all sought to reinvent painting as an arena of the authentically lived moment. These works trace an essentially academic trajectory, expressing increasing pleasure with the formal decision making itself as early radicalism morphs into a mainstream language. This is a noble body of work that gradually gives in to its more hedonistic impulses, and finally lacks that most individualistic character that distinguishes the front rank artists.