The Parrish Art Museum Presents ‘James Brooks: A Painting Is A Real Thing’

The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill 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 August 6 to October 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, 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.

“Southfork,” 1974

“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.

“Unitled,” 1953

“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 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 (1927–1930), 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.

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