Editor’s Note: “Wanderer Among the Rublle (Part 1)” appeared on June 17, 2012
Gabriel Solomon Brodie grew up in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That he became an artist who achieved what he did in a relatively short period — his career spans around twenty-five years — is a testament to his ferocious persistence. Wanting desperately to get himself out of his impoverished circumstances, he became a painter. He did so out of the purest motivation: he fell in love with painting.
In 1945, he studied modern dance with Martha Graham. In 1946, after seeing Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and works by Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he began painting. He wasn’t afraid to be influenced. There was nothing programmatic about his affections. Within a short time both Chaim Soutine and Piet Mondrian became important to him.
Brodie was in his mid-twenties when he took up painting. Starting late, he never stopped being a student — a state of receptivity that is likely to be truer for self-taught artists than for those coming out of art school. His pantheon spanned the history of art, including Piero della Francesca and Corot, as well artists from the preceding generation of New York painters, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
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Brodie was a mixture of confidence and insecurity, the latter mostly having to do with the harsh circumstances of his childhood. In 1946, shortly after he started painting, he rang Meyer Schapiro’s doorbell and asked him to look at the paintings and drawings he had with him. In 1951, Schapiro selected him for a two person New Talent show at the Kootz Gallery, New York.
The young Robert Rosenblum was so impressed by the work he saw in the New Talent show that three years later, on the occasion of Brodie’s first one-person show at the Urban Gallery, he wrote:
This, however, is his first one-man and though it is small, it reveals an artistic personality that has a potency and authenticity rarely encountered in a painter under thirty. (Art Digest, February, 1954)
At his memorial service, which was held on November 10, 1975, Schapiro said:
I loved his work. It seemed to me of the best by painters of his age, his generation; I was impressed particularly by the fact that he was entirely self-taught, and in an innocent and aspiring way.
Later, Schapiro emphasized something that to my mind still rings true:
I believe that his work is not yet really known sufficiently. When properly exhibited in its whole range, I think it will surprise us and will appear stronger and deeper than has been recognized.
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This is how the English sculptor William Tucker described Brodie’s painting “I am a Tree” (1975): “It is a painting. It is a tree. It is the artist.” (Art in America, January 1981).
The same could be said for all the paintings and drawings in Ten Tenements and particularly for “Tree in the City” (1963). At first, the image of a leafless sapling attached by wires to the two posts flanking it is barely discernible from the gray/blue-gray ground. Eventually the image emerges from the pebbled surface and strata of paint. This is a very far cry from the immediacy of Abstract Expressionism’s volatile surfaces, Pop Art’s familiar, instantly accessible images, and Minimalism’s in-your-face abstraction.
The sapling is struggling to survive, though Brodie is smart to downplay the struggle. To his credit, this is where he diverges from Vincent van Gogh. In doing so, one realizes how deeply Brodie looked at van Gogh’s paintings, knowing to bypass the obvious pyrotechnics for something else. He had to find his own way to merge image and paint. The struggle Brodie depicts isn’t embodied in the viscous paint strokes and gnarled forms, as in a van Gogh painting. It is in the differentiation that the image of the tree subtly but slowly makes from its surroundings. The very slowness of the painting to resolve itself into its elements evokes the desire to individuate oneself from his or her environment.
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In “City Anguish” (1958), the dense, intricate, layered network of diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines, many of which are black or ashen gray, with passages in orange (mostly on the painting’s left side), was inspired by the cross struts of the Williamsburg Bridge. This is as close as Brodie gets to Abstract Expressionist paint handling, and it is not that close. (If anything “City Anguish” anticipates the churning grids of Terry Winters, which he once described as “temporal architecture or a cross section.”) Again, the theme of the painting is the struggle between extrication and suffocation.
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In the vertical “Torn Tenement” (1973), Brodie depicts the side of a tenement whose façade has been torn down. The tall and narrow format — it’s nearly three times as tall as it is wide — evokes a memory that never quite comes into focus, hovering between clarity and dissipation.
In “Torn Tenement” Brodie has used a spray gun to make a faint blue grid. The edges of the painting are almost bare, with the gritty paint built up in the painting’s interior. The effects of all this are magical and unlikely. The soft hazy light emanating from “Torn Tenement” feels laden with the fine-grained dust that fills the air when a façade has just been torn down.
Brodie gets a very different feeling in the two paintings titled “Tenement,” which he completed in the last year of his life. One is done on metal and the other on a piece of wood. Brodie took advantage of the smooth, nonabsorbent surface afforded by each material. He applied a thin, final layer of bright horizontal and vertical strokes, forming a lattice that spans almost the entire height of the painting. In the “Tenement” done on metal, the white paint strokes feel as if they could be peeled off the painting’s rough surface. They remind us that every wall, particularly on the Lower East Side, has a history, and that history is both covered over and visually evident. For all the simplicity of their isolated images, there is nothing simplistic about Brodie’s paintings.
As Ezra Pound wrote, “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In Brodie’s work, however, it is not an instant; his presentation is an intellectual and emotional complex accessible through a sustained period of looking. This kind of looking goes against the grain of what the art world has come to expect, starting with Frank Stella’s “What you see is what you see.” This legacy has led to the visual one-liner and the easily consumable image. Whatever else we might think, it is time to recognize that many artists have resisted making the quickly digested image, preferring instead to discover a necessary complexity.
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Another revelation for me was the drawings, which have seldom been shown. I had seen some sketches done on stationery and other quick little drawings made for a painting, but the ones in “Ten Tenements” are of a different order. In most of them, Brodie combined different mediums — pastel and ink, for example, or pastel and watercolor.
In a charcoal drawing, “Untitled (Tenement)” (c. 1960), Brodie has superimposed diagonal fire scape ladders onto a linear building with arched windows and a tower that might have been inspired by the time he spent in Florence in 1955. Memory and observation are inseparable and central to Brodie’s paintings and drawings.
“Untitled (Tenement)” (c. 1973) is a red rectangle (tenement/gravestone) on a blue-gray ground, all of which has been overlaid with a thicket of black lines, a tangle that brings to mind something Brodie said about his painting City Anguish: “I use the crosses to cross out all the memories of sorrow that the city is bound to create.”
In “Untitled (Tenement),” we do not need to know what the black lines represent to feel their force. It is not Brodie’s sorrow we see in the drawing, but ours.
Gandy Brodie: Ten Tenements continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 1.