ArtWeekend

A Wanderer Among the Rubble (Part 1)

Gandy Brodie, "The Astronaut"
Gandy Brodie, “The Astronaut” (1967–74), oil on canvas, 96 x 74 inches (click to enlarge; all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

Editor’s Note: “Wanderer Among the Rublle (Part 2)” appeared on June 24, 2012

Jocelyn once described her husband, Gandy Brodie (1924–1975) as a “delinquent Hebrew student.” In the novel Life on Sandpaper (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011), the Israeli novelist and painter Yoram Kaniuk writes about the time he and Gandy hung out together in New York, befriending Lenny Tristano and Charlie Parker, as well as Willem de Kooning and Tennessee Williams.

According to Kaniuk, “Walking down the street with him was like going into a bar in a hick town with a population of two hundred. Everybody knew him.” That much of Kaniuk’s book is probably made up, or at least exaggerated, is beside the point. Brodie was charismatic figure, but this is not why he should be remembered.  It is his paintings and drawings that we should be paying attention to, and the current exhibition, Gandy Brodie: Ten Tenements at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects is the first of what I hope will be more chances. Brodie is definitely deserving of a long look and a proper museum show.

During his lifetime, Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg, Robert Rosenblum, Elaine de Kooning and Dore Ashton championed Brodie, but, in the years since his death, his work has faded from view, never gaining the recognition many feel he deserves.  Perhaps the very reason why his work has been neglected for many years might now be why we should be looking at it more closely.

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Gandy Brodie, "Drawing for 'The Astronaut'"
Gandy Brodie, “Drawing for ‘The Astronaut'”

From its initial conception to its first presentation, Gandy Brodie: Ten Tenements has taken thirty-seven years to see the light of day. It is the last exhibition that the artist and his wife, Jocelyn, planned before his premature death in 1975. In the first years after his death, his widow tried to get it into the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, but to no avail.

Because of the subject matter, which is the Lower East Side where the artist grew up — he was born on Henry Street — it is fitting that this group of paintings and drawings is being shown on Forsythe Street, south of Houston Street, and just around the corner from Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery. The fact that there is a Whole Foods just a block away, and that the New Museum is located on the Bowery, are just two indications of how much the neighborhood has changed since the show was first planned.

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Gandy Brodie, "Still life after Van Gogh"
Gandy Brodie, “Still life after Van Gogh” (1975), oil on panel, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches (click to enlarge)

Brodie is part of the “second generation” of Abstract Expressionists. Of that group, which includes Norman Bluhm, Ed Clark, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell, he remains among the most isolated. This is largely because of the way he merged paint and subject matter. In contrast to the loaded brush and aggressiveness we associate with Bluhm and Mitchell, Brodie’s work is slow to reveal itself.

A self-taught artist, Brodie’s method of painting is all his own. His paintings’ rough, uneven surfaces compress the gritty exterior walls of the Lower East Side with its multilayered interiors, painted over and over like tenement apartment walls while left unprotected against the ravages of time and the elements.

Some of the surfaces look as if they have been scorched, particularly when the palette includes grays and blacks. His painting “Classic Tenement” (1971) feels like it has endured time’s insults, rather than made by hand. In its dirty gray, dark blue, brown and black palette, “Tree in the City” (1963) reminds me of something that has been left out in the rain or forgotten in a cold cellar.

None of Brodie’s contemporaries put the paint on like he did. He was, as Dore Ashton wrote nearly a decade after his death, “a proud and contentious outsider.” (Arts, October, 1983). If his surfaces have an affinity with any artist working in the 1950s and 60s, it is with another self-taught artist, Joseph Cornell. I am thinking of Cornell’s “hotel” rooms, which seem to have been empty for a hundred years.

And yet, for all the scarred and pebbled toughness of their impasto skin, Brodie’s paintings come across as delicate and vulnerable — the opposite of the paintings of Milton Resnick or Francis Bacon.

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Gandy Brodie, "Seagull in Flight"
Gandy Brodie, “Seagull in Flight” (1973), oil on canvas board, 12 x 24 inches

In 1957, in his prescient Introduction to Artists of the New York School: Second Generation (The Jewish Museum, March 10–April 28, 1957), Leo Steinberg pointed out that, after the breakthroughs achieved by the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, the “second generation is deprived even of the tradition of revolt.” This was how he envisioned the situation for the second generation:

The great construction of Renaissance art is a demolished site, there’s nothing to do but tamp down the debris and build anew with found rubble.

The mainstream critical establishment rejected Steinberg’s view, of course. From stain painting to silkscreen — the tradition of revolt (or is it progress?) was tied to the means of production, until that dialectic played itself out by the 1970s, and the concomitant feeling expressed by the critical establishment was that nothing new under the sun could be made.

Meanwhile, painters (or is it practitioners of the obsolete?) recognized that they had to “build anew with found rubble.”  The argument has always been over what to do with rubble, with “appropriation” and “quotation” included among the most recent proscriptions against starting over. The art world, it seems, is obsessed with scripting the end of art.

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In the same “Introduction,” Steinberg asked viewers to “find the poetry of dereliction” in the paintings of Gandy Brodie.  What Steinberg recognizes as Brodie’s ability to identify states of negligence through the medium of paint — needs to be thought about. As the artist stated: “If I want to feel haunted, there’s the Lower East Side.”

(In “Apple Blossom Branch” [1975], which is not in this exhibition, the two enduring and renewing white blossoms are made of tactile white paint. It’s as if the thin layer of white paint indicating their existence is clinging tenaciously to the rough, reddish-brown surface. Still, a strong gust of wind might be able to dislodge them.)

Gandy Brodie, "Apple Blossom Branch"
Gandy Brodie, “Apple Blossom Branch” (c.1975), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

At the heart of Brodie’s worldview is a profound understanding of neglect and solitariness — his subjects include a lone gull, an astronaut floating in space, a flowerpot of red gladiolas, a bird’s nest, a thin bare tree growing on a street, a fallen tree and a tenement as solid and flat as a gravestone.

In his best works, Brodie was able to coax an image right up to edge of the abyss of sentimentality and not let it fall in. (He is the painter’s equivalent of a tightrope walker, which is something Giorgio Morandi never felt compelled to aspire to.) This is one reason why his paintings are so powerful and, to my mind, also why the establishment, but not painters, have often passed them over. Brodie worked at a time when Abstract Expressionism was being eclipsed, replaced by Pop Art, Minimalism, and Painterly Realism. He didn’t fit into any of these movements. And he paid a price because he didn’t join any of the clubs. This is another reason why his work might be useful to us now, in this moment when nothing is central.

Consider this: The dereliction that Steinberg points to in Brodie’s work can also be found in the paintings of Josephine Halvorson. He influenced John Lees, who doesn’t always avoid sentimentality as sharply and clearly as Brodie does. Brodie and the Flemish painter Eugene Leroy share some of the same productive anxieties about the porous relationship between figure and ground. His psychologically charged surfaces are the result of extreme compression, and sensitivity to the slightest tonal shifts within his often somber palette. Brodie can be characterized as an expressionist as long it is understood that he doesn’t use expressionist brushwork.

For all of his separateness as an artist, particularly in relationship to other artists of his generation, it behooves us to see Brodie’s work both close-up and in the largest context possible.

Gandy Brodie: Ten Tenements continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 1.

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