Gandy Brodie, “Butcher Boy” (c. 1957), oil on board, 56 x 40 inches (all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

Gandy Brodie (1924–1975) is one of the independent figures of the 1960s with whom the art world has not yet come to terms. He was a self-taught artist who grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, which puts him in a small category; almost no first- or second-generation Abstract Expressionists were born in the neighborhood, though many had studios there. Never one to be swayed by fashion, the art historian Meyer Shapiro championed Brodie and another outlier of the time, Forrest Bess. And while Bess has gradually entered the canon, Brodie remains on the cusp, neither quite in or out — a cult figure whose approach to painting and subject matter remains at odds with Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field painting, and painterly realism, the celebrated styles of the 1960s, and today. His slow process often involved building up his canvases into uneven surfaces of smooth paint. He seemed to want to memorialize different sides of his hard-scrabble existence without sentimentalizing them. 

Brodie’s subject matter ranged from tenement walls to flowers and birds’ nests, from testaments of endurance to expressions of fragility and vulnerability. His paintings of anemones could be sweet but they never tipped into the saccharine. Rather, his heavily worked surfaces — reminiscent of tenement apartment walls covered with layers of paint — conveyed his desire to see whether innocence, however tenuous, could be regained through repetition and patient labor. Delicate touches of color and light accompany rough patches and uneven surfaces. What remains is a feeling of deep loneliness without a trace of self-pity. Even though his works portray fawns, birds, and flowers, along with other direct and tender subjects, it is not surprising that Brodie has never become popular. His rejection of irony and emotionally cool, flat surfaces in favor of sincerity and weathered skins of paint has contributed to his neglect. 

Gandy Brodie, “Untitled (Bruegel, Ensor, The Clowns and Me)” (1951), oil on canvas, 36 x 43 inches

The 13 paintings in the exhibition Gandy Brodie: Haven at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects span the artist’s short career, from 1951 until his death in ’75. The earliest work — one of his first — is “Untitled (Bruegel, Ensor, The Clowns and Me)” (1951). By putting himself in the company of artists concerned with human foibles and shortcomings, Brodie revealed more of his preoccupations: How do we deal with sorrow and mortality? What can we do with our anger? 

In the mixed media on paper “Birches” (c. 1968), the layers of lines to the right of the birch suggest scars, echoing the tree’s worked surface. That use of line as scar and obliteration reaches a fever pitch in an earlier painting, “City Anguish” (1958), as Brodie builds up a crisscrossing network of mostly dark gray and black lines. He is both crossing out and building up the surface, making a network of entangled X’s. His attention to similar marks, and, at the same time, the changes they go through because of his laborious, layered process evokes contradictory feelings of determination and frustration. That collision seems to be the artist’s response to the American Dream and the myth of equal opportunity. Brodie, who grew up in the bug infested, crowded tenements and immigrant population of the Lower East Side and got out of it, recognized that he never fully abandoned that world, nor would he forget the myriad impressions it left with him. 

In “Butcher Boy” (c. 1957), a young man in a bloody, stained apron stares directly at the viewer, looking somewhat stunned, with his mouth slightly open. He is not quite at ease. On the black wall behind him, in Italian, we can make the word “nonalla guerra” (not to the war). The work was painted during the early years of the Cold War and the testing of atom and hydrogen bombs, when both the United States and Soviet Union urged their citizens to take specific steps to survive a nuclear war. In retrospect, storing food and water in basements or building fallout shelters in backyards only heightened the general fear, as these precautions were likely ineffective.

Gandy Brodie, “A Matter of Life and Death” (n.d.), oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 20 inches

In this portrait we can see Brodie’s empathy for someone who feels powerless and stuck, feelings underscored by the subject’s partly open mouth, as if his words are stuck in his throat, and the position of his hands (he seems to not know what to do with them). The idea of being unable to escape one’s socioeconomic class against a backdrop of government indifference is rarely found in American painting, either then or now. We can see this sympathy in certain portraits by Chaim Soutine, whom Brodie admired, yet he was not derivative of the artist. Perhaps amid the ethos of the 1950s, when art was supposed to be art and not social critique, Brodie’s socially conscious art further sidelined him, even though he was considered by some to be a second-generation Abstract Expressionist — a dismissive term applied to many artists who did not become Color Field painters or Minimalists.

In “Post No Ills” (1966), Brodie depicts a tenement wall on which we see the words “post no bills” with the B partially obliterated. The wall is covered with the remnant of posters, layers of paint, and graffiti, none of which is legible. I see this painting as a metaphor for Brodie’s vision of what it means to be a painter. Whatever his feelings, however turbulent his life had been, he did not want that to become the subject of his work, even though he could not shed the darkness that he felt. In painting, he could find moments of beauty and defenselessness, as well as the endurance and will to survive, despite the circumstances of his childhood. Knowing this, is it tempting to say that Brodie is a late romantic painter, but I think this would be a mistake. He is far more challenging than that, especially in paintings such as “Butcher Boy,” which remains relevant today as it refers to a world in which a minority of the people seek to control every aspect of our lives, down to what we read, how we identify ourselves, and who we love.

Gandy Brodie, “Post No Ills” (1966), 72 1/2 x 96 1/2 inches
Gandy Brodie, “City Anguish” (1958), oil on canvas 84 1/4 x 72 inches

Gandy Brodie: Haven continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 28. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.  

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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