New York

James Brooks

Lerner-Heller Gallery

I don’t really know why, but the last few years have seen a resurgent presence of many lesser-known Abstract Expressionist painters. Our memory of them resides in art over 20 years old, and they return with reviews of the last two decades of their work so we may catch up with them. This has made a possibly anemic art world somewhat more active, with revisionist critics busily revising standards, accountants anxious to rectify errors on the balance sheet of historical importance. It all seems rather suspicious, as if we should be exceptionally nice and sensitive to these painters because years ago other critics paved them up.

I’ve been reading a lot about James Brooks lately, and it’s all very nice. He is said to have invented stain painting. He exhibits some paintings from the ’70s, and since there aren’t a lot of AE veterans around, everyone has become very gushy. None of this makes for an atmosphere conducive to criticism. I have no idea why critics downplayed Brooks’ “importance” in the past (that belongs in the realm of gossip), but from the facts of the new paintings, I think I know why we should now. Would we even look twice if he were a young, unknown artist?

I see one of Brooks’ early paintings frequently in a local museum. Predominantly black and white, it slides right by the problems of light and dark and sneaks into the “structural” arena without exactly deserving it. Lately, Brooks has become partial to color which is either milky and matte or intense and dry. A lot of the new paintings combine a weird tint of aqua-green with flat black or ochre. There were several repeated stylish tricks, like a coy kind of over-painting—a form which begins as a large billow, ending in a little tail (like a bloated spermatazoa) where the tail is partially obscured by a rapid swatch of color, allowing the tail to “come out” the other end.

For the generation of painters who had to work through to abstraction there must have been an incredible tension between the model of bluntness and crudeness in the most advanced European painting, and the academic training stressing craft, naturalness and refinement of detail. It would seem no great coincidence that our most valued painters broke through to tremendously simplified schemes. The more compromising artists followed closely the model of Hofmann in an attempt to reconcile tradition and radical abstraction. Any semirepresentational or semiabstract art relies on nature as a starting point, and that means nature necessarily contemplated close-up, in detail. In Hofmann, the most representative and influential of this group of painters to which Brooks belongs, this means piling one thing on another in an endless array of arranging, rearranging, balancing, and composing. It has been very difficult for Brooks to give this background up; he shifts slightly and refines, reworking within a known area, from a privileged position once pledged to danger and now merely perfunctory. His paintings are full of perhaps accidental but nevertheless visually forced little lines and dots and curves and splotches subsidiary to the paintings’ main, large forms. (Even the boldness of these latter shapes is diminished by feathery outlining.)

Such extreme difference in size between elements usually affects internal scale as well as viewer distance from the painting, but it doesn’t in Brooks’ art. It only dilutes the effects of both large and small, canceling them out. The “nice little touches” which appear all over are straight out of Hofmann—drips and meanderings, paint trails and drags, and yes, even staining. The details don’t look or feel necessary. Brooks’ paintings are elaborate without the uninhibited joy of painting—of not wanting to let the process come to an end. Nor are they rigorous, which might make the thinking behind them more explicit. The paintings may have Abstract Expressionist bodies, but no blood’s running through them.

Jeff Perrone