New York

Ross Braught

Hirschl & Adler Galleries

“Ross Braught (1898–1983): A Visual Diary” reintroduced a little-known yet remarkable figure in the history of American art. The paintings, drawings, and lithographs on view charted the development of a highly original and thoroughly modern talent. Called by his friend Thomas Hart Benton “the greatest living American draftsman,” Braught owed more to Van Gogh than to nineteenth-century American painting. Gestural landscapes and boldly colored, sharply angular depictions of organic forms make up much of the work from the ’20s and ’30s. From 1936 to 1946 the artist lived in the British Virgin Islands, Dutch Guyana (Surinam), and Puerto Rico and made exquisitely detailed drawings of the flora and folk of these regions. In Braught’s later paintings, light-infused fantasies in which cool pastel hues come to predominate, the artist’s geometric and formal concerns are most evident. Yet his evolution seems more one of style than substance, as the works from each period share technical as well as metaphysical preoccupations expressed particularly in his handling of color, light, and form—as if the artist were continually honing his vision of the world.

The most immediately impressive of the paintings are the large landscapes of the American West that predate the decade Braught spent in the tropics. In Badlands of South Dakota, ca. 1932–36, a steep, craggy canyon wall exhibits an astonishing variety of earthen hues—brown, mauve, taupe, chalk—blended and juxtaposed with seemingly infinite subtlety. Colorado Canyons, ca. 1932–36, is another masterwork of this period: Light and shadows spill across a parched canyonscape that joins purple plains and mountains in the far distance, the horizon line partly blurred in a cloudy haze as sky and earth seem to merge. These works, Braught’s most realistic, draw from what seems nature’s own alien lyricism; if they border on abstraction and the surreal, it is only because the landscape itself does. What’s interesting is that Braught expressed this affinity with nature—a Romantic endeavor in the strictest sense—in a thoroughly modern painterly language. The more strictly geometrical and formal innovations of earlier works like Dead Chestnut, 1927, which even seems to share affinities with Cubism, serve to richly and accurately depict these stark landscapes.

Braught would achieve a more detailed, even gothic expression of natural form in his drawings of the tropics, where his circumstances obliged him to use pencils. Works such as Ancient Cistern, 1940, also reveal an increasingly personal sense of the mystical and, as in Javanese Puppet Show, 1946, the phantasmagoric. It’s not that Braught hadn’t revealed this sensibility before, but an earlier work like Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, 1936, his mural for the Kansas City Music Hall, appears more classical, not so uniquely his own.

Yet it seems that after living in the tropics Braught would never again feel quite as close to nature, and he beganto temper his depictions of it with more mythic concerns, as in Reflecting Pool, ca. 1948–49. While note has been made of his affinities with Benton and O’Keeffe, a painting like Still Life with Mirror, ca. 1950–60, also recalls de Chirico, and Decline of the West, 1943, seems like the vision of a Yankee Chagall. Perhaps the strongest of the late works is Sunflowers, ca. 1950–60, in which the artist returns to natural subject matter. In it his themes—nature, form, geometry, the peculiarities of light’s sharpness or diffusion—combine most intimately.

Given the mythic subject matter of so many of the later paintings, one senses that Braught was conscious of the anthropomorphism of the landscapes and trees in his earlier work. Perhaps his later and more purely revelatory works are a fitting apotheosis of the career of this authentic visionary.

Tom Breidenbach