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James Brooks

By Kurt Vonnegut

Our dear departed friend James Brooks, so modest in his personal life, so romantically heroic when he painted, has unintentionally left us a history of America at its most decent and hopeful during the Great Depression and then the Second World War, and then during the aftermath of that war, when it was at last the turn of our artists to startle the rest of the world with new sorts of enchantments which could be worked by paints. He died last March 12, in a hospital on Long Island not far from Springs, New York, where he and his artist wife Charlotte Park Brooks had lived for several decades. He was eighty-five.

That James Brooks, like T. S. Eliot a native of St. Louis, could draw approximately as well as Albrecht Dürer was never in doubt. One of the hard-edge, starkly representational murals he painted for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression survives in the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal out at LaGuardia. When we got into World War Two our government asked him again to make pictures which could be easily understood by our people and make them compassionate and proud. So he went to Egypt and painted scenes of the destruction of buildings and downed airplanes of the war.

But once the war was over, this extraordinarily capable and idealistic illustrator, if you will, surely not a thing to be, God knows, abandoned the almost militaristic discipline he knew so well how to impose on paint, and asked paint, perhaps because he loved it so much, what paint, if their situations were reversed, might like him to do. I extrapolate this from one conversation I had with Jim, at whose core was one question by me and one answer by him. “Jim,” I said, “what is it you do exactly?” At that time he was in his sixties and properly revered along with his close friend Jack Pollock by younger artists all over the world as a principal founder of the idiosyncratically American school of painting we call “Abstract Expressionism.” His reply? “I lay on the first stroke of color,” he said. “After that the canvas has to do half the work.”

What a faithful and affectionate servant of paint and canvas he proved to be!

Read by Jane Wilson at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1992.

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