James Brooks was born on October 18, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri, and moved with his family to Dallas in 1916. He studied art at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and, after moving to New York in 1926, took night classes at the Art Students League. Like many other Abstract Expressionists, Brooks painted murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His best-known project was a mural titled Flight (1940–42) at the International Marine Terminal building at LaGuardia Airport. This vibrant, monumental work—the largest of the WPA murals—measures 12 feet high and 237 feet long and depicts the history of flying, from early mythology to the latest innovations, in a clean, Social Realist style.
From 1942 to 1945, Brooks served as a combat artist with the U.S. Army in the Middle East and returned to New York in 1946, at the height of what would later be termed the Abstract Expressionist movement. An inveterate risk taker, he soon abandoned figuration for abstraction. He reconnected with Jackson Pollock, a friend from the WPA days. Brooks not only took over their Eighth Street studio when Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, moved to Long Island, but also credited Pollock with encouraging him to try a more gestural style.
During the late 1940s, Brooks’s aesthetic evolved from a loose derivation of Cubism to a moodier, more atmospheric style. In the summer of 1947, Brooks had a breakthrough. He was painting on paper, and glued the paper onto heavy cloth for archival purposes. He noticed that the paste he used to attach the paper to the cloth bled through to the side he was painting on. From then on he would start by working on the cloth and then switch to the front of the painting, combining accidents with deliberate choices in an approach that he used for several years. In the 1960s, Brooks shifted styles again, building compositions out of larger, bolder, and simpler forms.
Formally considered an Abstract Expressionist, James Brooks produced bright, dense works marked by their vibrating tension between spontaneous form and controlled gesture. “My painting starts with a complication on the canvas surface, done with as much spontaneity and as little memory as possible. This then exists as the subject…At some undetermined point the subject becomes the object, existing independently as a painting.”
In the Collections, we have:
James Brooks (1906-92)
Lithograph on Somerset paper, 77 x 57 cm.
Gift of Kenneth L. Halsband ‘88
Hunter, Sam. James Brooks. Praeger, 1963