“Why are you here?”
He was the quietest and gentlest of men and when he spoke it was with a deep resonance, careful thought, and an abbreviated style that hinted of Texas twang. His sentences had a preference for ending with question marks rather than periods, more interested in seeking answers than offering them. His face was lined with life’s mysteries, eyes deep set of a dusky blue and a receding head of dark hair streaked with gray that ran in waves above overgrown bushy eye brows that spoke of independence from conventional restraints.
“Why anywhere?” he answered. “Aren’t we all on a journey?”
I thought for a moment. “And what is that?”
When I first met James Brooks I was taken by his reserve – a lesson in honesty and humility – one of the most celebrated painters of the 1950’s New York School not feeling the need to impress.
I recall visiting him on a beautiful sun filled day in late May, 1979. As I drove east the foliage bordering Fireplace Road was lit in brilliant greens, accented by red Japanese Maples, blossoming dogwoods and fading daffodils. The Springs, known in art circles as ‘the cradle of abstract expressionism’, was home to many of America’s great artists and writers like Pollack, de Kooning, Vonnegut, Heller, Roth, Ephron and my friend, James.
I wondered what drew them to the East End. “I suppose we were looking for a somewhere that would allow us to express ourselves.” James paused then added, “perhaps not as much expressing ourselves as discovering ourselves.”
“But why here?” I questioned. “What makes here so special? Is it the light that attracts painter and photographer? Is it the scent of the sea that makes white canvases and empty pages come alive? Or is it the deafening sounds of the endless waves that powers creation?”
“I think they all play a part, don’t you?” he responded in his measured gait. “When you’re here don’t you find it easier to uncover what’s inside?”
I looked at him, searching for a bottom line. “But if there was one directive that brought you here, what would it be?”
He answered with an impish smile. “Never to be forced into answers. Life is too volatile for declarative statements, I suppose that’s why I prefer questions. Perhaps it’s easier to ask out here.”
He paused and the smile quietly dissolved into thought. “I came because my friend Jackson was here – and he was seeking what we all sought, freedom.”
“Freedom?” I asked.
“To create, to discover.”
My wife and I were seated in the front of our station wagon with our four and six year old sons belted in the back as we pulled up to his home, greeted by his gracious wife, the artist Charlotte Parks who had been a student of his at Yale.
James was born in 1906 in St. Louis, and with his father a travelling salesman, moved often until settling in Dallas where he studied art. When he was twenty he moved to New York, working as a commercial artist while taking night classes at the Art Student’s League. His art reflected his concern for social issues, especially depicted in his three murals completed for the WPA Federal Art Project between 1936 to 1942, of which the best known is “Flight”. Today, it covers the entire 235 feet of the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, a magnificent work painted over in the 1950’s because of its leftist persuasion, only to be restored after years of protest. It was in those early WPA years that he and Pollack became friends. After the World War, he and Charlotte set up painting studios in Montauk, but the ‘56 hurricane destroyed much of their work and they moved to the Springs.
Constantly experimenting and influenced by Picasso and Braque, James began to develop an abstract style which by the summer of 1948 evolved into his “staining” technique, utilizing the random shapes that he noticed had “accidently” formed on the back of his canvas where he had glued paintings with black paste. I realized that his use of “accidental” observations that led to discovery was similar to a scientist whose inquiry often leads to unpredictable truth.