Paul Brach, 83, an artist and educator whose late work expressed the eternal Jewish struggle of man’s relationship with God, died Nov. 16, 2007, a few weeks before a major exhibit of his recent work was scheduled to open.
Elly Flomenhaft, co-director of the New York gallery where Brach’s work will be exhibited beginning Dec. 6, said Brach knew he was dying from prostate cancer, and his desire to complete the show kept him going.
“He was creating some of the last works for this show,” she told In My Heart in an exclusive interview. “It was so special to him. It kept him up and painting. He knew he might not make it to this show, and he was thrilled it might happen.”
Brach was born in New York City and lived in Brooklyn until he was 14. He was both a product of and a rebel against his comfortable, upper middle class, liberal Jewish upbringing. He attended the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School. Brach once described the Ethical Culture movement as being “like Unitarianism for the children of Jewish socialists.”
At 14, his family moved to Riverdale, where he attended Fieldston School, and when he decided to be an artist. Brach also continued riding horses and spent several summers on an Arizona ranch.
In a 1971 interview for Archives of American Art on its project “The Art World in Transition,” Brach said: “One break from the sort of upper middle-class Jewish, New York privilege was that I spent my summers working on ranches in Arizona during my teen years. I had this whole fantasy about the west which meant freedom and getting away from a kind of constriction.” Images of the American West remained in his art over the years, as well.
The New York Times obituary of Brach summarized the arc of his art thusly:
“Brach evolved from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s to monochromatic Minimalism in the ’60s. From the ’70s on he produced simplified landscapes of the American West with horses galloping through them. In recent paintings he blended geometric abstraction and spacey, cosmic atmospheres.”
After college at the University of Iowa, Brach served in the U.S. Army in World War Two before finding his way back to New York City, where he and his wife Miriam Schapiro joined the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist art circle. According to information on the Flomenhaft Gallery website, they both worked in Hayter’s Studio 17 in Greenwich Village and met artists such as Joan Mitchell, Mike Goldberg, Larry Rivers and gallery owners such as Leo Castelli.
In 1969 Brach became the founding dean of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts. “Cal Arts” is now one of the best U.S. art schools. According to the Times, Brach hired John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow and the critic Max Kozloff, among others and helped create a “freewheeling experimental atmosphere” out of which emerged artists like David Salle, Eric Fischl, Barbara Bloom and Jack Goldstein.
Brach returned to New York in 1975 and became chairman of Division of the Arts of Fordham University at Lincoln Center. He and Miriam moved permanently to East Hampton in 1998 and was without a dealer until 2005, when his work was picked up by Flomenhaft Gallery.
His 2005 show there received strong reviews, and he was a favorite of renowned art historian and critic Leo Steinberg: “I’m over here to see Paul Brach’s show (at Flomenhaft Gallery),” Steinberg told Artnet magazine in 2005, which referred to Brach’s spiritual striving in his work: “Back in 1964, in Art International magazine, Steinberg called Brach’s simple yet opaque paintings “the invisibility of an encompassing, undifferentiated homogeneity,” then asked rhetorically, “can it be painted, this ineffable, metaphysical One?”
New York Times art critic Grace Glueck said of the 2005 show:
“Paul Brach’s subject is nothing less than the cosmos in this show of paintings that cover more than a decade, and invoke infinity by means of orbs, circles and luminous color effects….
“He takes a more metaphysical approach in ‘The Geometry of Faith,’ a circle halved by a bar, one half glowing white, the other black, radiating out to gray, on an ethereal gray ground. A legend underneath proclaims, ‘I Form the Light, and Create Darkness.’
“This show [is] a welcome reactivation.”
As far back as the 1960s Brach was interested in exploring spiritual subjects in his art. He said:
“In 1964, I was invited to make lithographs at the Tamarind Lithographic Workshop, then in LA. My friend, the late Arthur Cohen, a novelist and a theologian, suggested that we collaborate on a series of prints that would illustrate Arthur’s propositions about the relationship of mankind to God. We called it The Negative Way.”
Flomenhaft said Brach’s works show that “one of the great things about great learned men is that they are always struggling with their relationship with God. You must see ‘Sinai’ in person. You will see the tablets [of the Ten Commandments] and Sinai below it, and you will see the web of the world around it. It glows with an inner light.”
She said the Brach’s work expresses that God is that being who has that center, but the circumferences – the edges – blur. That’s because the end – the infinity – of God is everywhere and nowhere. He couldn’t make it exact.”
Brach was modest and honest about his relative lack of success in the heady 1950s and 1960s, as compared to some of his friends and colleagues. In the 1971 interview, he said:
“It was a kind of meritocracy; that is, almost everybody I knew was very good at what they did. It seems that the people who were stumbling never found themselves. Downtown loft life was accessible. But sort of East Village drug life was not accessible, nor did I want it. And most of my friends were a little too old to be involved with a heavy drug scene although there was and remains a good deal of alcoholism.
“In comparison with some of my very good friends like Lichtenstein and Bob Rauschenberg, etc., my success has not been that much. I made it. So that leaving New York was not a sour grapes situation. Although, if your friends are selling a quarter of a million dollars a year and buying buildings downtown and taking off to Europe at the drop of a hat to have another show, etc., you begin to feel a little stuck. And you begin to wonder how corrosive a competitive mentality becomes anyway.
Besides Schapiro, Brach’s survivors include his son and a brother.