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Ernest Briggs' Three Decades of Abstract Expressionist Painting

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Ernest Briggs, 1984, Maine, Image courtesy of Bob Brooks. Ernest Briggs' Three Decades of Abstract Expressionist Painting Ernest Briggs, a second generation Abstract Expressionist painter known for his
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Ernest Briggs, 1984, Maine, Image courtesy of Bob Brooks. Ernest Briggs' Three Decades of Abstract Expressionist Painting Ernest Briggs, a second generation Abstract Expressionist painter known for his strong, lyrical, expressive brushstrokes, use of color and sometimes geometric composition, first came to New York in late He had been a student of Clyfford Still at the California School of Fine Arts. Frank O Hara first experienced the mystery in the way Ernest Briggs splendid paintings transform, and the inability to see the shape as a shape apart from interpretation. Early in 1954, viewing Briggs first one man show at the Stable Gallery in New York, O Hara said in Art in America From the contrast between the surface bravura and the half-seen abstract shapes, a surprising intimacy arises which is like seeing a public statue, thinking itself unobserved, move. Ernest P. Briggs, Jr. was born December 24, 1923 in San Diego, California. He spent his childhood and youth in California, and then served in the Army during WW11. He spent about 18 months in Tampa as part of the Army Air and Signal corps, where he When Briggs first started painting he was painting in a figurative symbolic style, and not really knowing where he was headed. got to read Dali s Secret Life. He would later serve a year in India. After the service he moved back to San Francisco. As a child, Briggs had taken up drawing and design, and was exposed to and had met Mark Tobey. His major influence early in life was that of Paul Klee s work. He would carry Sweeny s book on Klee around with him during his Army service abroad. But Briggs was totally lacking in any historical art orientation. After the Army, he had initially intended to attend Cranbrook, but because San Francisco was a beautiful city and environment, and knowing there was an art school locally up there on the Hill, decided not to leave the area. In , while working at Gumps trimming windows, he attended Rudolph Schaeffer s School of Design, managed by his uncle. But Briggs realized that something psychological had occurred, and he knew he couldn t fit in with those areas of graphic and industrial design. He inadvertently fell into an exciting situation in 1948 where Douglas McAgy had started a program, primarily for WW11 veterans at the California School of Fine Arts. He would study there until The G.I Bill cannot be underestimated for its help in allowing artists of the period to go to school. They were set free economically, and were allowed to live comfortably with tuition and supplies paid for. The Fine Arts School would last about 3 years under McAgy. The program took off due to the presence of Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, along with David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and others. Most of the students at the school, about taking painting, such luminaries as Dugmore, Hultberg, Schueler and Crehan, had had some exposure to art through university or art school. But there had been no exposure to what was going on in New York or in Europe in the art world, and Briggs and the others were little prepared for the onslaught that was to come. The California Years With the entry of Still, the art program would blow apart. It was Clyfford Still who would galvanize the Fine Art school s art program. Mark Rothko would also arrive in 1949 to teach during the summer months. Still had been at the School for one semester teaching a design and composition class, and by the time McAgy knew who he was and more about him, Still turned the program over to those working abstractly. Briggs would later recall that the real stimulation, the excitement of the California School was the tension that arose when David Park (and Elmer Bishoff) switched back to figuration. Still and Park were the central figures at the school, and although they socialized together were not much in agreement on anything in their approach to art. An interesting argument was set up between the disciples of Still, Rothko, and Pollock and the new figurative artists. Park was a taciturn, New England quiet person; Still was a hyper-romantic, very articulate and historically oriented person. Briggs knew he had lucked out in the mix of the students and that this was the opening phase in his commitment to painting. After one semester, Briggs switched to Still s class because he had a reputation for having something to say to the students. According to Briggs, Park would just come around, slap the students on the back and disappear back into his private studio. When Briggs first started painting he was painting in a figurative symbolic style, and not really knowing where he was headed. Park, one of his first instructors, said We don t have a model; we don t have still life; we just paint. Among the 30 or so students, they all just painted and didn t look at anything, but they all influenced each other. It was a revelation to Briggs, as he had thought there had to be a subject, as in the Ashcan or Regionalist style. The fact that one could include their own imagination as the starting point or as the interpretative or dominant element and that one could just paint was liberating for him. One could start with a stretched canvas; paint big color shapes and just feel one s way through the process. The interaction with the other students was sustaining in this. Students had come from New York, Chicago, Seattle, and various parts of the country, and most of them had different kinds of experience in the service; it was an extraordinary experience for Briggs. Students socialized and saw each other five days a week at school, and they worked after school and at home. Some had very clear ambitions to get to New York as soon as they could. Others opted to eventually stick it out on the West Coast. About two dozen would go on to continue painting and sculpture. The Fine Arts program would subsequently close due to its focus on abstraction, McAgy s departure and Still s move to New York. By this time, the Annuals had begun at the Legion of Honor, and one room would be devoted to the New York School; included would be the works of Still, Rothko, Pollock, Gottlieb, Baziotes, and Motherwell. The California School would be considered the counterpart to the Hoffman School in New York. Briggs reminiscenced in a 1982 Smithsonian oral history interview noting: Still s main thrust was characteristic of his own problem which was to know what he didn t want to do. It ranged all the way from philosophical, psychological, political, economic, all the aspects of the way art is dealt with. He didn t like to talk about anyone else s work directly, including student s work. He did not criticize student s work. He talked on broad issues, art politics and the politics of art historically and whatever he knew about all the gossip of the moment. His attitude was populist and radical, but not leftist. In fact Briggs considered it conservative and very stimulating. Still considered his position, his real function, to be an irritant and to get the student to question and to develop some position in terms of a philosophical approach or stance in terms of the world or wherever their ambition was going to lead them. Mark Rothko s arrival from New York was a total difference That one could include their own imagination as the starting point and that one could just paint was liberating for Briggs. in terms of personalities. Rothko was the epitome of the New York Jewish intellectual artist/painter who exuded an entirely different kind of energy. He was urbane, deeply intent, and a quintessential New Yorker. This was a complete contrast to Still s Puritanism, almost Calvinistic manner. Rothko would pay attention to each student and his work, and would have something to say to each, whereas Still would stand in the room and declaim. The importance of Rothko s presence was his weekly lecture to all the students, not just the painting class, taking questions and getting into conversations with the students. In the studio, his attitude was very similar to Still s. In 1949 there were no ideological programs yet in terms of their esthetics. It was more in terms that they knew what they did not want. It was an attempt to eliminate, from their imagery and from their practice in order to arrive at what was their big image, their big style. They were trying to work away from the past, eliminate all temporal images, whether transparency, movement, or space. Still and Rothko were very tight and were a tremendous stimulus to each other and each in their own way, in their kind of poetics, stimulated each other to a high degree. But it was Still s influence on Rothko, as well, that comes out of the period, the arrival of a big style, big form painting, and the confidence to move away from the significant influences of Rothko s mentor Milton Avery, as well as Baziotes and Gottlieb s work of the time. Briggs was engrossed and in the mix. By 1949 Rothko would start his large rectangle paintings with entirely different surfaces. Their attitude was to paint and then after the fact figure out what had been done. It was totally visual, not in terms of some idea, but to circumvent what had been done. It was not just to find some novelty but to take your life, your experience and what it was about. While Still and Rothko would subsequently have a falling out, they continued to be lifelong friend and influences on Briggs work and career. Briggs first exhibited while a student in San Francisco in 1949 at the Metart Gallery which he had helped co-found. His work was subsequently included in three San Francisco Museum Annuals and in the 1953 Legion of Honor s Five Bay Area Artists. His painting continued to evolve. He had finished school in 1951, but stayed in San Francisco painting and exhibiting until 1953, working odd jobs as a builder of exhibit display cabinets, contract house painting, and carpentry. He had married by that time, but that was soon to end. After this early, initial success in San Francisco, Briggs saved enough money and wanted to move to New York. Alan Frumkin, a Chicago dealer, offered not only to include Briggs in a group show there, but also to pay the expenses of shipping his art to Chicago and on to New York in the fall of While landing in Hoboken, he and Edward Dugmore would take a couple floors above a bar in the Fulton Fish Market. He was soon to have his first show at Eleanor Ward s Stable Gallery in the winter of The New York Years Briggs arrival in New York late in 1953, and early 1954, was exciting. Fantastic things happened to him in a city where things can click and where one was suddenly swept into a whole milieu meeting dozens of new people in an art world that was very small. Philip Pavia immediately helped him get a job to help with expenses, and he also invited Briggs to join The Club. This was a scene where artists were still fighting the battle of modern art, where there was a lot still to develop. Abstract Expressionism was in its height, and things were moving fast. Everybody traveled and moved fast where there was a pressure of anticipation of showing, and in ways of showing art. Galleries were evolving, and the whole business of presentation and building reputations was under pressure and refined during this period. In retrospect to Briggs, it was similar to the rest of society. By the time Briggs arrived in New York the abstract art world was evolving into separate manners, though not in ambition. Pavia was managing The Club, and it was dominated by Kline and de Kooning. Still, Rothko and Pollock had moved out to eastern Long Island; and Barnett Newman represented another path. Still argued with Newman, Rothko and Motherwell about possibly circumventing the whole gallery system and going straight to the top to museums and then becoming commercially viable, establishing a career without going through a commercial gallery. He felt that artists had potentially enormous power in the cultural world of the moment, and that they had a choice to really buck the system. He was willing to pay the dues, but he also made enormous demands on his colleagues. Still and Rothko s actual falling out came when Rothko accepted Sidney Janis offer to show along with Pollock, de Kooning and Kline. Briggs would observe the cold war mentality, paranoia and anxiety the very characteristic of the individuals involved. However, nobody was really well served by all the conflict. Brigg s 1954 Stable Gallery show was important to his career. Mark Rothko, John Ferren, and David Smith, among others came to the opening and were very supportive and gave him the recognition to establish him in the art world. Several of the pieces in his first show had been done on the West Coast. By that time through a view of de Kooning s work, he would become aware of the possibility of gesture and thinking in terms of the quality of color, and in trying to use color to eliminate or recapture and restore some kind of quality to his work that eliminated and freed it from some of the decorative aspects. While reading much literary criticism, and trying to educate himself in the activity of the art world, Briggs would turn completely away from any reference to the French School of Bonnard and Matisse. Ward would show Briggs once more at the Stable Gallery, his second show was in Her attitude was that it took three seven years to build a reputation. It entailed a certain amount of critical appraisal and articles, a consistent showing of progress to establish an artist s name in relation to the older generation. Through the intervention of Still, Dorothy Miller from the Modern came and looked at his work and would include him in her landmark 1956 Twelve Americans show. Ordinarily this would have been Brigg s stepping stone and the launch of his career. However, Briggs still wasn t making much money, and he was struggling along with subsistence jobs. He also found the attitudes of both dealers and curators nerve-wracking. The work he was producing wasn t what they wanted; it was what they could see and hope to see on the horizon. More than anything, Briggs was feeling by this time the beginnings of the true commercial nature of the art world. He felt that more than most in his generation, he poked around and journeyed to different shores. He always felt that this was sort of a possibility rather than something to shy away from. At times he would make radical changes in his work; at times he would grind away and changes would be deliberate and a way to refine his style. But he felt overall there was a consistency. During this period Briggs was very much influenced by Clyfford Abstract Expressionism was in its height, and things were moving fast. Still s attitudes about the art world, and he believed that he probably took on more than he should have. He took them on strongly. It was an ideology that Still had struggled with and that had come out of his experience but which was totally different from Briggs experience. Briggs had a relationship to society as a whole and to other artists, and he found warmth in their acceptance, much like in Art School after the war. He also found an awful anxiety and competitiveness with all the gossip that was ongoing at the Cedar Bar, in who was selling at the time. It wasn t great conversation by this point, it was about the careers of individuals. While there would be drinks and dancing and some discussions, inevitably talk turned toward what was happening to the careers of the various people. It was the reality of the business of art and the competitiveness. Kline and de Kooning were being handled and promoted and they themselves were on call. Things were happening to them so everyone felt it could happen to the others. Briggs felt, in his innocence, that he had the work so it could happen to him. But, he also felt a foreboding and withdrew showing at galleries during the late 1950 s while continuing to paint and do odd jobs. The 1960 s Briggs believed that he probably took on more than he should have. Briggs started showing again with Howard Wise in He had three years of consistently good shows and modest sales, good coverage and reviews. The gallery was quite grand and handsome and was the envy of most other galleries of the era. It set the stage for large, extensive installations. However, the gallery would only last a few years. Briggs felt Wise, while sincere, not very good at business and the ways of surviving in it. Wise would switch from representing painting to other kinds of art such as kinetic and pop, and he eventually phased out of business. Briggs was disappointed and thought Wise made a mistake, and that he could have stuck it out with the financial resources he had and very fine artists. He represented: Dugmore, Resnick, McNeil, and Von Wiegand. Briggs produced large canvasses, generally six feet and up during the 1950 s and 1960 s. In early 1963 he would begin working with acrylics, making the paints up himself out of the basic materials, using dried dye pigments. It was exciting for him to be using a new medium which allowed him to experiment and work on a smaller scale. By 1975 he switched back to using oil paint again. In the early 1960 s many of the art ideas were being rethought and questioned, partly by the advent of Pop art, but also Minimalism and Hard-edged painting. Those painting in the abstract expressionist and improvisational styles felt the onslaught very significantly. Many abstract artists moved onto hard edge painting and other styles. The criticism of the time dogmatically attacked abstract expressionism. Donald Judd made his reputation with his endless diatribes against and snotty reviews of abstract shows during this time. Curators at the Met were saying that painting was an obsolete medium. With this attitude, artists in Briggs circle were backed into a very hostile environment. Briggs would note that the artists had to physically stand there to protect their work. It was also the beginning of the commercial exploitation of the art world. Simultaneously, sources that had been supportive of abstract artists began looking elsewhere. He felt that well, now that we got rid of abstract expressionism, we can make some money, too. He found parallels with the end of jazz and the beginning of rock and roll, where these musicians started making money. Briggs would chuckle, thousands of ex-painters and ex-musicians were lolling around the streets of Manhattan. In 1961, Briggs began regularly teaching, initially at Pratt, and a year at Yale with stints at Florida, Penn, Hopkins and Maryland. This was the sustenance that allowed him to continue painting. He would continue exhibiting at various galleries and invitational s throughout the 1960 s and 70 s. He jumped at the chance during these years when he had an opportunity to show, even though there probably might not be commercial prospects in the effort. In 1980, Briggs joined the Gruenebaum Gallery where he had two shows with decent financial success prior to his death in The Anita Shapolsky Gallery (established 1982), which specializes in all artists of the 1950's, has been exhibiting his work since As he infused the New York art scene with Still s raw and spirited technique, he explored, reworked and developed a multiplicity of compositional arrangements and painterly strategies. His work is distinguished by its bold, sensual use of form and color. Briggs exposed his intentions with a crushing, heavy technical structure of his material, paint and canvas, freeing his work from conventional forms to reach the highest level of conceptual expression. Raw, heavy pigment smears across unprimed canvas expose the image-making process and the rugged intensity of human nature, going beyond beauty and reason in illusionary impulse. At times he erupted into lyrical outbursts, at others he brooded with dark forces interrupted by brilliant flashes. He was inspired by the fundamental forms of nature, architecture, a
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