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Born in 1923, in San Diego, Ernest Briggs served in India during World War II and then studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. During the immediate postwar era, artists on the West Coast — like their counterparts in the New York School — were questioning the relevance of representational art, especially after the figure had been propagandized in social realist tableaux during the war. Following nearly two decades of noble farmers, industrious workers, and sturdy soldiers being depicted on murals from Moscow to Berlin to Jefferson City, Missouri, the search was on for dynamic forms pulled from the artist’s psyche rather than simply as a reaction to external stimuli. As David Park, one of Briggs’s instructors, put it, “We don’t have a model; we don’t have still life; we just paint.”
Another of Briggs’s teachers at the California School of Fine Arts, Clyfford Still, was known for his opinionated (not to say, bombastic) pronouncements concerning the evolution of painting. When asked who had influenced him, Still made the grandiose claim, “My work is not influenced by anybody.” (This was serious hyperbole — all American artists owed a huge debt to the cubists and surrealists of Europe, as well as to such nonobjective painters as Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich.) Still encouraged his students to find their own paths: “I do not want other artists to imitate my work — they do even when I tell them not to — but only my example for freedom and independence from all external, decadent, and corrupting influences.” This was a more dogmatic view of American painting’s breakthroughs into abstraction than was shared back East, where Jackson Pollock was actively seeking to subsume nature into his very being and Willem de Kooning was celebrating the “melodrama of vulgarity” with slashing brushstrokes over bits of newspaper collage.
Briggs moved to New York City in 1953, part of a wave of second-generation abstract expressionists that included such talented painters as Edward Dugmore and Grace Hartigan. A year later, the poet Frank O’Hara was so impressed with Briggs’s first solo exhibition, at the Stable Gallery, that he wrote 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.” In the concise Briggs show of twenty-plus works now on view at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery, a viewer gets some idea of what got O’Hara so excited more than half a century ago. In Untitled (Yellow), from 1958, vertically oriented blobs of black on the left are offset by horizontally arrayed reddish-brown swathes on the right. Jags of yellow enter from the top, emphatic as lightning, keying the bold energy O’Hara imagined as moving stone and bronze. In the firm contours of the yellow one can see the influence of Still’s rigid fractures and stark crevices of paint, but Briggs achieves a more mellifluous animation by varying his textures across the canvas, as in the rounded black globules juxtaposed against strokes that taper like a spearhead.
An off-kilter grid in the roughly three-foot-square Palermo (1964) imparts an architectonic vibe, but a snaking bolt of red and white mixed wet-into-wet on the canvas chronicles the painter’s physical movements as emphatically as a tennis stroke. The bold design — a bar of yellow starts in from the left and is interrupted and rerouted by knots of black and gray before reappearing against a white ground — imbues the composition with a jaunty rhythm.
With its exposed brick walls, patterned rugs, and modernist furniture, the Shapolsky gallery presents a homey postwar ambience, and it doesn’t surprise a viewer when Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” a popular jazz single from 1959, wafts from the sound system. That well-polished hit is an apt metaphor for the difference between the first generation of abstract expressionists who, as de Kooning said of Pollock, “broke the ice,” and later practitioners such as Briggs, Dugmore, and Hartigan, who may have lacked the searching rawness found in their elders’ compositions, but expanded the movement with grace and studious sophistication.
Briggs died young, in terms of a painter’s career, in 1984, at age 61. His nearly six-foot-tall Sketch for a Crucifixion (1981) shows the artist reaching past modernism to millennia-old subject matter. Light seeps around emphatic black verticals, dusky yellow down the middle with grayed-out rectangles to either side — perhaps implying the intrigue-filled passageways told of in ancient tales; red angles and dark horizontals of varying weights imply the crosspieces of Roman justice. Briggs conveys, with an almost pure abstraction of simple, human-scale grid and bold palette, biblical anguish as well as the beauty that comes from perseverance, whether of a divine or an artistic nature.
‘Ernest Briggs: Four Decades of Abstract Expressionism’
Anita Shapolsky Gallery
152 East 65th Street
Through June 15