Ernest Briggs, a California-born New York painter and teacher, charted his own path through abstraction, always exploring and never repeating himself.
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The notion of a “second-generation Abstract Expressionist” has entered the vocabulary of art history, but it is not very helpful in terms of actually understanding how and why artists created the works they did. For one thing, there is considerable overlap in time between first- and second-generation Ab-Ex paintings. The breakthroughs of Pollock and de Kooning were achieved in 1947–48, and Abstract Expressionism came into its own in the New York art world around 1950. Quite a few of the so-called second-generation painters were also making Ab-Ex works around 1950. Beyond that, the difference between first and second generation often comes down to which artists became successful first. Those who were a little older or for other reasons did not participate in World War II were able to establish their careers earlier (and in some cases, more securely) than those who spent the war years in uniform. And while de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock were influential for ex-G.I. artists whose careers began after 1945 rather than during the 1930s, the latter can by no means be considered epigones.
Among these slightly younger artists was Ernest Briggs, a particularly interesting figure in that he participated in both the West Coast and East Coast schools of postwar abstraction. Although he moved permanently to New York from California, he resisted some of the more totalizing trends within the New York art world, ultimately withdrawing from the gallery scene in a way similar to that of his former teacher Clyfford Still. Throughout his career Briggs created paintings that display a unique and quite astonishing level of energy and intensity, so much so that they have been compared to a volcano erupting. Briggs’ dynamism expressed itself in various forms over the years, but the sense of forces clashing and coalescing is consistent.He never repeated himself, either within a composition or over time. He strove for absolute originality and truth to his own self. During his first phase of creativity in the 1950s, he wrote, “The discipline to free one’s image from the conventional aspects without surrendering the affirmative drama of human insight to the sterility of decoration or simple design problems has been, and I believe will be, my continuing direction.”
Briggs was born in San Diego in 1923. He later moved to San Francisco, where he had an uncle there who worked for a design studio. This uncle was friends with the artist Mark Tobey, to whom he introduced the young Briggs. A far bigger influence than Tobey was Paul Klee, whom Briggs idolized. During his war service in the U.S. Army Signal Corps—which consisted of a year and a half at Tampa, Fla., learning radar, followed by a year stationed in India—he constantly carried with him a copy of James Johnson Sweeney’s book on Klee, which contained reproductions of the Swiss artist’s work, several in color, along with an essay by Sweeney. When he returned to San Francisco, his uncle tried to convince him to pursue a career in graphic design, and he even briefly considered applying the Cranbrook Academy in Detroit, but he decided on fine art instead and enrolled locally, at the California School of Fine Arts. At this time, the school was engaged in an important project—educating returning soldiers who were funded by the G.I. Bill, exposing them to radical trends in contemporary art. The head of the school, Douglas McAgy, patterned his program on the Bauhaus and invited an extremely impressive roster of talent to teach, including Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Mark Rothko.
Briggs spent from 1948 to 1951 at the California School of Fine Arts, studying initially with Park and then with Still. He recalled Park as extremely hands-off in his teaching style, stopping by to slap a student on the back now and then and then retreat into his private domain. Still, on the other hand, was an intense, demanding, and loquacious teacher with something of the manner of a Calvinist minister. Rather than critique student work directly, he would hold forth at length on his ideas about art and the role of the artist. Still, a wild-man with a palette knife who had a Romantic, uncompromising attitude, questioned the validity of the art market and urged his students to adopt a questioning and even subversive stance with regard to their art practice and their careers. When Rothko arrived at the school in 1949, Briggs studied with him, as well. Rothko’s approach was completely different. He was a warm and encouraging presence, never lectured, and went from student to student to examine and comment on their work. Briggs would eventually be a teacher himself, and Rothko’s teaching style was very influential for him. In fact, in an oral history interview conducted for the Smithsonian in 1982, he characterized it as “much the same as I do today.”
Briggs first showed his work publicly while at school, in 1949, at a gallery called Metart that he himself helped found. After that, his paintings were featured in three San Francisco Museum Annuals and in a 1953 exhibition titled “Five Bay Area Artists” at the Legion of Honor Museum. After graduation, he worked odd jobs including carpentry and house painting to support himself while painting, and by 1953 he had saved enough money to make the move to New York. He found an apartment above the Fulton Fish Market, which he shared with a fellow artist from California, Edward Dugmore, and soon found representation from the Stable Gallery. Its founder and owner, Eleanor Ward, was a visionary dealer with a strong sense of theater, who was known for fostering new talent. The Stable Gallery hosted the annual exhibitions of the New York School, formerly known as the Ninth Street Art Exhibitions. Ward gave Briggs a solo show in 1954, which did a great deal to establish him in New York.
Around that time he was being exposed to what made the New York abstract scene different from that of California. West Coast abstraction was very connected to nature, which is not surprising considering the landscape, whereas New York’s urban consciousness dictated a different type of abstraction, more cerebral and derived from Surrealist strategies. The European influence on West Coast abstraction was more in the line of Bonnard and Matisse’s color work. In any case, Briggs enlarged his horizons significantly in New York, with de Kooning a major influence. During the next few years he went from strength to strength, his success culminating in his inclusion in the 1956 exhibition “Twelve Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Dorothy Miller. Among his fellow exhibitors were James Brooks, Sam Francis, and Philip Guston.
Unfortunately, the MoMA show did not propel Briggs into the top ranks of the art world, as perhaps might have been expected. He was getting critical acclaim but still finding it difficult to derive a living from his painting, still having to rely on odd jobs to make ends meet. Moreover, he was increasingly finding the attitudes of the New York art world distasteful and even psychologically punishing. He reacted strongly against the hyper-competitiveness of the Cedar Tavern crowd and wished to avoid falling into the constant worry and jealousy that he felt they fell prey to. In the late ’50s, then, Briggs withdrew from the gallery scene, while continuing to paint. In 1960, he re-engaged, taking up with the dealer Howard Wise, who maintained a spacious and gracious gallery that mounted ambitious, large-scale shows. Accordingly, Briggs painted on a large scale, on canvases more than six feet high. He showed for three years with Wise, with only modest sales, until Wise went out of business.
The year 1961 was a watershed in Briggs’ life and career. That was when he took a teaching position at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., at last secure and content in a job that allowed him to live decently without having to depend on sales of paintings. Over the next 20 years, he taught at Pratt as well as at Yale, the University of Florida, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins. Like his own teacher Still, he was largely pulling away from the commercial art world, painting for himself rather than for the ever-shifting market—although he never completely abandoned the galleries, showing intermittently with various dealers. During the ’70s and early ’80s, Briggs moved toward a more geometric style, with colored rectangles and broad, bold linear brushstrokes, although he never became hard-edged and always remained in touch with the gestural roots of Abstract Expressionism.
Briggs died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 61. Since 1991, his work has been championed by the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York. Shapolsky has written, “Briggs and many artists believed in the intangibles of nature that could not be measured but were filtered through the mind. Ernest Briggs is, to me, the epitome of the abstract impulse. In his works people find deeper meaning because it’s there!”
By John Dorfman