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Richard Caldwell Brewer (1923-2014)

  • “…There has been no substantial study of the male nude since el Greco. Lately in N.Y. a fashionable flurry of the mocking, the bitter, the clinical. Where is the vision of Matisse, the power of exorcism of Picasso, Roualt, Soutine? ..Helion told me years ago in Paris, “Paint what you most love and most hate—which may be the same thing.” I strive for this and occasionally achieve it. “ - Richard Caldwell Brewer

    Part of the second generation New York School, Richard Caldwell Brewer along with his charmed circle of artist friends, represent the lesser known art scene that emerged in the wake of abstract expressionism. Close friends and contemporaries with art world notables, such as Robert De Niro Sr., Nell Blaine, Leland Bell, and Samuel Wagstaff, Brewer’s career is marked by a desire to foster an artistic community and creative dialogue. His move to California in the 1950s brought him in touch with San Francisco’s vibrant Beat poet scene, and he maintained his ties to NYC traveling between the two coasts regularly. A selection of his works on paper and writings are in the collection of the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, an archive that also includes the work of Mark Twain and Joan Brown, among others and he was most prominently shown in a solo exhibition at the Top Floor Gallery in 1979. Much of his work has been acquired by ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries - the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world.

    While deeply influenced by their predecessors, such as Pollack and de Kooning, the second generation New York School painters pushed back against the tsunami that was pure abstraction, looking towards, and often backwards, to Europe for inspiration. Modernists such as Matisse, Picasso, Braques, and Derain, informed their work and played an influential aesthetic role. In many ways, the emphasis on figuration and the object present in the second generation’s work, may be seen, at least ideologically, as a sister movement to Bay Area Figuration, while remaining distinctively ‘New York’ in essence. Caught between the seminal Abstract Expressionist movement, and the emergence of Pop Art, Brewer’s work exists in a liminal realm, incorporating expressionism and modernism, while almost always returning to figure. Brewer’s preferred subject matter, the male nude, may have also contributed to his obscurity in the art world. Expressive, vibrant, and unreservedly erotic, Brewer’s depiction of the male figure subverted the traditional feminized voyeurism seen in modern art while simultaneously forefronting queer visibility.

    Richard Caldwell Brewer, born July 31st, 1923, in Washington D.C. grew up in Rockville, Maryland, in a historic farmhouse. While attending high school in D.C., Brewer met fellow artist/painter Leland Bell, who would soon become a lifelong friend. In the years that followed, Brewer studied at the Corcoran Art Gallery School as well as the Abbott Commercial Art Gallery, both in Washington D.C.

    While he did manage to avoid the military draft due to his asthma, his ability to speak fluent French landed him in the intelligence corps stationed in Algiers. It was here that Brewer met the well-known French author Andre Gide, “in a pissoir”. Brewer references Gide’s influence on his work in his 1979 resume, in which he credits part of his informal arts education to conversations with Andre Gide in Morocco. He states, “Though mainly self-educated, informal study has included associations and discussions with Karl Knaths, at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. (catalog); Jean Helion in New York and Paris: (catalogs, reviews); Andre Gide in Morocco during the writing of his monograph on Poussin.”

    Just before the end of the war, Brewer enlisted in the Merchant Marines, then remained in Paris, continuing his education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There he studied under the figurative painter, Jean Souverbie (b. 1891- d. 1981), in 1951. An excellent draftsman, this period in post-war Paris is also marked by his expressive graphite sketches Brewer made of his friends and lovers. Beginning in high school, and throughout his life and career, Brewer journaled regularly, cataloging his experiences, sexual history, and various ‘pick-ups’, creating an unintentional time capsule of queer experience and identity in the mid-20th century. Brewer’s time in Europe would influence his aesthetic and artistic sensibilities for the duration of his career.

    Like many artists during this time period, Brewer made the migration to New York City, initially residing at the infamous Sloane House YMCA (allegedly known for attracting all kinds of nomads and travelers, from the creative to the nefarious), working as a department store window designer. It was here, in the ever bustling and rapidly growing city, where he cultivated his cohort of similarly European-inclined artists and writers. This inner circle included the likes of Samuel Wagstaff, Robert De Niro Sr., Virginia Admiral, Nell Blaine, Leland Bell and Louisa Matthiasdottir - many of whom were students of the influential abstract painter Hans Hoffman. It was here that Brewer was introduced to De Niro. De Niro, who had not publicly revealed his sexual orientation, formed a friendship with Brewer, while their potential romance remained unrequited. However, the intimacy of their friendship is especially palpable, as evidenced by their correspondences. De Niro writes,

    ”…As I look back (and I often do) at the restaurant where we met, had little to recommend it except you, sitting across from me, dipping your doughnut in espresso, your hair combed back on one side and over your eye on the other, wearing that quasi cashmere sweater with the inscription “I left my heart in S.F. (S.F. I took to be San Francisco). At that time, I think, your heart was intact and in your possession. You didn’t even know that I wanted it. I hardly knew it yet, myself. What’s become of us since?…."

    Most of the artists that inhabited his particular art world were also gay, some more forward with their sexuality than others. The work of many of these artists was rendered marginalized and somewhat elusive, perhaps in part due to their orientation, but most likely at the hands of the flurry of abstract expressionism and Pop Art that took hold of the art world. Their work instead appealed to a particular European nostalgia, adhering to the more traditional School of Paris aesthetic characterized by early 20th century innovations such as cubism, fauvism, abstraction and surrealism. Brewer was particularly drawn to and inspired by the bold, expressive and painterly work of Matisse, Picasso, and Derain’s later work, as well as the work of painter Jean Helion, whom he would later befriend.

    Brewer’s career as an artist was also largely influenced by his bi-coastal relationship with the art world. In 1952 and 1953, Brewer moved to San Francisco, mixing in with the emerging Beat poet scene. He supported himself in bars and taverns, producing and selling graphite portraits of the patrons he would encounter. Sometimes he was accompanied by the artist Robert Lavigne, who Allen Ginsberg mockingly referred to as the “court painter” to the Beats. Other significant members of Brewer’s west coast social sphere included poets Robert Duncan (partner to the artist Jess (Collins)), Phillip Whalen, and Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder. Brewer’s mother, Rosalind Brewer, too made her way to the west coast after separating from his father John Brewer, an insurance broker in Maryland, settling in a cottage owned by their relatives in Tiburon, California. His father’s death followed shortly, in 1954, and with the inheritance from his estate, Brewer purchased the cottage from his aunt and uncle, Rear Admiral Robert and Elizabeth Lewis, allowing his mother to reside there for the duration of her life.

    While he did return to New York, the Bay Area would eventually become Brewer’s permanent residence, making his home/studio in an apartment on Polk Street in San Francisco in the 1970s. In the years to come, his ongoing model, muse, and companion Steve Krstich would move in, and the beginnings of their creative yet tumultuous relationship would unfold. In 1974, Rosalind passed away, leaving the cottage empty. Brewer and Krstich promptly moved in. Krstich, who identified as straight, and Brewer’s platonic yet intense artistic relationship shaped much of his work produced during this period. Twenty-six years his junior, their bond was most significantly that of muse and artist, as well as student and teacher. The cottage became his anchor, isolated, yet a generative art making space. Perhaps in the hopes of assuaging this isolation, Brewer maintained a night job in San Francisco as a janitor for an architecture firm, traveling by ferry in the evenings into the city. Back at the cottage, he would host many of his poet and artist friends, such as the film critic Pauline Kael, Samuel Wagstaff and Robert De Niro Sr.

    The culmination of Brewer’s career occurred at the Top Floor Gallery in 1979, a solo show featuring his figurative paintings, many homo-erotic in their expression. The male nude dominated Brewer’s painting, rendered in thickly applied oil, energetic and expressive brushwork, with an emphasis on primary colors, crescendoing to create dynamic and affronting figurative works, in contrast to the historically demure and submissive female body as depicted in the paintings of his modernist idols. His work certainly made a splash, garnering the attention of notable San Francisco Chronicle art critic, Thomas Albright, who wrote, “…audacious in a different way…(with) an emphasis on genitalia.” De Niro too wrote favorably of the show, publishing an essay on the work and Brewer’s practice of rendering the male figure, writing “He is in the tradition of the great Japanese and Indian masters, of Courbet’s paintings of lesbians making love, the prose of Genet, and the little known erotic poems of Verlaine.” The poeticism present throughout De Niro’s essay speaks volumes to the artistic congenial respect the two held for one another, as well as the return to the classic modernist triumphs in art as a diving point and common referent in his work. The emphasis in Brewer’s work, and that of his NY circle, is not concerned with the cutting edge, or the conceptual, but rather the properties of painting itself, especially as explored by those seminal modernists in the late 19th and early 20th century. These early modernists were the first to break from illusionary painting, and understand the emotive properties they were capable of rendering by virtue of the medium itself. Brewer embodies this in his work, in which the quality of the paint itself - its thick or thinness, the way in which its applied, its hue - all contain a unique and specific intensity, that when combined, harmonizes, clashes, or competes - all contributing the complexities and emotional depth of the work.

    The work featured in our collection reflects a selective sampling from three distinct periods of the artist’s life. Most of the drawings on view date back to the late 1940s and early 1950s; graphite gestural sketches of people Brewer encountered during his time in Paris and San Francisco, most of which feature young men as the primary subject matter. The paintings on view span the mid-late 20th and early 21st centuries. The former is largely figurative, influenced greatly by the European modernist aesthetic. Always painting from life, Brewer’s figures possess an immediacy as well an intimacy, evoking the mutual gaze inherent from working with a live model. A mutual gaze intimates the artists confrontation with the actualized subject, creating a body of work that is enigmatically charged. Thickly applied paint, gestural brushstrokes, and hard edged outlines work to sculpt the form, and colors range from the earthy to vibrant jewel tones, consisting of variations of blue, red, and yellow. Both the quality of applied paint and the use of primary colors foreshadow what would be Brewer’s last group of paintings - pure abstraction. There is a straight-out-of-the-tube quality to these works, each existing as its own layer, independent from the surrounding colors. Overlapping textured swirls of color evoke the abstract expressionist aesthetic that dominated the New York art world in the mid-century, perhaps suggesting a re-exploration into the art making practices of Brewer’s youth, that at the time, he concertedly avoided.

    We would like to thank Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts for bringing this historically significant collection to Lost Art Salon.
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Please Note: All pieces purchased before our August 7th Exhibition Reception are on hold for the show and will ship out starting the week of the 26th.
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