“Simplicity,” the Russian proverb tells us, “is worse than theft.” Meaning, economy is just another name for sterility.
This is an easy thing to believe as I write this in the middle of London, the Old World piling up stone all around me in a paean to the unnecessary. But what is necessary? As Tolstoy calculated in his famous story, no man needs more than six feet of ground.
It is the same when not just life, but expression, is in question. In college, we were always asked to write essays on Donne’s “A Valediction of weeping.” Remember?
On a round ball
A workeman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All . . .
I could never convince my professors that a “ball” is always “round” by definition, and “a round ball” is there fore redundant—as is the poet’s strange need to anticipate a situation in which the cartographer, ready to get down to some serious mapmaking, suddenly discovers he has no supplies or tools. Besides, why “quickly”?
Anyway, the professors thought I was criticizing Donne. Indeed, wasn’t “redundant” a bad word in the creative writing courses they had taken in their day, along with “rambling”? Yet genius always rambles—on and on, perpetually missing the point, effervescently redundant. That’s what I wanted to say about John Donne.
That’s what I want to say now about Colleen Browning, whom I met this spring at the suggestion of this maga zine’s editor a few weeks before “Other Worlds,” her new show, opened at Kennedy Galleries in New York. I am reasonably certain that Miss Browning will appreciate my earlier, seemingly roundabout introduction: Her father was a major general in the British Army, and she spent time drawing maps for the Royal Air Force during the war.
She was born and raised on her father’s country estate in Cregg, County Cork, Ireland. A child prodigy at the age of 12, she began classes in drawing at an art school in Surrey and subsequently won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London, where she received her formal training. After a stint with the J. Arthur Rank Corporation as a set designer for a series of Rank films, Miss Browning had her first personal exhibition at the Little Gallery in London in 1949. That same year, she emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. “Actually,” she points out, “it was Harlem. But since I didn’t know it, I didn’t worry.”
The paintings still faced the walls, waiting to be hung-the John Marin exhibit had to be taken down first-as Kennedy’s Ken Quail was turning them around for Miss Browning and me one by one. The Russian proverb was going through my mind. There was nothing simple about these.
Arabesque, a painting in the show, is representative of one Browning theme, prominent in her last show at Kennedy in 1982 (Fruit Market, Lily, Poinciana Pulcherrima, Under the Flamboyant, Danae, Metamorphoses, Night, all dating from 1980-81, were included). The theme is symbiosis. The atmosphere makes one think of Gauguin, but somehow chastened: women in bathing suits and resort vegetation blend, limb’ on limb, with each other in a tangle of light and shadow. Browning’s color is what makes this possible, as she glamorizes nature across the board, making color the common denominator of the animate and the inanimate (in the case of some paintings, such as the 1980 Fruit Market, the edible and the inedible). Her painting is so complex it makes one suspect the Old Masters of cutting comers; compared with her Hope Garden (in the new show), the Bosch Gardens of Delight seems Puritanical, a Protestant’s notion of decadence, like oatmeal with fresh fruit.
The tropical complexities of Hope Garden cannot be explained by its physical location in Grenada, where Browning lives with her husband of nearly 40 years, the writer Geoffrey Wagner. An earlier theme of hers, graffiti-covered New York City subway trains, expressed in paintings with titles like Clyde’s Car (1976) or Sly’s Eye (1977), provided her with whatever she needed to portray the urban landscape (or rather, undergroundscape) with the same unerring passion for the redundant. “Catching the JRT full-stop,” ran the New York Post‘s snappy, if a little incomprehensible, headline before that show; the Post reporter made Miss Browning admit that subway graffiti was vandalism, “but I would be dishonest”—she held her ground—”if I didn’t think it interesting. I don’t think art should be moralistic, show ing how the world should be. Because then you get all these Chinese posters of happy workers on tractors. Bad art and poor morality.”
Whatever subject matter she chooses, as with all creative artists, it merely serves as a plot for her true subject, the weaving of natural forms into the fabric of color. The growth of the plot into the actual picture is the pivotal moment of Browning’s art.
Characteristically, with Browning’s pictures the bigger the better is a rule. The infinitely proliferating flora in the “symbiotic” paintings seems to stretch the canvases physically, the botanical mass of sun-splashed green too lavish to be contained by the shallow picture plane. Perhaps instinctively prepared to compensate for the Pygmalion effect of her garden scenes, she starts the paintings on a much larger canvas than needed, “because painting is an organic thing,” and later cuts it down to size. “Often present in the paintings,” wrote a critic about Browning’s last show, “is a half-hidden female, the changing light dappling her silhouette: it is Browning. We see her in moments of complete interpenetration with the realm of living things. . . . [These paintings] loom as colorful invitations to enter directly into the artist’s sun-drenched world of horticultural splendor. It is something we do with lingering pleasure.”
Here, then, is a painter who under stands and feels life not as a proletarian amalgam of necessities, but as a capricious, tangled, organic whole filled with a changing light and a wind that, in the words of the Prophet, bloweth where it listeth. Life’s luxuries and complexities—green, yellow, red—redundant as they are, become the art of Colleen Browning, and at that moment we know why we live.