James Edward Brewton (1930-1967)
He was born on Nov. 4, 1930, in Toledo, Ohio and died in Philadelphia at age 36, on May 11, 1967. At the time of his death, Brewton was beginning to distinguish himself as one of Philadelphia’s premier painters and printmakers.
While in his teens, Brewton studied drawing at the Toledo Museum of Art and painting with John Charvet. At 21, Brewton joined the Marines and served in Korea. He did surprisingly well, climbing to the rank of sergeant. Combat changed him, however: He became a pacifist, protesting the Vietnam War and painting antiwar works. Brewton’s health was wrecked, and he was increasingly plagued by the spinal problems that would lead to his suicide.
While Brewton is known for portraits, prints and his abstract, graffiti-inspired paintings, his training was traditional. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he studied at the Ruskin School at Oxford in 1954-55 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1955 through 1958. At PAFA, Brewton was a protegé of Franklin Watkins and Hobson Pittman. Pittman owned a self-portrait by Brewton, which he featured during tours of his art collection (like the one organized by the Radcliffe Club of Philadelphia in 1961) and exhibited in the show, “Paintings, Drawings, Prints, and Sculpture Collected and Owned by Fourteen Philadelphia Artists.”
Marcel Duchamp was a guest lecturer at PAFA, and Brewton riffed off of Duchamp’s work throughout his life. At The Print Club, where Brewton worked on weekends, he first saw the work of Asger Jorn and was bowled over by the wildly expressive and colorful work of the CoBrA group. He later befriended Jorn, living in Denmark for months at a time. Other strong influences were André Breton and Alfred Jarry. These European, avant-garde inspirations were extremely unusual for a Philadelphia-based artist in the 1950s.
Brewton’s work won awards and prizes, and he was championed by critic Dorothy Grafly while he was still a student. “Mr. Brewton’s career was launched dramatically,” ran his obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1967, “when his canvas The Suicide of Judas won the prestigious $1000 Scheidt prize …. the tall ex-marine sergeant, a veteran of the Korean war, thus captured—at the very early age of 28—the same award William Glackens, Stuart Davis, Hans Hoffman, Ivan Albright and Charles Burchfield had earned in their maturity.”
Fellow artists who recognized Brewton’s talent include Asger Jorn, Jim McWilliams, Daniel Miller, Erik Nyholm, Elizabeth Osborne, Graham Sutherland, Claire Van Vliet and others. From his base in Philadelphia, Brewton traveled whenever he could, to Spain, France, England and Denmark. In early 1964, Brewton lent several works he owned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Asger Jorn exhibition.
Rather than teaching, Brewton lived in poverty, taking part-time manual jobs and concentrating on painting and printmaking. One former employer remembers ordering a sumptuous display of paint samples for his store so Brewton could take the paints home. “In return, he gave me a copy of The Pataphysics Times, one of his prints.”
In the last years of his life, Brewton was represented by Harry Kulkowitz’s Kenmore Galleries, on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. His prints were selling well, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a half-dozen in its permanent collection. From his colorful, CoBrA-inspired phase, Brewton had progressed to muted, wall-like pieces incorporating graffiti. By 1965, the works had evolved into a synthesis of graffiti (“anonymous and therefore for all mankind”) and Alfred Jarry’s philosophy of Pataphysics. Brewton called these works Graffiti Pataphysic and also continued to paint uncannily perceptive portraits.
By the time he died in 1967, Brewton had “had several one-man shows, and museum curators were beginning to exhibit interest,” as Nessa Forman wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There was an artist,” Forman continued, “who was ahead of his time, who was brilliant, sensitive and nonviolent, who loved his art and just wanted to paint. And he committed suicide….”
Four days after his death, Brewton’s work was shown at the Socrates Perakis gallery in Philadelphia, along with that of Jim McWilliams, Thomas Chimes and sculptor Paul Anthony Greenwood. “Artist’s Suicide Gives Tragic Overtone to Exhibit,” ran the headline for Dorothy Grafly’s review.
A year later, a memorial show was held at the Peale Galleries at PAFA. Hobson Pittman wrote for the catalogue, “A truly gifted artist. … Jim Brewton, from his earliest work, gave evidence of a peculiar and constant search for the nebulous and metaphysical symbol. … His standard of judgement was … innate, as it is with genuinely endowed artists. His deep understanding of aesthetics was evident in everything he did.”
In 1971, Harry Kulkowitz held a memorial show, co-curated by Mrs. Ronald Weingrad, at his Kenmore Galleries. Proceeds funded a scholarship at PAFA. Brewton’s works have not been shown publicly since then.
In 2008 the James Edward Brewton Foundation, Inc., was formed as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. Its mission is to locate, catalogue, conserve and promote Brewton’s works.
Selected Solo Exhibitons:
1964 Makler Gallery, Philadelphia
1965 Kenmore Galleries, Philadelphia
‘The American Dream-Girl: Graffiti Pataphysic’ Galerie AP, Copenhagen
1968 Peale Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)
1971 ‘Graffiti Pataphysic,’ Kenmore Galleries, Philadelphia
Selected Group Exhibitions:
1957 26th Annual Exhibition of Young Philadelphia Artists, Friends Central School, Philadelphia
1958 Philadelphia Water Color Club (prize, for “The Deposition”)
1958-1967: Annual Exhibitions of Painting & Sculpture, PAFA
1959 2nd Biennial, Detroit Institute of Arts (prize; show traveled to PAFA’s 155th Annual Exhibition)
45th Annual Exhibition, Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts (prize, for The Suicide of Judas)
46th Annual Exhibition, oils & sculpture, Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, oils & sculpture (honorable mention, Une Saison En Enfer)
1967 Socrates Perakis Gallery, Philadelphia
Unknown dates: “Paintings, Drawings, Prints, and Sculpture Collected and Owned by Fourteen Philadelphia Artists” (Brewton self-portrait, shown by Hobson Pittman)
Two group shows at the Makler Gallery, Philadelphia
1958 Special Travel Award, PAFA
Philadelphia Water Color Prize, 154th Annual
1959 Scheidt Memorial Prize, PAFA
155th Annual Watercolor Prize, PAFA/Detroit Institute of Arts
45th Annual Exhibition prize, Wilmington Society of Fine Arts
46th Annual Exhibition (oils & sculpture), Honorable Mention, Wilmington Society of Fine Arts
Friends Central School
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Private collections in Canada, Denmark. France, U.K. and U.S.A.
Andersen, Troels, Asger Jorn: En biografi (Kopenhagen 1994) 2 vols. Translated in German Asger Jorn: Eine Biographie 1914-1973 (Walther König: Köln 2001)
Falk, Peter Hastiings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America, 3 vols. (Sound View Press 1999)
Canaday, John: Review of American Biennial, The New York Times (with photo of Brewton’s The Suicide of Judas) Nov. 29, 1959
Grafly, Dorothy: “American Art – Whither?” Art in Focus (with cover photo of Brewton’s The Suicide of Judas) Vol. 11, No. 5, February 1960
Photo caption (Hobson Pittman with Brewton’s self-portrait), Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, March 29, 1961
“Broget kunstnerkoloni samlet i Funder,” Aarhuus (Denmark) Stiftstidende Sondag, July 15, 1963
Donohoe, Victoria: Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 31, 1965
Grafly, Dorothy: “Artist’s Suicide Gives Tragic Overtone to Exhibit,” Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, May 28, 1967
“James Brewton, Posthumously,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 1967
“Peale House Exhibit Opens, Draws 2,000,” Frankford’s Bulletin, Feb. 14, 1968
Grafly, Dorothy: “An Image, a Thought, a Scene…” Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, March 10, 1968
Donohoe, Victoria: “A Flurry of Solos,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1968
Donohoe, Victoria: “The Explorations of James Brewton,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 1971
Forman, Nessa: “Now That He’s Dead – Has His Time Come?” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1971
Information provided by the artist's daughter