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In the Studio: Frederick Brosen

by Allison Malafronte

Frederick Brosen in his New York City studio.  

Visual moments that catch a discerning artist’s eye abound in New York City, but it’s rare to be able to behold a moment of beauty at length. The city’s frenetic pace and continual forward motion simply don’t allow one to stop and stare—at least in the main squares and tourist parts of town. However, through the intricate watercolors of Frederick Brosen, a native New Yorker who has lived and work in the city for more than sixty years, we are able to slow down and see a softer, more intimate side of the storied neighborhoods and classic architecture that comprise this centuries-old metropolis. 

Exploring Manhattan by bike in the early-morning hours—when the usual hustle and bustle quiets down to an almost sacred hush—Brosen regularly gathers reference for subject matter in an approach he first learned from Eugène Atget, the photo-documenter of pre-modern Paris. Noticing nuanced nooks and crannies not usually seen, Brosen captures such views as a rainy Broadway street miles away from its usual bright lights, double-door brownstones with their original ornate edifices and entryways, Coney Island’s vintage Cyclone roller coaster uninhabited at dawn, and humble stone structures that stand in stark contrast to their sky-rise neighbors.

Brosen’s recent solo exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern showed several of these New York and Brooklyn scenes, and in this Q+A the artist shares his thoughts on his process for creating them, his ongoing gallery relationships, what it was like to study at the Arts Students League in the 1970s, his greatest mentors, and more.

East 11th Street, 2011, watercolor over graphite on paper, 18 x 12 in., private collection.  

AM: You are a native New Yorker and have been painting the streets and scenes of Manhattan (and Brooklyn) for several decades. As an artist and observer, what would you say has been the biggest visual change to the city you’ve seen over that time? 

Grand Street and Broadway, 2019, watercolor over graphite on paper, 45 1/4 x 32 in., courtesy Hirschl and Adler Modern (New York City).FB: Needless to say, the architectural environment I grew up with has been dramatically, shockingly, altered in my lifetime. Incongruous and largely undistinguished glass behemoths have come to define our skyline; the notable surviving remnants of older neighborhoods have been saved through land-marking, or benign neglect. More difficult to ferret out are the pockets where everyday New York—from the doorways and cornices to firehouses to Coney Island—still function as living neighborhoods. They represent an expressive sense of time and continuity and are what I seek as subject matter.

AM: Besides painting or searching for subject matter in the early morning, what other approaches have led you to discover an unfamiliar or not commonly known side of the city?

FB: It was the great Eugène Atget, and later Bernice Abbot, who taught me the M.O. of how to collect material. Atget would go out before dawn and set up his big box camera and wait for the first light to take his prolonged exposure views of Old Paris. Later, Abbot (who had met Atget in Paris) did the same for New York when she worked for the W.P.A. 

I ride my bike at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., sketching and photographing the empty streets. [It's] quite a trip to ride down the center of Fifth Avenue at 5 a.m., when the built environment speaks directly and unfiltered to you. You can meander down a street you may never have observed closely before and still make those small personal discoveries that make the city feel alive.

AM: You studied at the Arts Students League of New York in the 1970s and have been an instructor there for the last fifteen years. Who were your teachers in the 1970s, and what was the approach and mindset at that time regarding traditional painting? Have how you seen the mindset on realism at ASL change between then and now?

FB: Ah, the ‘70s! I first studied there around a full half-century ago, with an artist named Earl Mayan. In the later ‘70s I did etching at night with Seong Moy, and we were a merry group. It was a friendly and loose time, and we stayed well into the wee hours. Sometimes Moy brought in his wok, and we would all pitch in and share a late dinner. These experiences taught me an approach to teaching that I have never lost: we learn, as children AND adults, through play. Doing art is a wonderful way adults play, and it should be an exciting and enjoyable experience expanding what you see and can do. Playing, by the way, does not mean not working hard. It means enjoying the hard work of creating art.

West 10th Street, Coney Island, 2018, watercolor over graphite on paper, 34 3/4 x 25 in., courtesy Hirschl and Adler Modern (New York City).

The ASL offers a unique range of autonomous ateliers; each instructor teaches what he or she knows, in his or her own way. No matter what your passion, you can find a sympatico studio and teacher to study with. This is what makes it a unique school: there is no one approach. The League is a fluid experience, with no orthodoxy.

Traditionally, the ASL has had a leaning toward realism, and I would say over half the courses reflect that. But many accomplished abstract, even non-objective artists are instructors, in all media. Learning to draw, by the way, and draw well, is still a core requirement for an artist no matter what style you eventually develop. [There is] only gain, no loss, from acquiring those skills, I think we all agree.             

AM: Were you always drawn to the medium of watercolor, or were you working in oil during your student years and other parts of your career? What made you reach for watercolor as medium (which is usually associated with looser washes and a quicker process) rather than oil for your highly detailed urban scenes?

FB: I was working in oil as well as etching for several years before completing my first series of watercolors of my Brooklyn neighborhood for my M.F.A. Thesis Show at Pratt Institute. Something clicked for me. I had inherited a love of architecture from my father, and I had been drawing obsessively since I was a small child. Watercolor seemed like a natural extension; instead of finding it an especially difficult medium, I had an intuitive comfort with it. 

I learned technique primarily through the study of the early English watercolorists, who perfected watercolor as an expressive medium rather than just a topographical recorder. Turner, of course, but also Cotman, Bonington, Girtin, as well as Victorian Era artists such as the Pre-Raphaelite Henry Roderick Newman and Rudolf von Alt. Building up transparent washes over an underpinning of excellent draftsmanship is a beautiful and complementary way of painting, and one I have tried to emulate. 

AM: What is your process in terms of compositional sketches, photo or on-site reference, and working in the studio to create these works? 

West 74th Street, 2019, watercolor over graphite on paper, 35 x 23 1/2 in., courtesy Hirschl and Adler Modern (New York City).FB: When I was younger I worked on on-site studies as a regular part of my process and used photography less. Now I take many series of photos, in different weather and times of day, and combine elements from several directly in the underdrawing. I simplify by removing most vehicles and pedestrians, as well as signage, and particularly the scaffolding epidemic. I often move things or make other changes as well. I try to impose my sense of design onto a scene, to express the unique sense of beauty that made me want to paint it.

My recent painting West 74th Street is a good example. Done from a dozen photographs taken over a decade, the street level is shrouded in construction and scaffolding in real life. I had to design the entire lower street and eliminate dozens of large vehicles. Older photos combined with more recent helped, and what I couldn’t see, I made up (like the phone booth sign with my signature and a bottle of bubbly).

AM: You not only paint New York neighborhoods but also other metropolises such as Rome, Florence, and Paris. What are the narrative qualities of a neighborhood or the elements contributing to a sense of place that compel you to paint it? 

FB: Some of my most gratifying moments are the early-morning long strolls I take when abroad—voyages of discovery, really. Walking with my antennae out and letting a place speak for itself. Reverie is a lovely word that is not valued enough! After New York City, the city I have painted most frequently is Paris. Although countless areas of beauty abound in this city, my favorite is the Marais. How can a place look more beautiful in the rain than in the sun? The layered surfaces of Rome, its depth and palimpsest, speak for themselves. To paint Rome is to share the same forms centuries of artists have painted. Finding a unique voice there is a huge challenge, but a great one!

Rooftops St. Severin, 2001, watercolor over graphite on paper, 35 x 21 in., private collection.  Rue Jacques Callot, 2003, watercolor over graphite on paper, 44 x 25 in., private collection.

AM: You have been a professional artist for many years and have maintained a consistent and successful practice. What does your weekly routine look like in terms of the number of hours spent in the studio, the number of hours devoted to the business of art, etc? Do you have anyone helping you with the business side of things, or have you always handled that aspect as well?

West 76th Street, 2014, watercolor over graphite on paper, 33 1/2 x 23 in., courtesy Hirschl and Adler Modern (New York City).FB: I came into the art world on the now 'Old School' model: evolve your technique and subject, be productive, and find a good gallery and have a solo show every two to three years, with a catalogue and a festive opening. Sell some work, take a bow, and head back to the studio to create a new body of work. I was very fortunate to have found excellent galleries to work with: Staempfli in the ‘80s, Forum Gallery from the ‘90s into the aughts, and for the last fifteen years Hirschl & Adler Modern. 

But art fairs, pop-ups, and Instagram have altered this model. Gallery representation is still very important, but young artists (and older ones) are approaching art as a career in much more diversified way—myself included.

I am a creature of habit: up at 5 a.m. seven days a week; work until between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m.; take a long break, including a short nap after the gym. I teach privately as well as my regular class at the Arts Students League, so my time is somewhat divided.

AM: You recently had a solo exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Gallery and, as you  mentioned, you have been with them for fifteen years. What is your advice on staying with a gallery for the long haul—and is that even possible any longer for younger artists? 

FB: I personally have come to prize the long-term, mutually respectful relationship I enjoy with Hirschl & Adler. Developing this kind of affiliation takes time and flexibility; as circumstances change, so too can your mutual agreements. There has been much attrition in the gallery world and therefore less options in terms of gallery representation. Many dealers now have lessened the number of their gallery shows and focus more on art fairs. Some excellent dealers have forsaken brick-and-mortar spaces altogether to focus solely on art fairs. And with so much empty storefront space now in New York City, short-term rentals make pop-ups increasingly viable. Many fine artists are exhibiting that way.

AM: Who have been some of your top mentors in your professional life? 

FB: Jacob Rothenberg, my CCNY art-history teacher, who instilled in me a passion for art history. Manuel Hughes, my Pratt M.F.A. independent projects instructor, who taught me how to live as an artist: develop your technique, discover your subject, and be productive. 

Central Park West at 106th Street, 2017, watercolor over graphite on paper, 10 x 9 in., private collection.

AM: Your artwork has been acquired for several prominent museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did those acquisitions originate?

FB: My watercolors are indeed in the permanent collection of several museums across the country. Some were acquired directly by the museum. In other cases, there was a collector who provided a percentage of the purchase price, which the museum would match. In other cases, a collector contributed the full price to the acquisition funds of a museum. Most recently, a major collector who was liquidating his collection donated five of my large works directly to three different museums. Finally, an artist can approach an institution with a direct donation, preferably by contacting the appropriate curator. So there are various ways works can get in to museum collections.