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The Woodstock Whirl: Alexander Brook and the Woodstock Art Colony

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

By Bruce Weber

Unknown Photographer

Alexander Brook, c. 1925

Alexander Brook was outgoing, flamboyant, full of energy and ambition. The Woodstock art writer, novelist, editor, woodcarver and woodcarving teacher Ernest Brace remarked that he always looked like “a hungry man about to eat a good dinner.”(1) Brook was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. The son of Russian immigrants, he attended P.S. 64, before his family moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he developed polio, which left him bedridden for a year during which time he decided to become an artist after being given a set of paints to amuse himself. His first art lessons came from a neighborhood man who painted oil copies of family photographs.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Peggy Bacon and Metaphysics, 1935

Sheldon Museum of Art

Brook then briefly attended Pratt Institute in his native borough. From 1914-1919, he studied at the Art Students League of New York where his teachers included Kenneth Hayes Miller, George Bridgman, John C. Johansen and Dimitri Romanovsky. He met Peggy Bacon at the school cafeteria and the two were married in 1920, and divorced in 1940. Brook painted Bacon many times. An essay on Bacon’s art and career appeared in April 2022 in Learning Woodstock Art Colony. At the League Brook became friends with Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Louis Bouché, both of whom also developed deep connections with Woodstock.

Unknown Photographer

Kenneth Hayes Miller Looking

at Paintings, 1939

Gelatin silver print

Kenneth Hayes Miller had a strong influence on Brook. Miller was a major force in American art in the 1920s. He taught at the League for 38 years and impacted many artists who went on to embrace the realist tradition. He was close to Brook, and helped him secure a studio near that of Reginald Marsh on 14th street. Miller was the head of the so-called Fourteenth Street School, which also included Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Raphael Soyer and Edward Laning, all of whom found much of their subjects matter close to the doorstep of their studio’s on Union Square.

Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952)

Fitting Room, 1931

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Miller focused on life in the city, particularly middle class women shopping on 14th Street. He combined traditional methods with more experimental, modern techniques.

As a teacher he demanded that things always be considered in the round – that all forms be seen and realized from every side. He believed that the picture plane or back plane is the point of reference from which all forms grow forward, and that this plane must be preserved by artists at all costs. In his work Miller aimed to achieve structural solidity, balance, order and sculptural form.

Unknown Photographer

Front and Galleries,

Whitney Studio Club,

10 West 8th Street

Whitney Museum

of American Art Archives

Brook was a central figure in the American art world in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1923 he came to the attention of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and that year organized the first exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club as an assistant to Juliana Force, the director of the club, which evolved into the Whitney Museum of American Art. He managed the club’s gallery from December 1923 to May 1927.

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Juliana Force, c. 1931

Gelatin silver print

Brook had a wide acquaintance with young American artists, including a number of Woodstockers, whom he naturally helped bring into the Whitney fold. In her quintessential book on early twentieth century American art, Rebels on Eighth Street, writer, curator and historian of American art Avis Berman has pointed out that Brook “must have introduced many of his [Woodstock] chronies to Juliana,” while likely chafing at the bit over his lack of influence over the choice of exhibitions the club presented.(2)

Brook advertised the virtues of Woodstock to many people, including artists who became attracted to the idea of spending time or moving to the Catskill town. In 1921, publisher and editor Forbes Watson hired Brook to be an associate editor and writer for his influential magazineThe Arts. Brook wrote profiles for the publication on several Woodstock artists, including Bacon, Kuniyoshi, Henry Lee McFee, Robert Winthrop Chanler and Andrew Dasburg. In 1923, he remarked in the periodical that he “did not know of any place in the world where there are more interesting people. . . . All . . . own houses and property and are not likely to move. [Henry Lee[ McFee, [Andrew[ Dasburg, [Konrad] Cramer, [Hervey] White, [Dorothy] Varian, [Paul] Rohland, and [William Murrell] Fisher are extremely fond of Woodstock. . . . I have no doubt that Woodstock will someday be more famous than Barbizon.”(4) Brook proved to be right, not because of the considerable fame of the art colony in the early 20th century, but as a result of the Woodstock Music Festival held in 1969 some fifty miles miles away in Bethel, New York.

Alexander Brook, “The Woodstock Whirl,” The Arts, June 1923

Brook’s article “The Woodstock Whirl,” published in the June 1923 issue of The Arts, includes an accounting of the origins of the Byrdcliffe art colony in Woodstock, the establishment of the summer school of the Art Students League, the creation of the Maverick art colony and Maverick Festival in nearby West Hurley, mention of the summer of 1921 that was spent teaching at the League summer school by George Bellows and his circle (including Robert Henri, Eugene Speicher and Leon Kroll), details about goings on at the Woodstock Artists Association (including the heavy friction that existed in the early 1920s between the conservative and modernist artistic factions), the town’s artist run schools or available private instructors, and a hilarious accounting of a public protest by local artists against government officials from Kingston who forbade swimming in the local creeks, after the nearby city of Kingston either leased or bought up all the banks of all the creeks in Woodstock, and then posted signs to the effect that there would be no bathing allowed.(5) Needless to say, the artists won. Brook’s colorful writings about Woodstock and its artists helped make the colony internationally known.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953)

Peggy Bacon and Alexander Brook, n.d.

Geltin silver print

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

Brook first came to Woodstock in 1919, when he attended the Art Students League’s summer school. He studied outdoor figure painting with Dasburg, but may also have received private instruction from Cramer and McFee. From 1921 to 1923, Bacon and Brook lived full time in Woodstock. After that they came here regularly for the summer through 1926, and often visited through at least the early 1930s. In 1922, Brook’s work was the subject of one of the series of small scale books written and published by William Murrell Fisher, who published under the name William Murrell, and was the first curator of the Woodstock Artists Association.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Cottage on a Hillside, 1935

New York State Museum.

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Laborer’s Hut, by 1922

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Radio Fan, 1922

Mead Art Museum at Amherst College

Brook occasionally painted landscapes of the Catskill area, but his primary interest was in the figure. In the early 1920s Brook executed dark and gloomy paintings such as Laborer’s Hut, and works in the comical spirit of pictures by his close friend Louis Bouché. Radio Fan of 1922 is full of a Dadaistic sense of mockery and humor. The work features a young man lost in listening to the music emanating from a radio, his left leg tapping repetitively in movement. Critics of the period noted the similarity between Brook’s rendering of multiple views of the boy’s leg and the employment of a similar pictorial device implying motion in works by the Italian Futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Girl Reading, 1930s

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Peggy, 1929

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Yvette, 1925

In the 1920s and 1930s, Brook specialized in painting women at secluded moments, reading, dressing, sleeping, standing or lying down in the nude, or half-draped in the act of dressing, with natural light streaming across their backs or shoulders. Under the influence of Jules Pascin, the artist’s works sometimes take on a gently erotic character. At this time he also was inspired by the classical phase of Pablo Picasso.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

The Children’s Lunch, 1928

Art Institute of Chicago

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Katherine Hepburn, 1938

Bette Davis, Life Magazine,

November 20, 1944

In the late 1920s, Brooks’ career reached its high point. His painting The Children’s Lunch won the Logan Purchase Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition of American Art, and the Whitney published a book on his art authored by The New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell. It was one of a series of twenty-one illustrated publications the Whitney put out during the period on living American artists, In the 1930s and 1940s, Brook spent time in Hollywood, where he painted portraits of such leading actresses as Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. The portrait of Hepburn makes a cameo appearance in the film Woman of the Year.

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Black and White, 1941

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Alexander Brook (1898-1980)

Georgia Jungle, 1939

Georgia Museum of Art

From about 1938 to 1948, Brooks split his time between Savannah, Georgia and New York City. He lived in Savannah in an abandoned warehouse at Factors Walk just off the riverfront, formerly utilized by cotton brokers, and painted scenes of the poor and humble people he encountered in the city's less afluent neighborhoods, including in the Yamacraw district. He often included children in his Georgia paintings. The local children congregated at his studio and brought him cakes and pies from home. Brook’s painting Georgia Jungle won first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition of 1939. From 1944 to 1948, his studio became a gathering place for artists, including artists he knew in the north, among them Andree Ruellan, John W. Taylor, and Louis Bouche, with whom he associated in Woodstock.

Peter A. Juley and Son

Alexander Brook, c. 1940

Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1948, Brook settled in Sag Harbor, Long Island. During the course of the following decade he withdrew from the art world, and became morose over the rise of Absract Expressionism. Following his death in 1980, Brook’s work returned to public attention with exhibitions at Salander O’Reilly Galleries in New York City and the Parish Art Museum in Long Island. Brook is one of a number of artists working in the realist tradition who had a key place in Woodstock in the art colony’s golden era of the 1920s, whose art has not been the focus of recent study or major public interest, who are deserving of renewed attention.

(2) Brooks is “quoted in Jeanette Love, “Brook: No Interference,” Art News 47 (June 1947): 35.

(2) Avis Berman, Rebels on Eighth Street (New York: Atheneum, 1990), p. 230.

(3) Alexander Brook, “The Woodstock Whirl,” The Arts 3 (June 1923): 420.

(4) Ibid., p. 415.

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