COLLEEN BROWNING b. 1929
Oil on plywood, 14 X 32 1/2" (35.56 x 82.55 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 955-0-107
Although a major American realist of the latter half of the twentieth century, Colleen Browning was born in Cregg, County Cork, Ireland. From earliest years, she hoped to be a painter. In due course, Browning attended London's Slade School of Art from 1946 to 1948. Her marriage to the English novelist Geoffrey Wagner in 1949 first brought her to the United States. The following year, the couple settled in New York where Browning taught at City university. Early in her career, Browning's talents were recognized and honored. In the 1950s, she began showing at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery in New York and since then has won numerous annual exhibition awards, from the Rochester Memorial Art Museum to the Carnegie International. Her work was included in the National Academy of Design's yearly exhibitions, and she has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Kennedy Galleries in New York. She was elected a National Academician in 1966, and has served as an officer at the Academy.
Browning's distinctive brand of figurative painting, with subjects ranging from eerie worshipers in a Guatemalan church to graffiti- covered Harlem subway cars to the surrealist still life Fruits and Friends (1978, Harmon-Meek Galleries, Naples, Fl.), displays definite affinities with both the Social Realism of Jack Levine and the "magic realism" of Philip Evergood and George Tooker. Nevertheless, Browning developed and maintains a wry, multi-hued personal stamp to her painting which for almost four decades has set it apart from prevailing fashion. "I have tried to evoke the magical from reality by an accurate visual reconstruction of the facts, so that the viewer can share my aesthetic shock in unexpected revelations.'13 Surely no Browning canvas fills this bill as completely as her early work, Telephones, which won Honorable Mention at the Butler institute's 20th National Midyear Exhibition in 1954.
Telephones is a tragicomic study in urban energy and rootlessness. The then purely Manhattan phenomenon of a six-booth row of pay phones must have both delighted and mystified Browning-- only four years a resident of New York when she painted it. The canvas is relatively small, but into it Browning has managed to fit "six phoners in search of an answer" in surprisingly unclaustrophobic fashion. The composition is basic, the booths establishing six strong vertical rectangles, some with doors folded perilously inward, some with doors ajar, all creating a fascinating visual counterpoint to the more rounded, amorphous forms of human beings catching up on their calls. The figures, through Browning's acute sense of human drama, catch and hold our attention, isolated yet drawn together by these six booths, which one critic of the day referred to as "part confessional, part coffin." Individual poses are artfully, informally juxtaposed: a dressy woman in green with orange purse and fancy yellow gloves leads off the unpassing parade to the far left; a woman with tightly curled, orangey hair and low-cut summer dress is seen next to her, full figure. The next of the callers is a natty man in spotless white shirt and lemon yellow pants, writing something down on the phone counter, an umbrella propped up against the glass door. The next two figures are a teenager in modish silk team jacket and jeans, feet crossed, hand on hip-we get the sense of a romantic date being made-and hip as can be; and a haute-1950s woman, back to us, with a long ponytail down her back, her little girl struggling to open the door. The figure to the far right is the narrative kicker to the opus: a nondescript, yet somehow elegant, woman in a pink blouse and blue skirt, her head turned away from us to the right as if she were seeing the approach of the person she meant to call.
Narrative is the key to this painting; there is narrative implied here-in fact, six separate narratives-but the viewer simply is not let in on the profundities and prolixities of the one-sided human exchanges taking place. In Telephones, Colleen Browning found a telling metaphor for city existence: noiseless, wordless, sound and fury, signifying nothing we can define, but all the more revelatory for that.