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OBITUARIES | Paul Brach, 1924 - 2007

Painter and founding dean of CalArts' school of art

December 06, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Paul Brach, a painter and founding dean of the school of art at California Institute of the Arts who revolutionized teaching of the discipline by insisting that it reflect what is going on in contemporary art, has died. He was 83.

Brach died of prostate cancer Nov. 16 at his home in East Hampton, N.Y., said Eleanor Flomenhaft, whose New York City gallery exhibits his work.

Steven D. Lavine, president of CalArts in Valencia, credited Brach's leadership from 1969 to 1975 with helping to make CalArts one of the nation's top art schools.

"His influence as an educator is really profound. No art school had really linked its teaching to what artists had been thinking today," Lavine said. "He set it on that course . . . and designed a model of education that is now imitated by other art schools across the country."

According to Times art critic Christopher Knight, "CalArts wouldn't have become the premier art school it is today without Paul Brach. He understood that art school is less about teaching how to make art than about learning what it means to be an artist."

Brach assembled "what is widely considered the most influential art faculty of its time," Bradley Bailey, an art history professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, told Cox News Service last year.

Conceptual artist John Baldessari helped Brach build an "astonishing faculty," Lavine said. It included performance artist Allan Kaprow, critic Max Kozloff, video artist Nam June Paik and Brach's wife, Miriam Schapiro, who co-founded the CalArts feminist art program.

In a free-wheeling atmosphere that encouraged students to think of themselves as artists beginning with their first class, Baldessari taught Post- Studio Art, which covered "all the kind of art you didn't need a studio to deal with," he told the New York Times in 1990.

After serving for two years as the first chairman of the visual arts department at UC San Diego, Brach came to CalArts partly because he could be among Los Angeles artists who were his peers, he said in a 1971 interview for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

"And CalArts seems goofy enough. What really knocked me out was that the makers of 'Mary Poppins' are inadvertently funding something that's going to make 'Easy Rider,' " Brach said in 1971, referring to the Disney money behind the school.

As a painter, Brach was known for his strong use of color. He started out as an Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s and returned to the form over the last decade. He adopted a monochromatic minimalist style in the 1960s and began painting American West landscapes with horses in the 1970s.

An exhibit of his work is scheduled to open Thursday at the Flomenhaft Gallery in New York City.

When Brach left CalArts, he and his wife returned to New York, where he chaired the division of arts at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus. Three years later, he retired to paint full time.

Paul Henry Brach was born March 13, 1924, in New York City to an accountant and his wife, who held a master's degree in literature.

By age 8, Brach rode horses, a pastime he pursued for much of his life. As a teenager, he spent summers working on ranches in Arizona, an experience that influenced his art.

World War II interrupted his studies at the University of Iowa. He spent three years in the Army and served as an infantryman in Europe.

He returned to Iowa and married fellow art student Schapiro in 1946.

After earning a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1948 and a master's in 1950, he taught for two years at the University of Missouri.

Returning to New York in the 1950s, he was part of a group of second-generation Abstract Expressionists that included Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock.

He also helped influential art dealer Leo Castelli start his New York City gallery.

Brach said in the 1971 Smithsonian interview that he "never got rich enough or famous enough" from his painting, and decided to accept that he was "a very good teacher" of art.

In 1967, he moved to La Jolla to build an art department at UC San Diego, which was primarily known for science.

"The situation he developed was very open and very experimental," said David Antin, a UCSD professor emeritus whom Brach hired. "But what I remember most is his genial, charming and witty character."

In addition to his wife, Brach is survived by a son, Peter von Brandenburg, a writer and cultural critic who changed his last name; and a brother, Roger. Both live in New York.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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