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JONATHAN BRAGDON
 
 
Sight in Action von Dorothée Brill
Drawing..... von Friedrich W. Block

After winning national awards as a science student, finishing high school early and gaining admission to Johns Hopkins University to study micro-biology, Bragdon was persuaded by Swiss relatives to live with them for a year in the mountains above the Rhone valley, and grow up a bit more. His uncle picked him up from the “The Seven Seas” in Le Havre , in September, 1961, and on the way back to Switzerland they stopped in Paris for a few days, spending a day in the Louvre and a day in the Jeux de Paumes, which then housed the national collection of Impressionist paintings. This overwhelming experience left a growing doubt in him as to whether the scientific method was what he needed to know the things he wanted to know.

Soon after the start of his Swiss sojourn, Bragdon paid the first of many visits to the collection of the Paul Klee Foundation in Bern , and Klees’s Pädagogische Skizzenbuch and the traditional Chinese panting handbook The Mustard Seed Garden became his companions. In visits to Zurich and Basel , he found Mark Tobey’s work and began to spend most of his time drawing. Within a year it seemed clear to him that everything of the greatest importance in life past through the explanations of science like water through a net, but that some of it was caught by art work, even by his own drawings. The idea of becoming an artist, though, disturbed him, and to buy time he took a job tutoring chemistry in a private school in Villars sur Ollon, in the winter of 1962 to’63.

In boundless näiveté, Bragdon decided to study at the Academy in Strasbourg , where he arrived after a summer of touring the museums and concert halls of Europe with his five year older, mathematician brother. In Strasbourg, he matriculated at the University, in l’Institut d’Études de Francais Modern, and began attending what is now named the École Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, which he left after three weeks of repeated attacks of hyperventilation (not then fashionable). A visiting professor, Biagio Frisa, living in Ulm , offered to give him private drawing lessons, which continued bi-weekly until Bragdon’s departure for Lausanne in the early summer of 1965. He drew primarily with steel pen and brush in coloured and Chinese inks on folio-sized sheets of paper, out of a suit-case sized studio. While dutifully passing the exams at the l’Institut, he also audited every available course in Art History and Philosophy, spending his social life at the Café Minotaur, the hang out of Maoists and Trotskyites. These ardent revolutionaries seemed to like him, saying that it was very sad that come the revolution, he would have to be shot.

In 1965, Bragdon joined the art therapy training at the École d’Études Sociales et Pedagogiques, in Lausanne , after a summer practicum at L’Hôpital Psychiatrique de Malèvoz, and followed through the summer of 1967, when the sell-out of his first solo show at the Schuster Gallery, Cambridge Massachusetts , in September, 1967, lured him into a naked existence as an artist.

Thinking he should experience the avant-garde first hand, Bragdon moved with his small pot of earnings to New York City , at the suggestion of a buyer of his drawings, Gus Solomons , who worked with Merce Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham made him feel welcome at the dance studio. Watching and listening to rehearsals, he found himself talking to Jasper Johns, who took the trouble to comment on his drawings. These contacts helped him identify the heresy of his own belief that the qualities of things were real perceptions and still vital to art, in other words, that there is an inseparable symbiosis between the mind and the everyday world and the values we sense there.

In December, 1967, Bragdon moved to London , England , where more radical things were afoot. After five weeks of residence in R.D.Laing’s community at Kingsley Hall, he moved to a tiny room on Shepherds Market, and joined the group of artists and social sculptors working at the Arts Laboratory on Drury Lane , who considered Pop Art, Cunningham, and Krapow as being all hopelessly compromised by old ideas. The first time he walked in with a portfolio, he was laughed at and denounced before the strings were untied. He continued to draw in secret. At the Arts Lab he set up a project of his own, The Information Lab for biographical deconstruction, in which a guest attempted to tell his or her life story was constantly interrupted by sceptical questions from the audience. Reporting daily to work, he was involved modestly in a variety of Arts Lab activities, both in planning and production, the most chic of which was The Alchemical Wedding, a ‘happening’ staged in the Royal Albert Hall and starring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for whom he was the chaperone for the evening.

After receiving a draft notice in 1969, Bragdon returned to the USA to register as a pacifist. To his surprise, his registration was accepted, and he took a job as an art therapist in the Concord Community Mental Health Service, and then later, at the McLean psychiatric hospital, associated with Harvard medical school. Four years of experiments in developing an art therapy that used forms of ordinary activity in the daily life of institutionalized patients, in which he drew on his Art Lab experience, led to a decision to return to the focus of making brush and pen drawings. In transition, he attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst , from which he graduated in 1975, convinced that the art world’s ‘permanent revolution’ had early on become permanent self-promotion, without much purpose beyond survival. The intractable problem of modern life was untouched, the inability of quantity and calculation to make sense of personal experience.

Moving to the Netherlands in 1979, after exhibitions in Amsterdam and the Hague and a marriage, Bragdon settled permanently, soon anchored by children. During the 1980’s, Ad Petersen acquired several of his drawings for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam . A relation with the Wetering Gallery, begun in 1976, ended in 1989, while he reconsidered the direction in which he was working. In 1987, he imagined and wrote about exhibitions of single paintings, and by 1988 had begun the Single Art Work project (SAW) in the old Appel space on the Brouwersgracht, as offered by Petersen. Bragdon would invite a few people to spend a long evening eating and drinking in the company of one painting (or similar art object), so that over time and conversation and an accumulation of looks, the painting might become a body of experience and something more than an idea nursed from a glimpse and a catalogue text. For him, this was also a chance to observe more closely the nature of the life-form a painting was.

More than 25 Single Art Work exhibitions have been held since the first with Marlene Dumas in Amsterdam . The latest has been held in Nürnberg, with Raimer Jochims, in the Kunstbunker, at the invitation of the Forum für Zeitgenössiche Kunst. Bragdon reported on the SAW project in various Dutch publications and in a symposium at the University of Kassel , in the context of documenta IX, 1992.

In 1987, Bragdon centred his work in the complex experience of sight in action, when perception is still rooted in its objective sources. For encouragement, he named this change of direction “About-face”, and he drew people in cafés and on buses and trains, but soon discovered that his greatest challenge was landscape, not a rare undisturbed Nature, but simply the view outwards without the comfort of human buildings or faces.

The first solo exhibition of Bragdon’s drawings, after “About-face”, was at the Grafisch Atelier ‘t Gooi, Hilversum , in 2000, followed by another at the Kunsttempel. Kassel , i and June, 2002, as part of the “Stadtprogramm im documenta-jahr 2002” . At its close, a “Brain Storm” and feast, with visitors from Stuttgart , Berlin , and Rotterdam was held from late afternoon to early morning, and here he gathered ample evidence of a fashionable rejection of real existence for things, especially art objects and persons. There was only the process in between. Yet for him, the perceiver and the thing perceived still existed in a way that could be neither completely de-constructed or measured.

The Kassel exhibition led to an invitation to the Gongju International Art Festival in 2005, South Korea . After the opening, Bragdon left for two weeks of drawing in the Chiak and Bukhan mountains, with two delightful days in the company of Professor Baek, a landscape artist in the Chinese Zen (realist) tradition. At the end, joined by the Professor’s favourite student, they held a celebratory Single Art Work exhibition, eating chicken stew and drinking rice wine, seated on a boulder in a stream below the mountain on which they had been hiking. A drawing by the Professor was propped up beside them.

In 2006, Bragdon exhibited drawings from Korea and the Kennemer dunes at the Phoebus Gallery, in Rotterdam, thanks to Mirjam de Winter, who had never lost sight of his work over the years. Going on a Spring vacation to Berlin with his wife, on the hunch of his good friend Christine Koenigs, he took along a portfolio of recent drawings, and brought them to Aurel Scheibler. Aurel was brisk, having a lot to do, but then spent a good hour looking, and in the end had a couple of the drawings framed and took them to Basel Art. In September, of 2008, Bragdon had his first solo exhibition in Berlin, in the Aurel Scheibler Gallery, at the Witzlebenplatz.
Bragdon had thought it was a pleasantry, when Aurel spoke of nominating his drawings for the ‘New Positions’ selection at Cologne Art, in 2009. As it was, his work was selected, and the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung headlined its article about the ‘New Positions’ selection, as “Nicht nur Jugend zählt (Not only Youth Counts)”.

Jonathan Bragdon
Amsterdam, February 17, 2010