Dorothy Browdy Kushner
Color, light and place were paramount. The dramatic landscape of Southern California, where she produced most of her paintings, prints, and sculpture from the 1940s through 1990s, was a continual source of inspiration. Building on her formal artistic training in New York and the Midwest, her greatest achievement was her synthesis of Modernism with the local subjects and visual character of her environment. Dorothy Ruth Browdy was born in 1909 to Russian immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, the eldest of five children. She became interested in art after winning first prize at a state high school competition. In 1928, after attending Kansas City Teachers College and starting a job as an elementary school teacher, Browdy continued at the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied with Thomas Hart Benton. During summer vacations, she traveled with her sister Esther Browdy (Selikoff), also a teacher and an artist. They took painting road trips to New Mexico, California, and Mexico, where they saw first-hand both pre-Colombian monuments and the frescoes then being painted by the Mexican muralists. Other summers, Browdy studied at the Chicago Art Institute, the University of Wisconsin, and New York’s Art Students League, where she worked with Reginald Marsh.
In 1937-38, Browdy moved to New York City to pursue a Masters Degree in Education at Columbia University Teachers College. She returned to Kansas City and taught high school for two more years before moving to New York and taking a job teaching High School in Queens. During this time she painted a variety of figurative compositions and watercolor cityscapes influenced by the Ashcan school, and produced Art Deco-inspired graphic design and children’s book illustrations.
In 1946 Browdy married Joseph Kushner and moved to Altadena, California, where she gave birth to their son, Robert. This change of scenery and lifestyle precipitated the most significant change in her work. Living for the first time outside of an urban setting, the artist was taken by the physical beauty of her new environment. She began experimenting with modernist styles to paint this light-infused world, and in the subsequent decades created her largest body of work.
On moving to California, Kushner studied with some of the watercolorists, such as James Couper Wright who specialized in a large scale, free and open expression of the technique. However, in frequent visits to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art) Kushner also became interested in its significant collection of German Expressionist paintings and prints. In particular, Lyonel Feininger’s geometricized approach to landscape and cityscape prompted her to move away from realism and to focus instead on a full fledged Modernism that resulted in a series she referred to as Prismatics. The Museum also introduced her to the works of Alexej Jawlensky and Emile Nold, and held an Erst Ludwig Kirchner retrospective which awakened her to expressive power of color. She spent the rest of her career pursuing an individual sense of coloristic exploration, and from then on always considered herself a colorist.
Around 1951 the family moved to Arcadia, to a chicken ranch with many outbuildings and gardens. One of the barns became a spacious painting studio as well as a gathering place for Kushner’s artist friends. A community developed as she and sixteen other progressive women painters and writers gathered every month to critique on another’s work. Referring to themselves as “The Group,” they met at each other’s studios from around 1955 to 1972. Kushner also found inspiration on the ranch, and painted its landscapes and chickens into her Prismatic Series, which most clearly shows her affinity for Feininger and the Expressionists.
In the early 1950s, Kushner studied with the Abstract Expressionist Richards Rubin, a recent New York transplant and student of Hans Hofmann. Under his influence, she developed her own variation of abstraction using Hofmann’s approaches to composition and brushwork, and adapting them to a more intimate scale and personal subject matter. Because of allergies to oil paint solvents, she painted with casein and ultimately acrylic paint on paper, board, and canvas. She also made many prints during this period, concentrating on woodcuts combined with linocut.
As painting became the central activity of her life, Kushner became ever more inventive. Her work moved through a series of landscape-derived abstractions into nearly totally abstract paintings of rock formations. From there she progressed into angular, closely focused floral and still life compositions, which became more painterly with time. Although her work often approached completely non-objective abstraction in appearance, she never fully abandoned referential subject matter.\
Kushner exhibited frequently with art associations in which she was an active member and occasionally a juror or an officer. These included the Los Angeles Art Association, Pasadena Society of Artists, California Water Color Society, and the American Color Print Society. During the late 1960s, she taught painting and drawing at Pasadena City College, Rio Hondo College in Whittier, CA and Citrus College in Glendora, CA.
She came to admire Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings. She was acquainted with Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg and other prominent California progressive painters through the Los Angeles Art Association. But their form of hard edge abstraction was not compatible with her artistic temperament. She also knew and respected June Wayne and Bettye Saar. To keep up with the newest trends, she followed exhibitions at the galleries that centered around La Cienega Boulevard (she saw and was understandably shocked by Andy Warhol’s notorious show of Soup Cans in 1962), as well as the shows at LACMA and the PasadenaMuseum.
Kushner moved from Arcadia to smaller quarters in Costa Mesa in 1972 and became active in the art scene in Orange County. Continuing to paint daily in the living room and backyard, she began to place a greater emphasis on landscape and floral subject matter, maintaining her interest in surface texture and complex color harmonies. This period culminated in a series of multi-paneled compositions through which she was able to experiment with an increased scale for her landscapes. Following Joseph’s death in 1980, Kushner moved to Santa Monica. She continued to paint on a smaller scale, inspired by the view of trees outside her apartment window, as well as by landscape scenes from memory. Dorothy Browdy Kushner died in New York City in 2000.