To watch Daniel Brush in action at his New York studio is to see a man consumed with the sheer joy and adventure of creating art.
"Why do I do this work?" he asks while melting gold. "I work with it because I don't understand it. I work with it because I like the purple glow that comes off of this when it gets hot...I work with it because I dream about all the people that maybe three or four thousand years ago found the same thing. It all starts this way...It all starts with me looking at the gold and the gold saying...do!"
What Daniel Brush has done with the gold is on view in his one-man show at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. It traces Brush's work over 25 years, from Etruscan-inspired jeweled pieces to playful objects like a fossil ivory and gold yo-yo or a Bakelite rabbit studded with pink diamonds. There are gold mosaic boxes and small abstract sculptures of gold and steel - as mysterious as landscapes from an imaginary planet.
Jeremy Adamson is the curator of the Renwick Gallery: "You enter into a kind of connectedness with an object - a mysterious quality to it, a notion that it almost sort of opens up a kind of experience which you normally don't have with a thing."
Among the most spectacular works are domes of polished steel and gold composed of as many as 78,000 minuscule granules.
Says Adamson: "Each of those little granules is 0.0028th of an inch in diameter. Minuscule. Almost microscopic. And in order to place them in perfect regularity and logical precision he uses a two-hair sable brush."
And if, as you look at these wondrous works, you are asking yourself, "Why haven't I ever heard of Daniel Brush?" well, there's a simple answer. Brush has been a recluse for more than a quarter of a century. Admittedly and happily eccentric, he spent most of his time in his New York studio reading poetry with his wife, Olivia, who's also an artist. He studied Asian philosophy. And most of all, he created his gold pieces - drawing inspiration from his amazing collection of antique English and French lathes.
Brush: "I didn't know how to run them. I met an older man, 85 years old. He said 'Put the books away, put the pictures away. Let the machine tell you what it has to say.' So the machines, with a little bit of my help, made the pieces they wanted to make."
Ironically, it was Brush's success that drove him into seclusion. He had just quit teaching at Georgetown University.
Braver: "When you came to New York, you in fact showed yur work to some jewelry outlets..."
Rita: "Who absolutely wanted to buy it?"
Rita: "And you didn't want them to."
Brush: "Right. On three occasions on one Saturday afternoon, I was offered to absolutely take everything I had...In fact, someone said 'I could sell five pairs of those earrings today. Would you make them quickly?' I'm not a cottage industry. I don't repeat. Everything is one of a kind. I withdrew instantly."
At first it was tough going. Brush says that for years, the phone never rang. But ultimately, he was lucky enough to be introduced to someone who became his patron, and who began buying some of his work. That patron is Ralph Esmerian, a New York art collector and dealer in precious gems.
Esmerian: "It's an amazing combination of going back into the past and also being able to work in the present with present materials. There is a primitive touch and yet it is so bloody civilized and sophisticated when you think of the workmanship that went into this. This is not just a machine that's pounding it out. This is a human being that has, bit by bit. Each of these slopes is done by hand."
Through word of mouth from Esmerian and others, more serious collectors began acquiring Brush's work. He will not identify most owners but the Aga Kahn reportedly has a Brush piece.
And here's an odd thing: Brush won't sell you his work - which can range into the six figures - unless you come see him in his studio and show that you understand it:
Brush: "I like the idea that it is difficult and takes time to go to an artist."
But what a time! Brush can make a visitor feel like royalty, trying on his pearl and gold necklace, watching and listening as he opens box after box after box after box of treasures.
Brush: "They're all engraved, they're all pure gold and steel, and each one has about 400 hours in its making."
Daniel Brush began as - and still is - a painter. In fact, before he went into seclusion he had several successful one-man shows in Washington D.C.
At first glance, each painting looks like nothing more than lines. But to Brush those lines represent his training and discipline. Each work done in marathon sessions taking up to 26 hours.
Brush: "It's not a painting about reference. It's a painting about approach! Commit! Execute! Off!"
But would his art be so wonderful if he wasn't as strange as he is?
Adamson: "All I can say is, thank God there are these people who have such a divine commitment and obsession that can indeed focus on creation in whatever medium."
The question now is why Brush decided to emerge after 25 years. Not only with the Renwick exhibit, but also with a new book by the prestigious art publisher Harry Abrams. Why has he finally decided to step into the spotlight?
Brush: "I was ready. I've looked at people sitting - as you are, one on one - making noises! like noises. I like that kind of noise...wanted to in every way - for myself - engage and share and learn. And I wanted to learn about other people's lives. It will make me do the next piece."
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