Reimagining: The Life Work of James Bruch
Finding a collection of an artist that we aren’t familiar with is exciting. Discovering the entire life’s work of a prolific artist whose work has never been seen publicly is a different experience entirely.
This spring we received a call from a colleague of ours in Chicago, Arrin Williams. He wanted to let us know about the estate of James Bruch (1942-2023), who had been an award-winning advertising executive at Leo Burnett. Bruch’s vocation throughout his life had been painting, but he had refused to ever show his work in public or sell any of his art. Arrin explained that his children wanted to find a gallery to promote their father’s work…but there was a catch…everything had to be out of the house in one week or it would be sold at an estate sale.
We were immediately struck by how much depth the pieces had in person versus in photographs. Particularly with the oil on canvas paintings started in the 1960s, Bruch painted over each piece again and again creating a heavy layered impasto that wasn’t captured in the photos. Seeing the entire collection together it was possible to get an idea of the artist’s creative process. Many of the paintings look improvisatory, but each was revised again and again. Many of the revisions were documented and planned by painting on top of dozens of photographs of the lower layers. It’s remarkable the lengthy process that Bruch went through to create exciting colorful works that look spontaneous.
We had expected to make offers on a handful of pieces that we liked, but almost immediately we decided that we wanted the opportunity to introduce this remarkable artist to the world and offered to sell the complete collection. Cleaning and restoring these works has been a labor of love over the past few months, and we are very excited to exhibit James Bruch’s work for the first time.
Bruch’s family described him as a perfectionist who rarely considered a work finished and would paint over and revise paintings again and again. By cultivating and reworking his creative ideas, Bruch abstracted the world around him in paint from the 1960s through the early 2000s.
Born James Lynn Bruch on September 21st, 1942, Bruch experienced a typical Catholic Midwestern upbringing in the suburbs of Kenosha, Wisconsin. He attended a Catholic grade school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honors at the University of Notre Dame in 1964.
Bruch moved out West to continue his education at the University of Southern California where he earned his MFA. While there, he received a scholarship from the Jose Drudis Foundation of Los Angeles to reimagine the depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ through a modern lens.
An amalgamation of a dark and broody Spanish Gothic style and modernist abstraction, Bruch’s Crucifixion works depict a gaunt and haunting Christ with a racked and elongated body and dark anguished eyes. Bruch extended the use of this harrowing style to his anti-Vietnam War works, visually channeling the same physical suffering and mental torment he was able to capture in his Crucifixion works.
In direct contrast to this dark style, Bruch also began experimenting with a different form of abstraction, one more inspired by the work of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s. These canvases feature brightly colored backgrounds with vibrant shapes painted over the canvas.
Few of these canvases were ever deemed “finished” by the artist, but dozens were painted during this era. This vibrant style of painting would be revisited by Bruch later in life and would become the dominant style of his later years.
Following his graduation from USC, Bruch returned to Illinois to take a job designing advertisements for Montgomery Ward, a major department store chain. Working for Montgomery Ward pushed Bruch into the fast-paced, cut-throat advertising industry of Chicago, changing his career path from painter to designer.
The creative side of advertising, by its very nature, is taking a brand and concept built by others and reimagining it into novel and memorable ways to tell a story. Reworking the concepts of others and capturing them in the form of advertisements was something Bruch excelled at, eventually leading him to a job at the esteemed advertising agency Leo Burnett. While at Leo Burnett, Bruch worked with companies such as United Airlines, Hallmark, McDonalds, as well as countless other household names. Bruch worked his way up at Leo Burnett and in 1986, he was promoted from Executive Art Director to a Vice President of the company. He continued working for Leo Burnett up until his retirement in 1999.
Bruch’s paintings from after his retirement are a palimpsest of his thoughts and process as an artist. A visual archaeology, his paintings from this time show drawings that were painted on multiple times, sometimes seemingly finished to only be repainted and reworked ad infinitum. Scraps of paper with streaks and smudges of paint would sometimes even inspire him and serve as the first layer of a painting with additional layers being built up and reworked on what would have normally been a discarded offcut. Bruch would also often take the step of photographing his works and painting numerous edits on cellophane that would be layered on top of the photographs, allowing him to reimagine colors and compositions in practice before changing the work itself.
Also during his retirement, Bruch re-embraced his reworking of Old Masters pieces. Living in close proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, he would often wander the galleries and draw inspiration from the works on display as well as other well known paintings and works not in the Institute’s collection. His highly detailed drawings and sketches from this time sometimes depicts a faithful rendering of a work, demonstrating Bruch’s continued capabilities as an expert draftsman. However, other sketches depict a conscious reimagining by Bruch with a blending of his own style of abstraction with recognizable imagery from pieces by Velazquez, Rembrandt, Holbein, and numerous others.
We will be exhibiting Bruch’s work in our gallery from September 29, 2023 until October 29, 2023 with an opening reception on Sept. 29 from 5:00-8:00 pm. A collection of the artist’s work will be available for purchase online at https://sheaferking.com/collections/james-bruch-collection. This collection will be updated over the coming months as we clean, frame, and restore the work.
We would like to extend thanks to Jeremy Bruch and Rebecca Bruch for providing images and information for the blog post. It is clear to see that you cared for your father deeply and he for you.