Most people’s perception of the
quintessential artist results from the histories of legendary
painters whose eccentricities walked the thin line between
genius and madness. My own experience in meeting artists
has led me to conclude that most artists lead fairly mainstream
lives and perceive the world fairly similarly to those of
us who neither paint, sculpt, write nor compose. The difference
between us and them is boiled down to having the tools to
record and explore the reality most of us agree on.
But every once in a rare while, we meet an artist who fits
so neatly into this preconceived idea that we continue to
buy into it. It’s not enough for the artist to be eccentric,
addicted or sensitive; he must also be exquisitely talented.
William Brandt is just such an artist.
He is primarily a painter of abstract landscapes, whose works
speak eloquently and elegantly. His persona is, in contrast,
that of a disheveled recovering alcoholic whose stream of
thought flows uphill at times and through many valleys at
once. Following his conversation requires mental agility
in jumping from idea to idea, until he settles on talking
about his art.
Brandt’s eyes come alive and bright
when he discusses his paintings, much like a proud mother’s
watching her child behave. And his work deserves such admiration,
both from the painter and the critic, because within it he
captures the best of his intuition, his innate eye for composition
and his inner vibrancy.
Besides a high school art class and one semester at the Art
Institute of Pittsburgh, Brandt is mostly self-taught. He
comes by his keen sense of composition, color and style naturally
and has honed these talents over a brief yet intense period
Having lost fifteen years to alcoholism, he sobered up six
years ago. For awhile, he only had enough emotional energy
to attend meetings and recover from his addiction. Then,
three years ago he returned to a passion he had discovered
early on in life, but had shelved.
Brandt’s interest in drawing began
in middle school when he replicated a Rembrandt etching (“Christ
in the Temple”) in pencil. He captured the detailed
sketch with complete accuracy, down to every stroke. His
style has evolved greatly over the years, from detailed pencil
drawings to the abstract oils he currently creates.
Reminiscent of Cezanne’s cubist landscapes, Brandt’s
pieces are abstract while still retaining a resemblance to
the original photos from which he paints.
Also like the Impressionist who was reputed to have re-painted
the same subject eighty times, Brandt likes to repeat the
same landscape in order to “get a feel for it, understand
it better,” in his words.
Inspired by a black-and-white thumbnail photo, he painted
what he considers his best painting ever, “Mount of
Olives.” He has depicted this landscape ten times
before he “got it accurate.”
This ability to focus bordering on the
obsessive is part of what makes Brandt such an intriguing
personality. Painting and recovery are intertwined in his
mind. He explains that “the painting is teaching me
to work and how to pace myself.” In contrast to how
he painted one of his earlier works, “Orange Jubilee,” on
which he spent an entire week with few breaks and felt wiped
out at the end, he now realizes that he “needs rest
to produce good paintings.”
Although he approaches his work with the same focus, he allows
time to help him decipher what each painting needs. He painted “Canyon
de Chelle,” a depiction composed primarily of orange
hues, in June, but didn’t finish it until January.
He added a few bold strokes of green, which as he says, “finished
Just like his innate sense of how to use empty space within
his landscapes, he now understands how to allow restful time
balance out his intense efforts in creating. Consequently,
he currently has fifteen paintings in progress, which parallels
the flow of his conversation which can have several dialogues
going on simultaneously.
In contrast to his conversation which
roams and is liberally sprinkled with allusions to the Bible
or esoteric references, his paintings are made up of quick
decisive strokes. He creates angular lines that evoke a cubist
look. The hand holding the brush seems to move with purpose,
and the dried paint captures this dynamism and imbues the
painting with a sense of movement.
The viewer’s eye is enticed around the painting by
the composition of color and brush strokes. In traveling
around the piece, the eye finds recognizable shapes, such
as the five-pointed star in the upper left-hand corner of “Orange
Jubilee,” or the nose that looks like a sailboat in “Portrait
of a Navajo Boy.” Studying Brandt’s work reminds
me of staring at clouds; from the abstract evolves pictures
Another feature that emerges from his work is the luminosity
of the canvas. He achieves this glow within his paintings
primarily through his choice of materials. He selects oil-primed
linen canvases to paint on. Brandt also uses walnut oil paints,
which he describes as “vibrant and loaded.”
He uses a fairly limited palette consisting
mostly of cadmium red and orange, gold, copper, blue and
green. Interestingly, he never uses yellow or burnt umber,
two colors that naturally appear so abundantly in the landscapes
he often depicts. This irony seems to reflect how Brandt
is not tied down by notions of reality, and this ability
to step outside these bounds is what liberates him into creating
moving abstracts that appeal to the eye and to the mind.
Understandably, Brandt’s work is enjoying a measure
of success in Moab, where he has paintings displayed in City
Hall and at Petra Gallery (on Center Street). He is also
participating in an upcoming exhibit featuring abstracts
by six Moab artists (see box below).
Brandt doesn’t seek out the spotlight, but would rather
see his work speak for itself. What he would like people
to say about him is, “He liked the paintings, that’s
what it’s all about.” Although he is right that
the paintings should and can stand alone, this enigmatic
personality creating them adds to their allure. But the main
reason I find Brandt, the man, so intriguing is because,
Brandt, the paintings, are so evocative and demand to be
If I’d met Brandt under another guise, would I have
taken him as seriously as I do his work? I don’t know,
but it seems clear that he is not complete without the paintings.
So, how can I contemplate his work with shedding some light
upon him? After all, like his paintings, he is an original