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Daniel Brush, reclusive artist who crossed borders, dies at 75

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Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote about the peculiarities of the human brain, sometimes spent Sunday mornings at the Manhattan studio of his friend Daniel Brush, a hermit, polymath artist and sculptor who, like a monk, swept his floor for three hours every morning. before starting work.

“You look around: there are machines everywhere,” wrote Sacks, who died in 2015, in a collection of works by the artist. “Printing presses, tooling and dies, some dating from the 18th century, very beautiful and superbly maintained. You see modern equipment — welding equipment, jeweller’s loupes, binoculars, tiny tweezers; you see books, thousands of them, and you see shining shapes of steel and gold.

For more than four decades, this bewildering 5,000 square foot space in the Flatiron neighborhood was where Mr. Brush, who died Nov. 26 at the age of 75, worked as a painter, sculptor and jeweler. He spent months or years on a single project, sometimes shelving it even longer, selling only to collectors who displayed a thoughtful connection to the object – and the ability to pay more than six digits per piece.

In a town of character, Mr. Brush was certainly one. Dressed in a brown leather apron and steel armored gloves, he frequently went months without leaving his studio, starting each day with a bowl of Cheerios, followed by hours and hours of sweeping. He only broke for lunch – pea soup, always. Most of the time, he worked 6 p.m.

“Daniel Brush is indistinguishable from many lunatics in New York,” wrote friend, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, in an introduction to an illustrated collection of the artist’s work. “I emphasize location, because a mad New York is world-class – something to do with how the city, so cellular, so asylum-like, an island of vertical compartments, isolates people and intensifies the psychosis.”

Mr. Brush spoke divinely of his work, especially with precious metals. “I work with it because I don’t understand it,” he told “CBS Sunday Morning” in 1998 as he melted gold pellets. “I work with it because I love the purple glow it gives off as I dream of all the people who may have seen the same thing three or four thousand years ago.”

Many of his most famous works were high-level artistic acts using tools he made himself.

A piece he called “Second Dome” took six years to make. It contains 78,000 gold spheres no bigger than a grain of sand drilled into tiny holes. Each gold ball, Mr. Brush wrote, “is 0.008 inches in diameter, plus or minus 0.0001 inches. I made them all. Place them all individually. I don’t use tweezers. I use a brush I pull out all the hairs but one, then pick each one up and place it in. If you’re eating pea soup, there’s enough stickiness in your spit that it sticks to the surface .

It took Mr. Brush several years to work up the courage to finish the piece by shooting it with a torch. “At 30 seconds it hits,” he told Departures magazine in 1997, “at 29 it fails and at 31 it melts.”

In addition to his work with precious metals, Mr. Brush was also known for his unique jewelry.

“Over the past five decades, Daniel has established himself as one of the most innovative artists of our time,” Rahul Kadakia, international head of Christie’s Jewelry, told The New York Times in 2020. “Without outside influences or mainstream consideration, he produced a distinctly singular vision and utterly unique work.

Daniel David Brush was born in Cleveland on January 22, 1947. His parents owned a children’s clothing store. His mother was also an artist and writer, and when he was 13 she took him to London to visit museums and galleries. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, he was in awe of Etruscan goldsmithing. “My heart beat like it hasn’t since then,” Mr Brush told Departures magazine. “I was mad to learn how it was done.”

In 1965, Mr. Brush enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, where he met Lynn Alpert, who goes by the name Olivia. They married in 1969, the same year Mr. Brush graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. They then moved to Los Angeles, where he earned an MFA from the University of Southern California.

Mr. Brush, then an abstract painter, landed a teaching position at Georgetown University. While in Washington, Mr. Brush had solo exhibitions at Phillips and Corcoran Galleries. He sold several pieces but quickly regretted it. “I was so pissed off,” he told The Times, “that I bought everything out of everyone and destroyed all the work.”

In 1978, Mr. Brush and his wife moved to New York City, purchased a loft in the Flatiron District, and converted it into a combined living and studio space. There, Mr. Brush focused on metals and jewelry, breaking artistic boundaries with an ever-growing collection of antique lathes and tools. He has read hundreds of books about them.

“I didn’t know how to make them work,” Mr. Brush told “CBS Sunday Morning.” “I met an older man, 85. He said, ‘Put away the books. Put away the pictures. Let the machine tell you what it has to say. So the machines, with a little help from me, made the parts they wanted to make.

Mr. Brush never hired a dealer. He and his wife, and then their son Silla, born in 1982, subsisted on a select circle of wealthy collectors who bought his work “hot hand to hot hand”, as Mr Brush called the transactions. Although Mr. Brush has never identified his buyers, some names have appeared in articles about him. One patron was reportedly Marsha Garces Williams, a collector once married to actor Robin Williams. Another was jeweler Ralph Esmerian. “CBS Sunday Morning” said the Aga Khan owned a Brush.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Brush’s wife and others in his artistic orbit began to gently suggest that he exhibit his work more widely. He accepted. In 1998, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized an exhibition of his work.

“Brush’s mastery is almost incomprehensible,” Washington Post reporter Hank Burchard wrote of the exhibit. “Its golden domes are beautiful and its jewels are sensual. His stuff (which includes a yo-yo and a confectionery he calls Jelly Bean Suite) is wonderful. His butterflies, bottles and boxes are necessary extravagances, exercises in what the artist calls “targeted frivolity”.

Burchard’s only complaint was that “the Renwick does not provide magnifying glasses to help customers appreciate fine details.”

Mr. Brush is survived by his wife and son. They said he died in a New York hospital but declined to name a cause.

Although he worked alongside his wife for decades – she made intricate boxes for the parts he sold – Mr Brush never employed assistants or labourers. He never took commissions. He never did the same piece twice.

“I get up and worry, what’s there to say?” Mr. Brush said in his studio during a 2017 conversation about his work. “Do I have something to say? Do I know enough? Can I engrave as well as Napoleon’s court armourers? I read, I study, I worry. Is it a fight? Yes of course.”

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