In Memory of Charles Bragg (1931-2017)

By Morris Shapiro

 

Charles Bragg was one-in-a-million. I’ve never known anyone like him, nor is it likely that I ever will again.

He was an amalgam of many parts: a supremely gifted visual artist, a storyteller and a witty writer, a deeply educated classicist, a keen observer of human nature and a comic. All of these qualities came together in a man of uncommon warmth, uncompromising dedication to his craft and a determination to keep on moving and growing as an artist and a man. He worked every day — up to his very last.

Charles pushed away compliments and became uncomfortable when I spoke publicly about his importance as an artist of our time. But this remains true. His work resides within a long narrative tradition that begins with Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, and extends through Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, into Al Hirschfeld and Ralph Steadman. Each of these artists in his own way cast an eye on the society of their times — the institutions, the culture, the behaviors of the classes, religion, work, life, death, ambiguity and irony. In Charles’ work there was first a humorous delight as we got the “joke,” but then continued to the deeper message and a proffered mirror. Charles said of his work that its purpose was to “amuse and punish.”

The circumstances of his life formed the man and artist he was to become. His childhood travelling with his vaudevillian parents placed him backstage, looking out at the audience from behind the curtain and implanted a skewed perspective of the showbiz world. In lighter moments, he claimed his parents single-handedly killed Vaudeville.

Charles formally studied art and the classics honing his technique as a draftsman, painter, printmaker and sculptor. He developed his technique to an astonishing degree with an “old masterly” quality in his paintings, often belied by the upstaging of his subjects and messages. I was always particularly taken with his graphite drawings. For me, these were the truest glimpses into an artist’s gifts. He preferred drawing on mylar, with its textureless surface where he could move from pin-point detail to soft atmospheric rubbings for shading and lighting nuances. In 2011, we sold his large, preparatory drawing for “Screen Goddess,” one of his most famous works. I couldn’t take my eyes off of this exquisite drawing when I first saw it. Apart from the subject of an early Hollywood movie set, I thought I was looking at a drawing that was at least 400 years old because it exploded with so much virtuosity.

Charles Bragg Screen Goddess Park West Gallery

“Screen Goddess” Charles Bragg (the completed painting).

He went on to try his hand at different career paths: truck driver, automobile dealer, stand-up comic, among others, but thankfully for us all, he returned to his love of art, and settled in California to build his body of work and reputation. Charles created wonderful ink-drawings for Playboy magazine that appeared in the margins of the articles. He referred to these tiny erotic musings as his, “Little Naughties.” As books and articles on his art were published and his PBS documentary aired, and the galleries all over the United States were showing his work, his reputation grew immensely. Charles’ body of etchings became wildly popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, in particular his commentaries on the legal and medical professions. There was a time I recall, when it was de rigueur for every attorney’s office to have a least one Bragg in the back where the clients couldn’t see it.

Around the turn of the century, Charles essentially dropped out of sight. Many believed he had passed, but in reality, he had found for himself the ultimate financial situation for an artist: an exclusive patron. This individual, who committed to buy every painting Charles created, allowed him to relax and relieved him of the financial burdens and distractions of sales efforts and the promotion necessary for an artist’s survival. Between his patron and his close friend — the comedian and actor, the late Jonathan Winters — all of Charles’ works were consumed. The body of paintings he created at this time is extraordinary. It ranges from the playful and even whimsical—a mouse wearing a tuxedo playing a concerto on a grand piano— to his biting satirical works on organized religion and government—all realized through his brilliant technique.

Charles Bragg Parade #1 Park West Gallery

“Parade #1” (2011), Charles Bragg

In 2010, Park West President Marc Scaglione and myself hit on the idea of reaching out to Charles again (we had done business together in the 1980s and ‘90s). We contacted him to see if he’d be interested in appearing at some of our private events on cruise ships. Charles was interested, and Marc and I went to visit him and his wife Margaret at their apartment in Beverly Hills, California. It was a delight to enter into his home and his world. His studio occupied most of the living area and his stock room was adjacent. On the easel was an oil painting he was working on, called “Parade #1,” which was snapped up the first time we showed it. Next to his painting table was laid out a sculpture — a sort of colorless diorama — of his masterpiece concept “Asylum Earth,” comprised of dozens of tiny figures, which the viewer looked down upon, all engaging in riotous activities and crazy interactions with each other. Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” through the lens of Charles Bragg, transported into the 21st century.

Charles Bragg Park West Gallery

Morris Shapiro with Charles Bragg and Bragg’s wife, Margaret, in Venice.

Thus began our renewed relationship: Charles Bragg 2.0. For nearly six years we brought Charles and Margaret out to sea and land a few times each year, to meet our clients and create new fans and collectors for him. Charles worked hard in preparation for each of these appearances. Our typical collection consisted of approximately 20 oil paintings, many of which paid homage to his heroes: Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt van Rijn, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his beloved Claude Monet. Also included were a series of highly detailed, mixed-media works on colored paper (in the last two years Charles was enamored with Asian subjects in this medium), along with at least a dozen drawings and his famous etchings. Charles’ art was not always easily accessible and certainly not decorative in any sense. It was to be contended with, and it challenged the viewer, no matter how humorous or innocuous at first glance. But the response from our guests was always positive. The truly astute collectors realized how rare and important and opportunity it was to meet him and see a world-class collection of his works. And they took advantage.

Our introductions of Charles were always the evening before his auction. We previewed a selection of paintings and talked about his extensive credentials, but the coup de gras was when he tottered up to his lectern (from a wheelchair in his last days) and delivered his monologue. This was the moment when everyone in the room realized the talent and greatness to which they were being treated. He usually spoke for about 30-40 minutes. In deadpan, self-deprecating prose, he covered such topics as his health (for a perspective on his prices, he told everyone his age, and joked that his blood-pressure was “through the roof,” and that he was wearing a diaper!); some musings on the great philosophers’ quotes, with his own spin, of course; stories about his days as a young artist in Paris, paying for his restaurant meal with a drawing on the tablecloth and then being charged for defacing restaurant property; and a visit to the Louvre, where he put up one of his own paintings on the wall with two-sided tape and instantly doubled the Louvre’s collection of American art (“Whistler’s Mother” is the only American painting in the collection); and finally his great story about “Art Heaven.”

Charles Bragg In the Beginning There Were Mistakes Park West Gallery

“In the Beginning There Were Mistakes” (2011), Charles Bragg

The story, which appears complete in the brilliant and hysterically funny collection of his writings, “Asylum Earth,” recalls a dream in which after he dies Charles hopes to be admitted to Art Heaven. He walks through the corridors and peeks into the shared studios of the masters and must ultimately present his portfolio to a group of them, including Goya and Rembrandt. While looking at one of his paintings, Rembrandt asks, “What were you thinking about when you made this?” to which Charles replies, “I was poor and probably thinking about my car payment.” Rembrandt quietly contemplates the work and says, “Yes, I can see the desperation in the brushstrokes…” Finally, the group discovers a painting that interests them all. It depicts God as the wizened, bearded visage of the ages. He holds a tree with two large breasts protruding from the trunk and with a long serpent-like tail. The group inquires about it. He replies that when God made the world Charles suspected there were certain creations that might not have gone as planned. Thus, he titled the painting, “In the Beginning there were Mistakes.” The group chuckles all around and decides Heaven needs a little levity. They decide to let Charles in, at which point he awakens from his dream.

The obvious poignancy of the story has been resonating all over these last few days among those who knew him and were treated to this tale at one of his appearances. Many have reached out to me with words of comfort, as they knew how much I adored the man and affirmed that “Art Heaven” is where Charles is painting today.

Over these last five years, I savored every moment that I was with him and Margaret, as I knew this day was not far off. With Charles, I laughed longer and harder than with anyone I ever knew. Everyone around him did too. We had many wonderful adventures together: dinners from Venice to San Juan; discussions on art, life and ideas, always brimming with ideas. He was usually drinking his beloved gin martinis, which when placed in his hands, he would announce to all, before the first sip, “See ya later!”

Charles Bragg Morris Shapiro

Charles Bragg and Morris Shapiro. “With Charles, I laughed longer and harder than with anyone I ever knew.”

I always described Charles as an “American National Treasure,” which I believe became truer with each passing year. And now, like so many great ones before him, he belongs to the ages. I know he’s painting alongside his heroes now, occupying one of those studios in “Art Heaven,” and I know he’ll be one of the committee passing judgments on the next generation of applicants. I’m sure he’ll be lenient though. He was such a sweet soul.

Rest in Peace, Charles Bragg.

20 Responses to In Memory of Charles Bragg (1931-2017)

  1. Pepi Leids says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bragg and dining with him one night on the cruise ship. He reminded me so much of my Dad and I told him so. They both told very corny jokes. I purchased one of his drawings and gave it to my 94 year old Dad as a gift. I feel honored to have met this truly remarkable and very “down-to-earth” man.

  2. Dwayne Bailey says:

    My wife and I met Mr. Bragg on one of those cruise events three years ago. He was delightful. My wife fell in love with his “Computer Suite” series of etchings, so we bought a set, and they hang proudly in her office.

    My wife herself passed away last month, so those etchings are going to take on special significance for me now. I hope “Art Heaven” is close to “Music Heaven” which is where my wife would be.

  3. Marilyn Mica says:

    Ken and I met Charlie Bragg and his lovely wife on a Park West cruise. He had done a pencil drawing of an old man with a beard many years ago. It looked so much like Ken that we had to purchase it!!! Ken did not have a beard athletic events and Charlie told us we could just erase it off the art if we wanted to!! He also told his wife that Ken was the inspiration for the picture, though he had never met Ken and Ken was way to young !!!! A wonderful, funny gracious man, we were honored to have met and dined with him. Thank you Park West and especially Morris Shapiro!!! RIP CHARLIE BRAGG

  4. rich spay says:

    My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting Charles on a VIP and purchasing one of his paintings. WE loved the story about Johnathon Winters commissioning a painting and giving him the title of ” You Cann’t Take it With YOu ” It depicted an old horse driven hersh driven by Winters and pulling a U-Haul

  5. Erik Cohen says:

    We had the fortune of meeting and listening to Charles Bragg this past December – not only was he an amazing artist, but he was funny and genuine. The world will miss him dearly.

  6. Babs Grieshaber says:

    I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bragg but your beautifully written testimony of love has given me great insight to a lovely man. Certainly you were blessed.

  7. Nikki Lamothe says:

    Mr. Bragg was quite a character, having met him on a VIP cruise. He gave some brilliant monologue!
    His art and persona will be missed!

  8. Shel Freelan says:

    Mr. Shapiro’s article vividly portrayed Charles Bragg much as I, a long time collector of his art, imagined him. His talent, his his wit, and his sense of humor stood out and leaves me with only one regret, that I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Thank you, Morris

  9. Josh Via says:

    I’m trying to track some art I originally purchased from the Cruise Royal Caribbean. I’m not sure who to contact? Please help?

  10. Doug and Diana Haskell says:

    We had the pleasure of meeting Charles Bragg at an event in New York City a few years ago. He may be the most interesting artist we have met. He could be so funny and serious at the same time. We have one of his wonderful mixed media pieces in a very prominent place in our home. We treasure it and will always remember having the pleasure of talking with him about it.

  11. Cindy Hendricks says:

    My husband, Jim, and I met Charles on a Park West Gallery. His presentation to the crowd was exceptional. When the time came for a picture with him, Jim was so impressed with him that he gave Charles a kiss in the cheek, to which Charles responded, “Thank you, Jim. That was the best sex I have had all week!” What an amazing talent!!! RIP Charles!

  12. Berenice Norris says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection of your amazing friend and wonderful human being. I have not met the man behind the fantastic artworks, but i am in tears at the poignancy of your writing about your dear friend. Deepest sympathy.

  13. Patricia Ray says:

    I adored Mr. Bragg—his wit and humor will be missed. I met he and Margaret while on a VIP cruise to the Mexican Riviera last year. I never will forget the two of them. I purchased “Art 101” on his recommendation. I display it proudly in my entry way where it can be shared with all who enter. RIP, my friend. Thank you Morris!

  14. Sandy Rogers says:

    Keith and I met Charles over a year ago and consider him to be a favorite artist and friend – so totally genuine, funny, mischievous, brilliant and playful. We bought several of his works and treasure each and everyone – even more now that his light is shining in a different place!

  15. Larry and Holley Thompson says:

    Larry and I were saddened to learn of Charles’ passing. We were first introduced to his humor in the 80s. He was commissioned by a legal publisher to produce a piece for tradeshows. Like many, we lost track of him (during his Jonathan Winters’ days) and were overjoyed to be reintroduced to him at Park West VIP events. Having dinner with him and his engaging wife, Margaret, made each of those evenings not only most enjoyable but memorable as well. We are fortunate to have several of his pieces to remind us of his humorous approach to life, including those targeting the legal world, a fantastic piece with Einstein and a chicken along with Parade #1 featured in this memorial. We will continue to treasure them and thank our friends at Park West for bringing Charles back into our lives.

  16. Anthony Stone says:

    My Name is Tony Stone.

    I was blessed to know Charles Bragg a kind and giving human being in a TWO SPECIAL WAYS.

    I met Charles Bragg over 52 years. He played two special roles in my life.

    I knew him as an Oil Painter Artist when he was Painting his Oil Paintings located at his 3rd Street Art Studio in 1964 which was located on 3rd Street near LaCienega Blvd in Los Angeles.

    I was 14 years old.

    The unique part and more important part to me in knowing Charles Bragg at that time in 1964 is not that he was an Artist, but that he was my BASEBALL COACH when I played Pony League Baseball at Rancho Park, Los Angeles at
    (Next door To The Famous Rancho Park Golf Course). when I was 14 years old.
    Yes,
    his son Chick Bragg who is a well know Artist today was my TEAMMATE on that team.

    Chick Bragg was a Pitcher and I was Chick Bragg’s Catcher when he pitched on his Dad’s Team.

    I lived close to his Art Studio at the time.
    My Mom would Drop me off at his Studio and yes Charles Bragg would take me to our Practice since my mom couldn’t get me to our Baseball Practices. That is the kind part of him that I know.

    While I waiting to goto Baseball Practice I got to watch Charles Bragg Paint One of Oil Paintings.

    Now it’s time to take a look at Charles Bragg the kind and giving person who he is.

    On July 22, 1964 We’re playing one of our Baseball Games In July on my fourteenth Birthday.

    Can you believe that after the That Game Coach Bragg The Famous Oil Painter we know today; gives me For my Birthday The Oil Painting I watched him Paint over 52 years ago.

    Yes I was Blessed to know Charles Bragg in those two special ways. One as an Artist and one as my Coach.

    Charles Bragg,
    I will miss you very much.

    I will never forget this special man and what he did for my life as well as so many other people in showing how to give with love and kindness without expectations.
    Thank you Charles Bragg.
    Sincerely,
    Tony Stone

    • parkwestgal says:

      Thank you for your touching tribute Tony, we appreciate you sharing a story that shows a side of Charles that others may not have had the chance to experience.

  17. Daniella Park says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I was only weeks within meeting him as he was my Uncle. I didn’t receive any of this information until I was in my 30’s. He was a remarkable man and his art and life are absolutely colorful! That you for allowing me to see more into his life and for taking out time to honor his life.

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