Margaret Brassler Kane

Some Background and Perspective on the Life and Work of Margaret Brassler Kane

 

Margaret Brassler Kane 1909 - 2006, born with artistic talent, had the encouragement and support of five generations of her family to enable her to devote her life to sculpture. She had only two homes: From childhood she lived with her parents for 30 years at 125 Buckingham Road in Brooklyn, where her studio was located on the third floor. After she married in 1930, she rode the subway 6 days a week to a succession of studios in Manhattan where she worked in collaboration with other sculptors.

 

In 1947, desiring to have a place of their own in the suburbs, she and her husband, Arthur moved to an antique New England saltbox at 30 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, Connecticut where they added a studio to replace the summer kitchen in the rear of the house. The house in Brooklyn, itself an historic structure built in 1907 ( photos and commentary on the internet) was owned by Mathilde “Mim” and Hans Brassler who moved there from the house they built in South Orange, NJ.

 

Her parents decided to resettle in Brooklyn because of the easy commute by subway to Manhattan and the tree-lined streets of a then semi-suburban neighborhood that offered a less intense, hectic lifestyle than existed in the city. Her younger sister Ruth, maternal grandmother Annie “Oma” Spangenberg, born in 1864 and her second husband Otto; a trustee of the local savings bank who died in 1929 also lived in the house.

 

Margie married Arthur Ferris Kane in May, 1930; he was a graduate of Columbia College ‘28 who attended Columbia’s Business School the following year. Following a large wedding reception at home, the newlyweds left on a five month honeymoon that took them to San Francisco and included a six week stay in Fairplay, Colorado. Their brief residence in Fairplay resulted from her father’s friendship with Price Briscoe, a state senator in Colorado. While they were at lunch in Manhattan, Hans Brassler mentioned that his daughter and new son-in-law received a car as a wedding gift and were planning to drive cross country. This prompted Briscoe to propose building a honeymoon cabin so the newlyweds could stay on his ranch in Fairplay.

 

Once settled in the cabin, Margie and Arthur began to make friends with a group of locals who told them of the recent passing of their beloved burro “Prunes” that had worked the surrounding silver and gold mines for decades. On learning that Margie attended the Art Students League, they asked her to sculpt a plaque to commemorate Prune’s life. Arthur found a burro, that he tethered to a post outside the cabin window for Margie to create a clay model, her first commissioned piece of sculpture. Rupe Sherwood the old miner who owned Prunes, with a few of his friends took the clay model to a local foundry where it was cast in bronze for a stone monument that they built in the town square. For compensation, they paid Margie with a few pelts and some food grown locally. Since the late 1940’s the Prunes monument has been a tourist attraction for thousands of visitors as well a the site of the annual high-altitude, multi-mile burro race named by the residents, “Pull Your Ass Through the Pass”.

 

Margaret was encouraged to study sculpture by her father who was born in 1882 in a town in northeast Germany to a family that for some generations made their living designing and engraving metal - examples can be found on suits of armor that were fabricated in the 1700’s. In his late teens Hans Brassler painted a picture of butterflies that he submitted to gain entrance to the famed Academie Julian art school in Paris where many well-known impressionist painters studied circa 1900. His parents were pleased that he was going to study art. With three daughters he was their only son. His father, Johann was hoping that Hans would join him in the jewelry business, possibly in Berlin where his family originated. However, in art school Hans was contacted by a recruiter from Tiffany who was interviewing students studying jewelry design. The offer he received prompted Hans, who had a zest for travel, adventure; sought new experiences and ignored risk, to book a passage to New York. Having become fluent in French, learning English did not pose much of a problem. He practiced English pronunciation to the point that by the time World War I broke out he had no recognizable accent.

 

One success with Tiffany designing silverware and jewelry led to another. By 1910 he was able to send Mim, her baby daughter Margaret and an au pair to Germany to meet his family. This was the first time they stayed at the Adlon Hotel adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, about a two hour drive northeast to Ludvigslust. It set the pattern for their future overseas travel that ended in 1928. The year before when she was 18, her mother had chartered a biplane to fly them from London to Tempelhof airport in Berlin. Looking back to those days, Margie referred to the plane as a flying box crate. While in Ludvigslust Margaret made a clay model of her grandfather’s head that she cast in plaster back at home.

 

Eventually Hans Brassler left Tiffany to establish his own factory in Newark, NJ to produce high end jewelry. For years he associated with other notable figures in the jewelry business such as Harry Winston and Arde Bulova; the Fisher brothers were among his most well-known clients. The brothers had founded an automotive body manufacturing business that was eventually combined with other car companies to form General Motors. They commissioned him to design a silver service set, embellished with gold, of 50 - 100 pieces that is pictured on the cover of a Christies’ catalogue when it was sold to an Asian buyer in 2011.

 

On graduation from Packer Collegiate Institute, a girls secondary school in Brooklyn, Margie decided to attend Syracuse University. She chose Syracuse because it was on the train line that her father took to Detroit where he was involved with designing the stained glass windows for the Detroit Cathedral - a project financed by the Fisher brothers. Through them he also gained knowledge of investment opportunities in the automotive industry that led him to invest heavily in the stock market in the 1920’s as well as participate in new stock offerings of companies in the automotive and oil industries.

 

The family was affected in multiple ways by the stock market crash in October, 1929 that ushered in a drop in stock prices that didn’t bottom out until 1933, a 90% decline from the peak. Jewelry demand dried up; businesses struggled as the unemployment rate reached 25%. Margie, who had grown accustomed to an affluent life style was deeply affected by these developments. As she matured artistically and associated mostly with indigent artists the effects began to show in the subjects she chose to sculpt. Initially, she produced heads, figures and sculpture of animals: she carved the head of Jay from a block of lignum vitae; figures -in wood Eve; Feline (cat), Kangaroos and others.

 

In 1935-6 she chiseled Harlem Dancers from marble. It reflects the sadness of the ‘30’s and the hope for a better life that was suggested to her by the music originating in New Orleans and Harlem. She sculpted many of her pieces, typified by Harlem Dancers, by directly carving each from wood or stone, preferring those materials to clay. She chose them because of their permanence; the only alternative to achieve a similar permanence with a piece modeled in clay was to have it cast in bronze.

 

Of course it would have been easier to work in malleable clay and obviously less physically and mentally taxing; mistakes and material imperfections are unforgiving in wood and stone; sometimes design changes to compensate for them are impossible. The disadvantage to clay was that a piece modelled in it needs to be cast in plaster for durability and then further cast into bronze for permanence. Most importantly, the costs of bronze castings required financial resources that were well beyond her means until nearly fifty years later.

 

In 19?? Her son, Jay, visited Smithsonian’s American Museum of Art while on a business trip to Washington. After writing to the museum, a curator, George Gurney contacted Margaret to arrange a visit to her studio in Cos Cob. His interest focused on two stone pieces, Blackout and Harlem Dancers that eventually the institution sought to acquire. She then supervised the production of several bronze duplicates at the Tallix Foundry in Beacon, NY. and donated the stone sculpture to the museum. The Smithsonian placed it on tours to various museums across the country, before eventually placing it on permanent exhibition at the American Museum of Art in Washington, DC.

 

Of all of her work, the circumstances leading to Kane’s creating Harlem Dances were unique. In 1936 her mother became concerned that her daughter’s obsession with sculpture was crowding out other aspects of her life, including spending time with her five-year-old son who was usually asleep by the time she got home. Mim’s solution was to purchase a marble block in a Brooklyn stone yard for $10, load it into the trunk of her Chrysler and drive it to the garage at 125 Buckingham Rd., where Margaret, over the course of the summer, “blocked out” the piece. She and Arthur then transported the unfinished sculpture to the penthouse on the roof of a loft building at 3 West 29th Street - where she and two sculptor friends shared a studio in order to apply the finishing touches. As she later recalled, her greatest problem was to find the right design for the female figure’s dress, particularly the skirt.

 

One evening that summer when she and Arthur were in a nightclub she noticed peanut shells lying on the floor. She realized immediately the design on the shells was perfect for the dress. The peanut shell design on the skirt has the effect of giving the the marble and bronze the appearance of movement - exactly the effect she was trying to achieve.

 

Her son, Jay, born in 1931 was followed by another son Gregory in 1940. Were it not for the living arrangement at 125 Buckingham Rd. where her mother and grandmother took on the role of childcare providers she would never have been able to devote her young adulthood to sculpture and the New York art world. Actually she had the equivalent of a full support staff rendering assistance and encouragement to enable her to concentrate on sculpture. Her father had introduced her to art and provided opportunities for her as a child to visit museums in Europe; her husband - despite modest financial means due to the Depression and then the war - lent his own full encouragement, emotional and financial support.

 

For the longest segment of Arthur’s working life he was the purchasing agent for Sky Chefs, a subsidiary of American Airlines. For nearly 25 years his office was located in the Chanin Building on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station. After Arthur’s death in 1971, Jay and his wife Mimi who lived nearby in Cos Cob helped enable his mother to continue to work. And after his own college years, her grandson Jim carried on the family’s tradition of admiration, encouragement and support into the fifth generation.

 

The Panels With communism expanding rapidly and fascism gaining a foothold in Europe Margaret became aware and deeply distressed at developing events. She felt compelled to express her feelings in her sculpture that began to reflect them. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the accelerating speed of modernism, the passing of feudalism and serfdom seemed to be in the process of being replaced by greater evils.

 

Many of the paintings she had seen alluded to or expressed the conditions that occurred during the artist’s life. So she decided to interpret the evolution of events that she was experiencing in sculpture - by commissioning a six by six foot panel to be laminated from limewood so she could start to carve Symbols of Changing Man in 1937. When completed this piece was displayed at the World’s Fair in 1939 and afterwards exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Burgeoning developments in physics, archeology, astronomy - the preparation for the moon landing - inspired her to carve four companion pieces to Symbols of Changing Man : -names of pieces- that she started in the 1950’s and worked on intermittently for the rest of her life. She had three cast in bronze at Tallix; she died before being able to complete the fifth.