Claremont Graduate University mourns loss of longtime art Professor Michael Brewster
Michael Brewster, a longtime Claremont Graduate University (CGU) art professor and alumnus who coined the term “acoustic sculpture” in 1970 to describe his lifelong passion for creating with sound, passed away June 19. He was 69.
“His originality was that he treated sound sculpturally,” CGU art professor David Pagel said. “He made sound waves–impulses moving through the air that we can’t see, but which are really powerful, physical forces–even more physical. In Michael’s art, you really experienced sound in all its full-bodied, wraparound, immersive power.”
Brewster (MFA, 1970) was a widely respected artist in California, nationally and internationally, who spent nearly 50 years pushing the perceptual boundaries of the sculptural experience. Throughout his career, Brewster advocated the concept that sculpture is “an inner as well as a visceral awareness that evokes sensations in mind and body.”
“My means is sound, especially its effects; but my issues are sculptural, not musical,” Brewster wrote in his 1998 essay” on sound sculpture “Where, There or Here.” “Sculpture, in its most expanded sense, is the mode of experience that I find truest . . . Sculpture should be a category of Experience, not a just a category of physical objects for us to ‘stand back and behold.’”
Brewster’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, MOCA Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, and Artists Space in New York City, among others, as well as sites in Australia, Canada, Holland, Austria, and Italy.
His works are part of the permanent collections of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, MOCA Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Three of his sound installations are on permanent public display in the Villa Panza in Varese, Italy.
For some of his local exhibitions, Brewster would position speakers to immerse visitors with cascading or colliding waves of sound that would “hit you in the gut,” Pagel said.
“He made work that forced you to walk around in it,” he added. “There was no way to stand back and dispassionately or objectively take it in. You were in it.”
Brewster was also part of an illustrious group of artists whose works were included in It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973, part of a 2012 Pacific Standard Time exhibition that was sponsored by the Getty Foundation and co-organized locally by Pomona College Museum of Art curator Rebecca McGrew.
Brewster studied sculpture at Pomona College and earned a bachelor’s degree in art there in 1968 before he enrolled in CGU’s MFA program that same year. He started teaching at CGU’s then-Department of Fine Art in 1973, and last held the position of professor emeritus.
Brewster was the longest-serving faculty member in the Art Department.
Over the decades, Brewster was widely recognized for his immense talent as an artist and his nearly four decades of teaching and leadership at CGU.
In 1988, he was named a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Brewster was the recipient of four Artist’s Fellowship Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, 1978, 1984, and 1990, and a City of Los Angeles Artist’s Grant in 1996.
In 2002, he served as a member of a design team involved in a redevelopment proposal for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.
Brewster was selected in 2010 as the first recipient of the Roland Reiss Endowed Chair in Art, a five-year position established in honor of former CGU Art Department Chair Roland Reiss. During his early years at CGU, he worked alongside Reiss to build the department into an exceptional, nationally ranked program. Together, they revolutionized art education with the 1980 design of the Tenth Street building into a facility that has provided each artist with their own dedicated studio space and functioned as an exhibit space–the East and Peggy Phelps Galleries–for more than three decades.
“Michael’s intensity and passion for art was the source of his outstanding contributions as a teacher,” Reiss said. “He is held as a major mentor and deeply engaging instructor with great respect and reverence by hundreds of former graduate students.”
In 2012, Brewster was among the seven influential, extraordinary Southern California artists who were interviewed for In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art, an oral history exhibition. The exhibition examined Brewster’s and others’ lives and work, their time spent as students and educators at CGU, their emergence into the Los Angeles and international art scenes, and their contributions to contemporary art.
“It is hard to imagine the Art Department at CGU without Michael,” School of Arts and Humanities Dean Tammi Schneider said. “He has been a fixture and a personality of such immense proportions.”
Brewster is survived by his partner, Karen Anderson; three daughters, two grandsons, and two brothers.
Memorial services will be private.