On ViewSan Francisco Museum Of Modern Art
November 19, 2022–March 12, 2023
The first major show of Joan Brown’s paintings in over twenty years offers a chance to reconsider the work and legacy of this iconic Bay Area artist, who studied with Elmer Bischoff, worked in close contact with Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri and others, and taught at UC Berkeley until her untimely accidental death in 1990. Curators Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim have assembled eighty works from her prolific output, including sculptures. In the male-dominated field of painting, Brown more than held her own with large-scale canvases, lending each of them the impact of a personal statement. Interweaving her personal life into the works with allusions to spirituality and art history, Brown’s exceptional paintings still have a capacity to challenge. The show’s publicity plays on her whimsical fantasy and charisma, but what emerges is a gritty dedication to painting and self-confrontation.
Encouraged by Bischoff to paint from daily life, Brown began with densely worked renderings of “things,” tangible but unnameable objects that partake of the inchoate aspirations of visionary friends like Bruce Conner and Michael McClure and evoke parallel developments in New York, where Philip Guston was making thing-like abstractions in transition to figuration. Brown drew immediate critical attention in New York, after she was exhibited as part of Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum, and her painting Thanksgiving Turkey (1959) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Its reference to Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655) reflects Brown’s interest in art history, through which she filtered her daily experience, as well as her love for paint, through which she affirmed her identification with the Abstract Expressionist legacy of Bay Area figurative painters like Richard Diebenkorn and David Park.
From a full-length mirror, Brown asserted herself as a nocturnal bather and created heavily impastoed domestic scenes well before Elizabeth Murray made large-scale images of her own personal life. She endows animals with complex inner lives: Fur Rat (1962), a nasty amalgam of wire, nails and scraps of an old raccoon coat, an object of fear and fascination, was inspired by a dream. But Brown soon grew disillusioned by the commercialism of the gallery scene and embarked on an individual path, moving to the Sacramento Valley with her third husband, Gordon Cook, and extending her symbolic self-dramatization in a new style, informed by Henri Rousseau. She renders the open landscape of the Central Valley with flat, brightly colored enamel paints found in a local store. The Bride (1970), an image of Sacramento Delta abundance, features a cat bride, who holds an enormous rat on a leash; enriching her enamel paint with glitter, Brown evokes Hieronymus Bosch and Frida Kahlo with a school of multicolored fish and field of orange poppies.
Brown didn’t identify as a feminist, but dealt frankly with her position as a woman in art. Although she regularly attended figure drawing sessions, the figure remained a fraught subject for her due to her Catholic upbringing. Her figures are often animal hybrids or partially concealed, as in Woman Wearing Mask (1972), in which she masters her own lingerie-clad body. Masking maintains her control, and the woman’s enlarged right hand emphasizes her agency: she conceals and reveals, experiencing her body from within, in resistance to glossy Pop commercialism. Hers is the internalized self-reporting of Philip Guston’s late work—a project of California self-actualization, far from Cindy Sherman’s elaborate disguises. Indeed, critics have commented on the inscrutable, mask-like consistency of Brown’s face as depicted in unmasked self-portraits, individualized primarily by the details of backgrounds and clothing accessories.
The frontal rigidity of her portraits relates to what Brown acknowledges as a problem with perspective: it’s easier for her to depict figures frontally or in profile, like those in the Egyptian wall paintings she admired. This spatial limitation heightens the challenge of self-confrontation in Woman in Room (1975) where, inspired by Francis Bacon, Brown treats perspective as a flat, oppressive grid. The room embodies the isolated woman’s meditative intensity. Also in lingerie, she masks her face protectively behind her mirror, while casually smoking, as darkness looms outside her window.
Brown found bodily and spiritual affirmation in dancing and in open-water swimming in the San Francisco Bay. The trim, poised figure of The Bicentennial Champion (1976) reflects her training at the Dolphin Club she helped integrate for women, as do the cleanly defined contours of her sculptures, which, like Alex Katz’s, treat figures as two-dimensional silhouettes. Inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs, Brown overcomes her perspectival limitations in exuberant paintings of dancing figures that move, frieze-like, across the picture plane in Dancers in a City #4 (1973), a fever dream set against the San Francisco skyline.
The cartoon-like style of these works, and the grotesque, caricatural faces of figures in At the Beach (1973), suggest connections to her colleague at Berkeley, Robert Colescott, but Brown doesn’t pursue social satire. Rather she envisions her social mission as education through public art. Increasingly inspired by New Age philosophies, her figures fuse symbolically with animal avatars in Harmony (1982) and dissolve into “energy fields” based on her readings in modern physics and study with Indian guru Sai Baba. In Summer Solstice (1982) she merges with the night sky in a swirl of Sanskrit calligraphy. Brown planned a monument to St. Francis of Assisi in the home city that bears his name, but her accidental death in 1990—crushed by a falling balustrade at the Eternal Heritage Museum in India as she installed an obelisk dedicated to the guru—left her plans unfinished. The exhibition rounds out this truncated story with the colorful Cat and Rat Obelisk (1981) and late paintings in which she assumes the guise of a tiger, posed like one of Ingres’s orientalizing odalisques. Brown didn’t chronicle her daily life in India, and the curators reframe her involvement in exotic places with Self-Portrait in Studio (1984), which grounds her again at home, depicting herself in her full-length mirror in paint-splattered clothes against a wall bearing traces of recently completed canvases—in the modest, everyday painterliness of her Bay Area origins.