by Mark Van Proyen
Twenty-two years have passed since the last Joan Brown retrospective was held in two parts at the University Art Museum at Berkeley and the Oakland Art Museum. I find this fact disconcerting because it doesn’t seem nearly that long ago to me, proving (among many things) how vividly Brown’s distinctive paintings live on in memory. Now we have another major retrospective of Brown’s work curated by Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, containing 80 examples of Brown’s work created between 1959 and 1990. It is accompanied by an informative and richly illustrated catalog with essays by the curators, essays by Solomon Adler, Marci Kwon and Helen Molesworth, and ten short appreciations of specific works penned by other artists or fellow travelers. The exhibition asks us to see Brown’s work with fresh eyes and the benefits of hindsight, eliciting the question: what can be said about Brown’s work and career now that could not be said then?
In our post-me-too world, a deep dive into and reacquaintance with Brown’s three-decade career is welcome. At the very least, the new exhibition reminds us that her forthright approach to using and misusing incidents extracted from her own life foreshadowed Cindy Sherman’s anticipation of Taylor Swift while also presaging the current vogue of “memoirs” superseding novels as the preferred vehicles for storytelling. In fact, Brown was an early practitioner of what the poet Frank O’Hara called Personism, a direct, unmediated peer-to-peer address to the viewer as a specific individual disengaged from any abstract idea of audience. In O’Hara’s words, Personism is “so totally opposed to…abstract removal (of subjectivity) that it is verging on a true abstraction.”1
Joan Brown (née Joan Vivian Beatty) was a lifelong resident of San Francisco, an accomplished athlete, a mother, a wife to four husbands, a lover of animals, a world traveler and a renowned mentor and role model for dozens of (mostly) female artists working in the Bay Area and far beyond. In 1990, she perished at age 52 in a construction accident in Puttaparthi, India. This suggests that any review of the current exhibition will also have to function as a proxy for an examination of the particulars of Brown’s life and vice versa.
Although the phrase “the personal is the political” has long since been bludgeoned into banal triviality by promiscuous overuse, it is important to remember that Brown fully lived the meaning of it decades before it became a cliché. Brown was among the first to produce, direct and star in a pilgrim’s progress of her own making, decades before the idea of self-portraiture was befouled by the Internet’s proliferating tsunami of selfies. In other words, Brown’s paintings are forthrightly and unabashedly autobiographical, appearing at a time when the impersonality of late Modernist abstraction still dominated New York and Los Angeles. But changes were in the air, and Brown’s work was at the forefront. Pop Art had already established a new esthetic of irony and commercial signification. Photography was becoming prominent, and performance artists were using their bodies as art objects, enacting allegorical situations. Narrative was finally making a comeback in ways that would have been unthinkable in the years immediately after World War II.
The exhibition unfolds chronologically in eight consecutive sections containing anywhere from seven to twelve works. This organization allows for a reading of the show as a succession of solo presentations, all beautifully installed, each focusing on a specific phase of Brown’s stylistic development. Included are six three-dimensional works and 73 paintings, plus a vitrine of archival ephemera. Surprisingly, there are no works on paper. The earliest painting dates from 1959 and is titled Things Fussing Around the Moon. Brown was a 21-year-old undergraduate at the California School of Fine Arts when she painted it. Like
many of the paintings created at the school during that time, it hovers on the amorphous cusp between abstraction and figuration, fully in keeping with the work of Bill Brown (her first husband). It is also in keeping with the work of Elmer Bischoff, her first and most influential mentor at CSFA. Its colors are muted and a bit muddy, its putty-thick paint vigorously applied in boldly slathered strokes.
At the time, Brown bought oil paint in affordable gallon buckets from a family-run company called Bay City Paints in the upper Market Street area. Her across-the-hall neighbor Jay DeFeo also bought paint there, as did most of the other San Francisco painters of the time. Through DeFeo, Brown met New York gallerist George Staemphli, who gave her a solo exhibition in 1960, a then-unheard-of accomplishment for a 22-year-old female painter still in grad school. That fact should retire the lingering falsehood of Brown and DeFeo having an antagonistically competitive relationship, an overblown slander Traceable to DeFeo’s husband, Wally Hedrick.
Another more forthrightly figurative work, Thanksgiving Turkey (1959), appeared in that exhibition and was subsequently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. Other paintings from this early period include Dog Watching Moon and Dog’s Dilemma (both from 1960), showing the silhouettes of curious canines peering into otherwise undifferentiated spaces of layered impasto, tipping their pictorial hats to Francisco Goya’s 1823 painting The Dog.
When Brown was a student, she did some modeling for figure drawing classes, which gave her the experience of being examined in the same way that she had scrutinized others. That dual mode of seeing is apparent in Girl in Chair and Girl Sitting (1962), examples of the then still-reigning style called Bay Area Figurative Painting. In these early works, we can see ample evidence of an endearing clumsiness that sharply contrasts with the work of other painters aligned with that style. The phosphorescent froth bubbling up in paintings such as Bathing Girls or The Day Before the Wedding (1962) bespeaks the influence of Elmer Bischoff.
Bischoff is credited for encouraging Brown to focus her paintings on the particulars of her daily life. Starting in about 1962, she did just that, thus beginning the long journey leading to her distinctive late style. In 1962, Brown married Manual Neri, with whom she had a son named Noel (middle name Elmer!) the same year. Noel’s toddler years are highlighted in many of the works that Brown painted from 1962 to 1965. He also appears in a few subsequent paintings, captured in ways obviously extrapolated from intimate family photos. Like the earlier works, the 1962 to 1965 paintings seem to have greatly benefited from recent conservation efforts enhancing their sumptuous luster within the exhibition’s stunning installation. Although Brown was a late arrival to the Bay Area Figurative party, she was the first, indeed, the only one to feature children and family pets in her painterly scenes, including large dogs named Rufus or Bob. A few of them, such as Refrigerator Painting and Noel on Halloween (1964), also include an ominous, Maltese Falconesque bird form that Brown made from cloth, cardboard and twine called Untitled Bird (1957-60).
Pride of place is given to Fur Rat (1962), another of Brown’s three-dimensional works, also fashioned from found objects. It stands on four legs and is almost completely covered with the matted fur of a discarded raccoon coat. It looks like a rabid wolverine and is the scariest thing Brown ever made, no doubt having
something to do with her affiliation with Bruce Conner’s Rat Bastard Protective Association. The oft-circulated and undisputed legend about Fur Rat goes as follows: One night, when Brown was completing the piece, Neri wandered into her studio and said, “That’s really funky!” repeating a term he had overheard from jazz musicians. The term stuck and mutated, eventually becoming the title for the famous 1967 Funk exhibition organized by Peter Selz at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. The show received massive attention and put the Bay Area art scene on the international map. It also marked the moment when Bay Area art established an identity for being resolutely anti-Minimalism, anti-Pop, anti-cool and anti-slick. Fur Rat was Brown’s singular contribution to that exhibition. She was one of only three women included in its roster of 23 artists.
Insofar as the longer trajectory of Brown’s career is concerned, the years 1965 to 1969 are still an unresolved mystery. Do they represent a stylistic period in their own right? Or are they a prolonged period of experimentation and transition leading up to the work for which Brown would later gain international attention? The current exhibition takes the former position — in contrast to the one taken by the aforementioned exhibition 22 years ago. The main reason for this switch of emphasis is that the current show does not include works on paper, which Brown executed in abundance during those years. It has several large portraits of animals that were part of a then-new series she presented at San Francisco’s Hanson Fuller Gallery in 1968. They are all frontally posed with suspicious eyes that meet those of the viewer, all set in otherworldly, Henri Rosseau-esque landscapes. Their surfaces are brightly colored and flatly painted.
Among those on view, Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees (1968) devotes the most space to the surrounding landscape, making it the most surreal of this group. It also bespeaks Brown’s switch to enamel paint (“the kind you would paint a chair with,” she was recorded as saying); this is because she had momentarily run out of oil paint and become allergic to turpentine. She was surprised to find an advantage in the new pigment because it allowed her to achieve saturated color effects without applying oil paint in layers. From a strictly material perspective, they all seem well-preserved, which means that enamel is more archival than we thought or that heroic conservation effort overcame material deterioration.
Contextual factors that come to bear on Brown’s late 1960s animal paintings include the critical success of the Funk exhibition. Apart from works by Brown and Bruce Conner, the remainder were, according to Wally Hedrick, “about as funky as Albert Einstein.” In other words, they tended toward colorfully hallucinatory extravagance, with little or no appeal to abject esthetics. A year later, Peter Saul exhibited his eye-scorching anti-Vietnam paintings at the San Francisco Art Institute, which were soon followed by the third of the three historic Hairy Who exhibitions held at the same gallery. That Chicago-based group of artists infamously pioneered a perverse mode of cartoonish figuration executed in bright, acrid colors. They exerted a widespread influence on the northern California art community, including those who produced so-called underground comics. Thus, one can easily imagine how the Hairy Who artists may have influenced Brown’s 1968 animal paintings.
In 1968, Brown married Gordon Cook, an artist who was a longtime friend and a one-time member of a figure drawing group that included Brown, Bill Brown and Manual Neri. Colony Hotel Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica (1969, a strange Rouseau-like scene devoid of human figures, commemorated their honeymoon at a tropical resort. Brown’s two-panel painting, Gordon, Joan+Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House (1969), a kind of Arnolfini portrait certifying their marriage, with a separate panel devoted to their beloved canine Rufus, who seems happy to be relieving himself in a nearby planter box. This work has some delightful subtleties, one being how Brown painted the light refractions in Cook’s eyeglasses. Another is the way she painted the background clouds to look like billowing hearts made of whipped cream. There is no documentation of Brown being influenced by Frieda Kahlo or any other Mexican magic realist. Still, I cannot help but compare the Opera House painting to Kahlo’s 1931 painting Frieda and Diego Rivera, which came into the SFMOMA collection in 1936. Brown almost certainly saw it at some point. Less certain is the provocative possibility that Brown may also have been aware of the work of Lenora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning or Remedios Varo, all of whom painted many self-portraits locating themselves in fantastically elaborated environments.
Nineteen-sixty-nine was also the year Brown consolidated her influences to embark on several series of subsequent works, the overwhelming majority being frontal, full-figure self-portraits. A good early example is The Bride (1970), showing a centrally positioned figure clad in bridal attire, wearing a cat’s head while standing in front of a background filled with several dozen fish swimming in a turquoise sky. The figure clutches a leash attached to a large rat, surrounded by a halo made from gold glitter. A second example, Self Portrait with Fish and Cat (1970), shows the artist wearing paint-spattered studio clothes, standing against a blood-red backdrop holding a huge fish while a hungry feline impatiently lurks near the bottom of the composition. The Birthday Party (1971) depicts Brown raising a glass of celebratory champagne next to a large dog who seems far more enthusiastic about the occasion than the artist. Here we see her cornered in a room full of decorative elaborations revealed in the wallpaper and carpeting, echoing the patterns of her dress and shoes. Does this painting represent an early feminist exploration of the politics of the decorative? If so, it is a very early example. Even though The Birthday Party and The Bride take decorative elaboration to extremes, they also represent transgressive retorts to the anti-decorative bias of the male-dominated artworld.
All three of these paintings were the largest that she could move around her studio without assistance. Other paintings from the early 1970s are smaller. In 1972 Brown did a series of frontal portrayals of her face, still using enamel. Historically, frontal self-portraits usually represent moments of introspective self-confrontation, and that holds for works such as Self Portrait in Fur Hat and Woman in Knit Hat (1972). Both focus on Brown’s impassive face, portrayed as if she was holding something back from the viewer. Sadness lurks in her eyes as if she had come to a vexing fork in life’s road. An earlier frontal self-portrait from 1970, Self-Portrait, reveals additional information. In this, she captures herself looking tired and distraught, surrounded by indications of everyday domestic chaos. Dogs, cats and children’s toys are everywhere, telling the story of a young mother juggling overwhelming responsibilities. Even though the face shows a tiny bit of modeling, the eyes do not. In all three of these self-portraits, the eyes are much flatter than the rest of the faces, which look plaintive but not quite alive.
In 1973, Brown presented a new series called Dancers in a City at the San Francisco Art Institute, boldly depicting herself enjoying a whirlwind romance with a mystery partner who is sometimes depicted as a top-hatted skeleton or as a disembodied ghost. These paintings look like giant animation cells for old Betty Boop cartoons mixed with a side order of German Expressionism. They settle into a dark nocturnal palate reminiscent of her early figurative works, sporting angular compositional structures that are geometrically rigid. Do they hark back to the old medieval Dance of Death? Maybe, but it’s no coincidence that Brown painted them in the years when she first regained critical and financial success after abandoning the Bay Area figurative style. One thing is for certain: when we examine the ghostly male figure who these works portray as her dance and drinking partner, we discover that he looks nothing like Brown’s then-husband Gordon Cook, whom she divorced in 1976.
Brown was an accomplished swimmer who trained with an Olympic-class coach named Charlie Sava, pictured in one of the smaller Dancers paintings, a 1973 work titled Charlie Sava + Friends (Rembrandt + Goya). In 1974, Brown and several other women mounted a successful lawsuit against the San Francisco Dolphin Club’s exclusive male-only membership policy. That victory was foreshadowed by At the Beach (1973), a two-panel work depicting four women sharing glasses of wine while a ghostly male figure lies comatose at the right. Even though the women look like grotesque clowns (atypical of how Brown usually depicted women), their boisterous camaraderie is evident as they seem to be having a great time after a long swim.
In 1975, Brown painted several large works that reflected her near-disastrous attempt to swim the waters between San Francisco and Alcatraz. In The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, we see a profile rendition of her drinking a warm beverage while sitting in a chair as if she were Whistler’s mother. She is clad in checkerboard loungewear, posed in front of a large picture window revealing an ominous and shadowy Alcatraz lurking under a cloudy nocturnal sky. After the Alcatraz Swim #1 (1975) and After the Alcatraz
Swim # 3 (1976) commemorate the event by portraying Brown standing or sitting in rooms backdropped with paintings depicting aquatic chaos, attesting to the fact that the actual swim ended in near disaster. In the first, she stands next to a fireplace while wearing a nautically themed evening dress, while the second gives us a three-quarter view of her sitting next to a red table, patiently waiting for a telephone call.
The common formal attribute of this trio of paintings is the graphic power and Matisse-ian alacrity of their succinct compositions. Shapes and colors exist in perfect balance, supported by subtle visual surprises usually found lurking in Art Deco fabrics. If one were to look at these attributes and guess that Brown was influenced by the compositional strategies of ancient Egyptian painting, the guess would be correct. As a teenager, Brown became interested in the archeology of ancient civilizations. In 1976, she traveled to Chicago, where she encountered examples of Egyptian painting at the Field Museum. That interest manifests in The Search (1977), depicting Brown standing to the right of a composition backdropped by a rich saturation of aqua and cobalt blue. She clutches a paintbrush dripping blood-red paint in one hand while the other holds a cigarette spewing serpentine smoke wafting upward. She wears a revealing translucent gown and large shoes that anchor her to the space. Perched on an easel to the left is another picture-within-a-picture, an unfinished portrait of Nofret, a 4th dynasty Egyptian princess.
In 1977, Brown traveled to Egypt, the first of her many subsequent journeys to far-off lands. From that point forward, the compositional structures of her paintings consistently reveal the influence of ancient Egyptian painting, even when the work’s subject matter reflects other concerns. A good example is Accepting the “Key of Life”/The Initiation from 1978, painted in oil rather than enamel. It shows an ambiguous figure covered in blue keys, dissolving into an undulating topography while a cat stands on its hind legs to give her an Ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol for eternal life and an early prototype for the Christian cross.
Meanwhile, Brown’s work garnered another important accolade when Tucker selected pieces from her Dancers series for the 1978 “Bad” Painting exhibition at New York’s New Museum. Tucker initially formulated her idea for that exhibition a decade earlier while visiting Brown’s studio, a fact on which much hinges. Rather than denote poor quality, Tucker’s notion of “bad painting” referred to disobedient painting, marking the point when figuration began to reemerge in the New York artworld after decades of banishment. Soon thereafter, German and American Neo-Expressionists made their presence known, as did the subsequent proliferation of post-pop “East Village Art.” Half of the 14 artists included in “Bad” Painting were from California; all in some way were influenced by the Funk esthetic. Brown’s paintings from the 1970s could and should have also been included in the Whitney Museum’s New Image Painting exhibition held that same year, 1978.
Brown’s sustained focus on self-portraits during the 1970s and 1980s makes the question of artistic narcissism unavoidable. Indeed, they are of a piece with the 1970s “me decade” zeitgeist (more pronounced in California than in New York), but those coinciding events don’t tell the whole story. In general, the psychoanalytic gloss on narcissism characterizes it as a kind of compensatory self-possession (compensating for inner chaos or shame), a theatrically flamboyant way of faking ego integration until the requisite amount of social manipulation can be achieved. Following a distinction advanced by André Green in 2001, this can be further broken down into negative and positive narcissism, the latter denoting what Green called life drives, the former connecting to a self-destructive death drive.2 This distinction is helpful when we compare Brown’s late portraits with those of Andy Warhol. The similarities are apparent and superficial: bright color surrounding flat, centrally posed figures with flatly painted faces. The differences are crucial. Warhol’s portraits are death masks representing acts of passive-aggressive violence enacted against the humanity of the glitter-encrusted celebrities who were his subjects, including himself. Brown’s later self-portraits celebrate beating the odds to achieve a remarkable life. Where Warhol’s portraits are hyper-ironic, Brown’s self-portraits are brazenly guileless, which made them look disruptively uncanny to eyes that had grown too accustomed to cynicism and visual contrivance.
In 1979, Brown began to frequent a Hindu ashram called The Ananda Community, where she met Mike Hebel, an attorney and police sergeant. Soon after, they married in a traditional Indian ceremony. At that point, Brown had garnered almost every conceivable accolade that the art world had to offer, even as she began losing interest in it. San Francisco Chronicle critic Thomas Albright called her most recent Egyptian-themed paintings “distressingly vapid, corny and strained.” Indeed, just as the Northern California art community was starting to turn its back on Brown and most of her contemporaries, Brown was moving in another direction. The so-called “Manhattanization” of San Francisco was already well underway. Soon the renegade regionalism of Brown’s generation would be displaced by the pseudo-sophisticated, techno-bureaucratic provincialism that followed and still reigns.
Meanwhile, Brown continued to work and travel with Hebel. She made some remarkable paintings during the 1980s, amalgamating and distilling her far-flung influences. Sometimes these portrayals are drenched in symbolic fantasy, as with The Bather #5 (1982), a two-panel painting installed on a third-floor balcony apart from the other works in the 7th-floor exhibition. In this horizontally composed work, she portrays herself as a reclining odalisque, clad in a tiger-striped pantsuit with a long tail to great compositional effect. She renders the hybrid figure in crisp, graceful contours that reveal a happy confidence in the balanced relationship between what she paints and how she paints it, echoing a balance between the human and animal aspects of human nature. Summer Solstice (1982) shows a centrally posed Brown almost wholly covered in a dark blue shroud holding a black cat. The shroud, which carries a mélange of red Sanskrit characters, seems to disappear into an ultramarine background on which a bright yellow rendering of a celestial constellation floats.
Because of her newly acquired metaphysical orientation, Brown’s 1980s work momentarily fell from the artworld’s fickle favor, mainly due to an influx of yuppies who disparaged all things deemed New Age. Jealous male colleagues dubbed her “Shirley MacLaine with a paintbrush.” She bore a striking resemblance to the American actress, as can be witnessed in Self-Portrait in Studio (1984) and Homage to Akhenaton (1983). Also, like MacLaine, Brown began studying metaphysics, spirituality and reincarnation. By that point, it is doubtful that she cared what anyone in the artworld thought because she had refocused
on public art projects directed at a different audience. In 1981, she and Hebel became members of the Sathya Sai Baba Center in San Francisco. Through that relationship, Brown changed her artistic orientation in yet another dramatic direction. Only one work in the exhibition registers that aspect: a relatively small three-dimensional work called Cat and Rat Obelisk (1981), a slender, eight-foot tall, four-sided pyramid painted sky blue and golden yellow, featuring several silhouettes of scurrying rats and a cat’s face. Compared to many of Brown’s other public projects from the late 1980s, it is little more than a maquette.
Spending several hours examining the works in this exhibition proved to be instructive. I overheard many semi-private conversations about the paintings, leading up to this unscientific realization: Male viewers (myself included) tended to prefer the earlier, pre-1966 works, while the later works spoke more to the experience of female viewers. Reasons for this disparity are hard to pin down. Maybe they have to do with changes in the times in which they were painted, not to mention the changes in the times that came later. Another possibility pertains to the implicit or perceived ownership of artistic styles. In the early works, Brown succeeded in playing a man’s game on its own preexisting terms. Gradually, she began to include other terms extracted from her own life. By 1969, she was painting according to the guiding lights of her own making, literally going off the limited reservation allowed to female artists of the time, because it was the perfect time to do just that.
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“Joan Brown” @ SFMOMA through March 23, 2023.
1. Frank O’Hara, Personism Manifesto (1959).
2. André Green, Life Narcissism/ Death Narcissism, (London: Free Association Books, 2001).
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.