by Robert Brokl
As a rule, we might expect something frothy and diverting from a summer exhibition. But Breaking the Rules, a retrospective exhibition of the work of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown, does just the opposite. It’s meaty and substantial—dense with work from all phases of the two artists’ long careers. Filling two galleries, the show weaves together examples of their better-known work with less-familiar small-format drawings, delicate gouaches and imposing paintings. The exhibition also forthrightly focuses on their long-term gay relationship, from when they decided to live openly as “out” in the 1950s after moving to California to attend UC Berkeley.
The exhibition, supported by a thoroughly researched catalog, benefits from the association Crocker Curator Scott A. Shields formed with both artists during their lifetimes, evidenced by his keen perspective on them and their work – and, just as notably, the fact that the artists donated 1,800 drawings and other works of art to be sold, per their wishes, to benefit emerging LGBT artists under the auspices of the Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown Endowment Fund established by the Crocker. Wonner died in 2008, Brown in 2012. Former San Francisco supervisor, public defender, artist and collector Matt Gonzalez, who befriended Brown, also contributes an essay to the catalog.
In addition to delineating their relationship and intertwined careers, Breaking the Rules also touches on luminaries of Bay Area art, such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and Joan Brown, while also exploring Wonner and Brown’s exposure to and in some cases, association with such national and international artists as Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. Even so, their most significant influences were each other.
In so doing, Shields sets out to right the wrongs of past exhibitions, commentaries and false categorizations, pushing back against past objections to subject matter involving male nudes or “male-to-male interactions.” Less earth-shaking perhaps, but meaningful, we learn Wonner and Brown both beat David Hockney to the swimming pool motif.
Considering the effort and expense involved in mounting retrospectives, Breaking the Rules is a welcome antidote and retort to the recent SFMOMA Joan Brown retrospective, another Bay Area Figurative leading light. That needlessly spare show (no works on paper, even) left the impression that Brown was a Bay swimmer who happened to paint, not a painter who swam in the Bay, among other pursuits.
Wonner and Brown — one born poor, the other upper-middle class– couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. And although their lives and art seem quintessentially Californian, both grew up elsewhere. Wonner was born April 24, 1920, in Tucson, Arizona, in an area he called “slum.” His father was a railroad conductor for the Southern Pacific Railroad and was often absent; Wonner described his homemaker mother as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” Nevertheless, Wonner did well in school and won prizes for his art, and even had exhibitions. After graduating, he headed for California to attend the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. His father’s parting shot was that he wasn’t good for anything else, so he might as well be an artist.
There, too, his skill attracted attention, including that of Xavier Martinez, who had studied with the celebrated French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and taught Wonner’s first life drawing class. He graduated in 1941 with a BA degree in art education, figuring, “It never occurred to me that ever in my lifetime I would make my living by being a painter…and I just always planned that I would have to do something else to make a living.” But making a living would have to wait; he was drafted by the U.S. Army, serving four years, mainly in a stateside desk job.
The military also grabbed William Theophilus Brown. (He later dropped William, deciding there were too many other Bill Browns around, including Joan Brown’s first husband.) But his life before that was decidedly privileged. Born April 7, 1919, he grew up in Moline, Illinois, where his father was a mechanical engineer, designer, and inventor, holding 160 patents for Deere & Company, on whose board he sat. The family lived in a large house with two maids and spent parts of every summer in a second home in Massachusetts. The family lineage dates to 17th-century English settlers, for whom Theophilus was traded back and forth as a middle and first name for generations. His father, a skilled draftsman, encouraged Brown’s drawing and musical abilities. The attention he received for both at Lake Forest Academy, a boys’ college prep school on Chicago’s North Side, was tempered by the realization that he was probably a “fairy” (his sister’s derogatory term) and his discovery of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice.
After graduating, he wanted to attend the Art Students League in New York City but acceded to his parents’ wishes that he first graduate from an Ivy League University. He chose Yale. There, he took art and music classes but realized that his talents lay in art. To nurture that interest, he frequented museums in New York and acquired “modest examples” of work by Picasso, Modigliani, and others. He even went with friends to Paris in 1939, just before the war, sailing on the SS Normandie for a two-week stay.
Like Wonner, Brown was drafted by the Army, but his tour of duty was delayed until he graduated with a BA degree in music in 1941. Brown made many fruitful connections at Yale, including forming a friendship with Thomas Hess, the founder of ARTnews, who married a wealthy collector, which proved helpful later on. Brown was assigned to a heavy weapons battalion after basic training, but a fateful intervention by his mother likely saved his life. Unbeknownst to him, she lobbied a general’s wife, and he was subsequently transferred to an army intelligence unit, escaping the fate of many former comrades who were killed in battle. Brown ultimately served in Belgium but was relieved to be discharged in 1945. Stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1942, he began his first relationship, a six-month affair with a Navy sailor.
The Lure of New York and Paris—Brown
Post-war New York and Paris beckoned, and Brown made connections in both cities, where he met art collectors and, through them, artists like Elaine and Willem de Kooning, who “took him under their wing.” He was especially close to Elaine, and her expressionist paintings of sports activities (basketball in particular) influenced him to try his hand at similar subject matter, most notably the football paintings he made during art school and after. Not that he cared for the sport — it was the visuals that interested him. From Willem, he learned to deploy an energetic allover technique and was gifted a painting, which he and Wonner later sold to pay for a European trip. He also met Rothko and Still while living in a one-room coop apartment off Central Park, which his father paid for. In post-war Paris, he met Picasso, Balthus, Léger, Igor and Vera Stravinsky, and gay composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, while carrying on a relationship with a French critic named Henri Hell, a pseudonym for Jose Enrique Lasry.
But at some point, Brown realized he was “orbiting” around more accomplished people and was himself a “remittance man,” living off his father’s largess. So, at age 33, he returned to school, ultimately choosing UC Berkeley, where a friend from Yale took a teaching job.
The Lure of New York—Wonner
Wonner also ended up in New York after the war but didn’t move in the same glamorous circles as Brown after following a boyfriend there that he met while in the service in Texas. The relationship ended, and Wonner found work as a designer, which sapped his creativity and stole his time. Wonner did attend the Subjects of the Artist School (later called Studio 35) in the year that it was open, 1948-49. Instructors like Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell attempted to impart the tenets of Abstract Expressionism, including the importance of spontaneity and the unconscious. He also entered a fraught four-year relationship with a violent boyfriend prone to bar fights. Concluding he “was a Western boy…in a city where you never see the sky,” Wonner enrolled at UC Berkeley.
UC Berkeley and the Fateful Meet-up
Wonner and Brown enrolled in the master’s program at UC Berkeley, determined to dedicate themselves to art. It was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted 56 years. Brown was initially attracted to Wonner, but the latter, Brown assumed, was stand-offish because of his background and perhaps from defensiveness about returning to school after his global adventures. Allying as rebellious students, they shared a Shattuck Avenue studio.
The Launch: The Bay Area Figurative Exhibition
Whatever rivalry separated Bay Area art schools at that time faded as personal and artist connections formed. Brown began teaching in the UC Berkeley art department, along with David Park, while Richard Diebenkorn, unbeknownst to them, became their neighbor in the Shattuck studio building. They soon met and began figure drawing sessions with Park, James Weeks, Nathan Oliveira, and Bischoff, who also got a studio in the building. Despite the tight-knit nature of the group, Shields writes that the couple felt separate from the others: “Brown knew that because he and Wonner came from different backgrounds and were a homosexual couple, they would always remain, at least to some degree, outsiders.”
During this period Wonner and Brown were both slyly spoofing masculinity. Wonner’s large triptych, Seven Views of the Model with Flowers (1962), shows nude male figures all holding bouquets, while Brown’s cubist-influenced paintings blended body parts of jocks locked in football combat.
The influential curator, Paul Mills, at the Oakland Museum, assembled his ground-breaking Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting in 1957, drawing primarily from this group. The show, which included Bischoff, Dienbenkorn, Park, Wonner, Brown, James Weeks, Walter Snelgrove, Joseph Brooks, Henry Villierme, Bruce McGaw, Robert Downs, and Robert Qualters, was a sensation, merging figurative subject matter with the Abstract Expressionist paint handling. It helped put the Bay Area art scene on the map and made Park a star, even though he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it, dying of cancer at 49. For Wonner and Brown, the show was less of a boost than a push forward. While filled with significant exhibitions, the arc of their art careers came to be defined by teaching positions that necessitated frequent moves, one of which was to LA when Wonner got teaching jobs, first at UCLA and then at Otis Art Institute.
Los Angeles: Swimming Pools and Isherwood
Los Angeles was simpatico until the air got to them. Living in Santa Monica and then Malibu just across a highway from a nude beach, which they frequented, both Wonner and Brown, in the latter part of the 1960s, turned toward tighter control in their art, with more crisply defined figures and objects, reflected in Brown’s nude figures on beaches. He also traveled to Italy to study metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico, and those influences subsequently infused his work with a dream-like surreal quality.
In Los Angeles, they kept company with novelist Christopher Isherwood (and his artist partner, Don Bachardy), David Hockney and the Stravinskys. Comparisons between Wonner and Brown and Hockney, the latter born nearly two decades later, are striking, as exemplified by Living Room at I’s (Christopher Isherwood) (ca. 1964), a small (12 x 18 inch), Vuillard-like gouache by Wonner, depicting Wonner and Brown and perhaps Bachardy.
Hockney may have made swimming pools his signature motif, but Wonner and Brown got there first with strikingly more personal work. Wonner’s Untitled, from his swimming pool series (ca. 1962), another small gouache, shows a submerged, floating figure. It’s ambiguous, even a little worrisome, superficially similar to Hockney’s better-known Portrait of an Artist of two figures. This large acrylic painting from 1972, traded by zillionaires like a baseball card, is assumed to represent the end of Hockney’s relationship with Peter Schlesinger, but it’s mostly just pretty. Hockney’s first swimming pool painting, from 1964, depicts the light pattern on the water’s surface. But Brown’s 1963 painting Swimming Pool, of three figures, is far more dramatic and suggestive. The water is dark inky blue, not Hockney’s turquoise. The foreground male figure, with only his shoulder and head visible above the pool’s edge, is shrouded in shadow and looks calculating. A female figure behind holds a plastic ball, but her face is also in shadow. Her red bathing suit top is quite prominent, however, and behind her, at the other edge of the pool, a male figure, legs spread, is cropped at the waist and just below the knees. Make of that what you will.
While Brown felt the need to consult a Jungian therapist in LA, Wonner’s paintings often reflected more significant psychological issues, as seen in the lone male figure obscured by a lamp in Malibu Living Room (1964). As for Wonner, he considered his best painting to be Nude with Indian Rug (1961). The female figure, isolated at the top of the canvas, propped against a wall, looks beached, lifeless. The rigorous composition blunts the pathos, but only a little. Similarly, a series of still lives, mostly showing empty tabletops
against bare walls, shares a similar grimness, albeit more oblique. Glasses with Pansies (1968) consists mainly of shades of subdued gray, except for two vases of pansies, a theme shared by the gay artist (and AIDS victim) Joe Brainard, who also made works in the late 1960s featuring the same flower. Pansy is, of course, one of many anti-gay epithets.
By contrast, Brown’sGirl on Porch, from 1966, a solitary nude woman reading, with a dog alongside, is superficially in Edward Hopper territory but without the melancholy.
Late Work, Critical Reactions and Wrong-Headed Art History
After years in Southern California, Wonner and Brown relocated to San Francisco in 1976, and with Brown’s inheritance, they purchased a Victorian house at 468 Jersey Street in Noe Valley, where they lived for the next 25 years.
Brown concentrated on a series of large-format acrylic paintings, many of them portraits that extended his earlier dreamscapes of figures, often nude, on beaches or in landscapes. One such picture, Jim Christiansen (Open Book), from 1970, could also be named No Escape, as the figure appears to be trying to retreat from the artist’s penetrating gaze. The only hints of warmth in this otherwise chilly picture, defined by grays and blues, are bits of red striping on the subject’s jeans and in small pictures on the wall. The sitter’s obvious discomfort mirrors that seen in Alice Neel’s portraits.
During this same period, Brown drove around San Francisco and nearby cities, photographing abandoned industrial buildings; those images became source material for paintings devoid of figures, save the occasional dog. While indebted to Precisionists like Charles Scheeler and de Chirico, they represented a bold departure for Brown. That the buildings have some Thiebaud coloration may be partly attributable to the years of figure drawing sessions that included Thiebaud, the celebrant of San Francisco’s vertiginous streetscapes. Brown’s desolate urban scenes are more nostalgic; one even carries the title Backward Glance.
Wonner, meanwhile, launched a series of Dutch vanitas-style paintings: large-scale acrylic-on-canvas works, which, over the next two decades, depicted everyday objects— postcards of famous artworks, flowers, food, condiment jars, often against dark or neutral backdrops, and sometimes moody skies, with objects set on patio-like surfaces. Reproductions make them appear photorealistic, but they exhibit subtle painterly flourishes when seen in person. The highlight is the six-foot square, A Peaceable Kingdom (1988), Wonner’s take on Edward Hicks’ 19th-century classic of the same title. Into it, he packs an ark’s
worth of animal imagery: a cat sidling up to a large dog, birds on branches, a toucan, a rabbit, a rooster and a bird perched on the lip of the open drawer. Looking at it brought to mind some sartorial advice once offered by a drag queen friend: throw on all the jewelry you want, but if you remove just one piece, you’ll be in perfect taste. Wonner gleefully broke that rule.
Critics were not universally smitten. San Francisco Examiner architecture critic Allen Temko, in a review of Wonner’s 1981 retrospective at SFMOMA featuring some 70 works from 1958 to 1981, called Wonner’s still lives, “coy table settings…cheap postcard illusions to masters such as Vermeer and Chardin…” Further twisting the knife, he compares Wonner unfavorably to the venerated Morandi, whose work was also on view in the museum. Critics Suzaan Boettger and Sandy Ballatore, writing in Images & Issues, rose to Wonner’s defense, arguing that he’d updated the vanitas paintings he admired. According to Shields, he did so by “putting Vermeer’s aesthetic into a Safeway supermarket, visual metaphors for San Francisco’s combination of seamy bohemianism and conservative wealth and privilege.” Critical differences notwithstanding, these paintings sold well at upscale galleries and ended up in prestigious collections like the Metropolitan.
But more insidious, and from an unexpected source, was the seminal Bay Area Figurative Survey exhibition and its accompanying weighty catalog, by Caroline Jones at SFMOMA, in 1990. Her arbitrary and misguided delineation of the Bay Area Figurative artists into oversimplified first- and second-generation groups, with Wonner, Brown, and Oliveira as a “bridge generation” in between, continues to cast shadows over their role and contribution to this day. Jones opted for a cut-and-dried approach. She divided the Bay Area Figurative group into those who were initially nonobjective and then shifted to become representational painters and those who were somewhat in-between or more or less figurative, to begin with, further subdividing the group by age, the youngest being Joan Brown, Manuel Neri and Bruce McGaw).
So even though Wonner and Brown were “there at the beginning,” almost the same age as Diebenkorn and Bischoff, and enjoyed collaborative relationships with the “originators,” they were assigned “bridge-generation” status, implying that they were derivative. But her reasoning was flawed: James Weeks, who she assigned “first generation” status, was never really nonobjective. Wonner, for his part, exhibited a nonobjective painting in the Guggenheim Museum’s Younger American Painters show in 1954.
Jones did have positive things to say about both Wonner and Brown, praising, for instance, Wonner’s bravura painting technique and “psychological acuity.” But her designation of both, as being outside defined timelines and categories, took hold like slogans or smears. Cathy Curtis’ Los Angeles Times review of a 1991 Newport Harbor Art Museum show reflected that bias: “Paul Wonner’s Chair of 1960″ — depicted in a stark natural setting—”also suffers from a lack of ease and openness, rather like a would-be Diebenkorn that just doesn’t cut it.”
Wonner and Brown were so irritated by their apparent relegation to second-tier status that they considered skipping the opening. (Brown was still fuming in an interview in 2010.) Rather than shoe-horning artists into ill-fitting categories, Jones might have done well to heed de Kooning, who observed: “After a while, all kinds of painting become just painting for you—abstract or otherwise.”
When Wonner’s back gave out, he and Brown moved to the Towers, a fancy senior high-rise residence in San Francisco. Wonner painted small gouaches of an older painter with young, strapping, nude male models, which he described as portraits of youth and age. Brown made a more abrupt rupture with his earlier work, turning to small acrylic, abstract collages.
Wonner died in 2008, and in his obituary in the SF Chronicle, Kenneth Baker, in the last paragraph, mentioned his survivors, a sister and “his longtime companion and fellow painter, Theophilus Brown.” When Brown died in 2012, a more positive obituary in the same paper by Julian Guthrie, celebrating his long artistic life, mentioned his “quick mind and mischievous wit. She described his paintings and drawings of male nudes, and his works of equines, writing, “Oh, the horses and dicks.” A lot of change can happen in four years.
An earthquake shook the Crocker Art Museum the day I saw the show. I had wandered into a gallery with an immense Luis Jimenez sculpture when a guard rushed in, responding to the earthquake I’d not noticed. He pointed out that part of the sculpture was still vibrating. It seemed a good time to retreat to the Wonner/Brown gallery, a sanctuary where danger could be temporarily forgotten.
Postscript: Curator Scott Shields and the Crocker Art Museum deserve commendation for elevating the profile of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown. But we live in difficult times, where LGBTQ people are being pushed back into the closet, or worse. And yet, blue-chip gay artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol are immune from attack. Even Robert Mapplethorpe, now fully, monetized, is no longer shocking. Kenji Yoshino, in his book “Covering,” describes how marginalized minorities adopt survival strategies of hiding and concealment. That wasn’t necessary for artists like Agnes Martin or Ellsworth Kelley; they lived discrete lives and worked abstractly. Artists such as David Park encoded what many read as gay imagery, but critics still generally ignore such interpretations.
It’s not demeaning Brown and Wonner to suggest their need to hold down jobs and show and sell their work may have caused them to pull their punches. The late Bay Area artist, Richard Caldwell Brewer, roughly the same age as Brown and Wonner grabbed the bull by the horns with explicit homoerotic imagery and paid the ultimate art world price: obscurity and erasure. Bernice Bing, with three strikes against her—Asian, lesbian, female — is only now getting the belated recognition she deserves. And, unfortunately, it’s not hard to image the National Portrait Gallery’s controversial, ground-breaking Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture generating serious pushback today, if it were held at all.
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“Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown” @ Crocker Art Museum through August 27, 2023.
About the author: Robert Brokl is a painter and printmaker with an MFA from UC Berkeley, where he studied with Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Karl Kasten, Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Sylvia Lark. His work is in the public collections of the Library of Congress, Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts (FAMSF), Oakland Museum of California, Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, the LGBT Historical Society Museum, SF; and Bates College Museum of Art. He was an artist in residence at the de Young Museum( FAMSF) in 2006, the year he was awarded a Gottlieb Foundation grant.