Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFMOMA’s “Joan Brown” retrospective—relatable works exploring everyday experiences, closes Sunday, March 12  

Joan Brown, Self-Portrait in Studio, 1984, Oil and acrylic paint on canvas, 2.4 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Brown, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.

Highly talented but “unserious” is how Bay Area artist Joan Brown (1938-1990) was long categorized by the fickle art world which celebrates artists for their originality IF it fits the reining definition of contemporary art. Brown’s exposure suffered when she stepped back and forged her own path. Now, thirty-three years after her death, the defiantly independent Brown is the subject of the fascinating SFMOMA retrospective,“Joan Brown,” which examines her career with fresh eyes. She is lauded as a highly influential painter who forged her own marvelously distinctive style.   The exhibit includes roughly 80 important works and is the most expansive presentation of her art in nearly a quarter century, covering the 31 years between 1959 and 1990. It closes soon, Sunday, March 12, and is well worth a visit.

Curated by SFMOMA’s Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, the exhibit spans SFMOMA’s seventh floor and traces the arc of Brown’s life as an artist. It’s always a treat when SFMOMA celebrates a Bay Area artist whose works reference our local stomping ground and when it honors a female who held her own in a sea of male colleagues. That’s Brown. She was born in San Francisco in 1938 and grew up in the Marina district and lived most of her life in the City before her passing at 52 in India in 1992. In addition to being on the art faculty at UC Berkeley, Brown was an important mentor to many artists, particularly women artists, and she was a mother, a committed athlete, an animal lover and she had been married four times. All of this made its way into her art.

The exhibition opens with canvases from the 1950-60’s, made during Brown’s student years at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)—later the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—where she met artist Elmer Bischoff, an influential mentor who she said “spoke my language, although I hadn’t heard it before.” He encouraged her to paint things from her everyday life and to trust her own instincts. She began gaining recognition for her large paintings that mixed figurative images with thick colorful paint. In 1960, at age 22, she was the youngest artist exhibited as part of the Whitney’s Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) and was selling nationally. By 1964, her works had been featured on the cover of Artforum (with an accompanying feature naming her “Everyone’s Darling”) and were in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York and SFMOMA, among others.  

Then, in the mid-1960’s, to the dismay of her peers, Brown stepped back and broke ties with her New York gallery and radically changed course, painting for herself, not sales or the attention of critics.  She abandoned thick paint in favor of enamel house paint and forged a vibrant new style that came to define her iconic works of the late 1960’s and 70’s. The curators highlight this complete break in style in her eerie 1968 work, Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees, which leans on the style of Henri Rousseau. The subject, a large gray cat, is behind a tree trunk and a sense of overall sparseness and separation prevails.

Over the next years, Brown’s style solidified in this uncluttered direction. She employed bright colors and patterns masterfully and delved into self portraiture, rendering human subjects other than herself in outline. She created an offbeat body of work that embraced autobiography, fantasy, whimsy, and frequently incorporated the familiar backdrop of San Francisco’s skyline and bridges. A vital through-line is self portraiture which Brown embraced decades before the obsessive selfie mania of today. The exhibit includes seminal portraits of a gradually aging Brown swimming, traveling, painting, dancing and living her life…and surrounded by an ever-expanding symbolic language which reached its peak in the 1980’s as she immersed herself in spiritual pursuits.  

“We’re following Brown’s intuitive, totally unabashed journey,” said curator Janet Bishop, “this is an artistic vision marked by limitless curiosity and lust for life that resulted in colorful, personal, relatable, funny works.”   


Joan Brown, Thanksgiving Turkey,1959; The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (© Estate of Joan Brown; Photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

When Brown was just 22, this turkey, which exemplifies her early abstract figurative work in dense paint, was purchased by MoMA in New York.  Drawing from her mentor, Elmer Bischoff, who advised her to paint everyday objects and on inspiration from Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655), she positions the bird precariously on the edge of a table with its belly exposed in defiance of the laws of physics. “A strange sense of space and perspective ends up being a hallmark of Brown’s paintings,” explains curator Nancy Lim. “Everything seems to lay nearly on top of each other, there’s a lot of flatness, and space doesn’t quite make sense. Thanksgiving Turkey is the first time you begin to see this in her work.”

Joan Brown, The Bride, 1970; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, bequest of Earl David Peugh III; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Johnna Arnold/Impart Photography

In this full-on-frontal portrait, one of Brown’s most powerful and well-known works, we see the development of her personal artistic language. Her symbolic vocabulary was drawn from wide-ranging cultural traditions, art history, and from her vivid imagination. The Bride breaks down into five pictorial elements: the bride, her leashed rat outlined in sparking gold glitter, her cat head, the field of poppies she is standing in, and various colorful fish that float in the sky or water above the poppies. The vibe is intense, unsettling.

“This is a painting where everything just evolved,” Brown told an audience at her slide lecture at SFAI on April 18, 1971. “I was doing a series of paintings of Adam and Eve…and it started out as a nude in the center, dead center, of Eve, and then it went from there ….”  (cited in Jacquelynn Bass, “To Know This Place for the First Time, Interpreting Joan Brown”)   Among many things, the painting addresses the bride’s power which comes from both innocence and experience and her openness to life which also entails embracing darkness. The rat, beginning with Brown’s iconic 3-D “Fur Rat” from 1962, also on display, was Brown’s most consistent and pervasive image. Here, the large and cowering leashed rat at the bride’s feet may represent Brown’s attempt to engage with her persistent fear of rats or her acknowledgement of the wisdom and intelligence associated with the rat in Chinese astrology.

The Dancers in a City, #2, 1972.  Enamel paint and fabric on canvas, 84 x 71 3/4 in. SFMOMA, gift of Alfred E. Heller. 

Brown married four times. While married to her third husband, artist Gordon Cook, the couple went to local ballrooms and the one depicted here has the San Francisco skyline in the background.  The composition features a range of techniques, from the heavy impasto of the large charming dog to the male dancer’s linear silhouetting.  After struggling to paint the woman’s dress, Brown found a improvised solution in collage and she used fabric she had on hand to cut out the shape of the dress and glued it to the painting. The work was a success and, after seeing the painting in a exhibit in 1974, influential art dealer Allan Frumkin offered to represent Brown, and she accepted.

Joan Brown, The Room, Part 1, 1975, oil enamel on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, purchase, gifts of Paul Chanin, Samuel Kootz and Dr. and Mrs. Laibe A. Kessler.

Going from gallery to gallery, you may begin to place yourself in Brown’s paintings and that relatability makes her work memorable. The Room, Part 1, from 1975 ,stuck an instant accord in me.  Like many of Brown’s artworks, this painting pays homage to a historical image that she long admired, a ninth century depiction of nomadic Khitans hunting with eagles.  Brown was deeply attracted to Chinese art and culture and its sense of exotic beauty. She had obviously read about the Khitans who, from the 4th century on, dominated much of northern China, Mongolia and the Manchurian plateau. And her work in the mid-1970s marks a transition in her focus—she began to research non-Western cultures and religions in her quest for spiritual enlightenment. In the sparse but immense gray foreground, a languorous Brown dangles her leg with its white sock and yellow shoes from an armchair while she studies the Song dynasty painting.  (The yellow shoes are a constant in her self portraits.) By contrasting her own body into near invisibility, she directs our focus to the painting, suggesting the subject here is not the herself but instead the artwork on the wall and the contemplative act of taking it in.

Joan Brown, The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975, GUC Collection, Highland Park, Illinois, @Estate of Joan Brown, photo: Michael Tropea.

An avid and accomplished open-water swimmer, Brown cherished the ideas that came to during her swims in the bay, often at sunset, looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, from 1975, is related to a series of introspective self-portraits about Brown’s frightening near-death experience during a race from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in 1975.  During the course of the race, a freighter unexpectedly passed the swimmers, producing thirteen-foot waves and large eddies.  Brown became hypothermic and had to be rescued from the water, alongside several other struggling swimmers.  Here, Brown appears warm, calm, and contemplative with the island displayed behind her. Also notable are the Matisse-like colors and energy; she drew great inspiration from Matisse.

Joan Brown, After the Alcatraz Swim #3, 1976, Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, gift of Steve Chase; © Estate of Joan Brown

Joan Brown, The Long Journey, 1981; di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, California; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Robert Berg Photography; courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa.

Brown’s long-held fascination with Egyptology manifested into a trip to Egypt after she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977. The trip ignited a passion in her. During the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, she made a number of trips to Ecuador, the Amazon, Machu Picchu, China, India and Mexico. She often traveled alone and made a point of accessing remote destinations. She said the purpose of these journeys was to study ancient belief systems and she became increasingly focused on commonalities between symbols and spiritual pursuits.  She once reflected, “I’ve always thought of my fierce side as a tiger or jaguar or lion.” The tiger was Brown’s Chinese astrological symbol.  In The Long Journey, which is on loan from Napa’s Di Rosa Collection, Brown wears a sari and depicts herself triumphantly riding a tiger as does the goddess Durga in some Hindu traditions.  The scene references transcendence and a seamless passage into the next life.

During this period, Brown visited India frequently with her fourth husband Michael Hebel and they studied with their spiritual guru, Sathya Sai Baba. Brown had an intuition that her life would be short, and it was. Nine years after painting The Long Journey, Brown died at age 52 when a concrete turret collapsed on her and two assistants as they were installing an obelisk at Sai Baba’s Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India. Reflecting on the exhibition, I have deep admiration for Brown who was clearly self-made. She met professional success early on, at a time when women artists faced all sorts of barriers, but wasn’t satisfied. She succeeded by stepping back and embracing a unique artistic style that incorporated her own experiences and helped her process her growing quest for enlightenment. In her own words: “I’m not any one thing: I’m not just a teacher, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just a painter, I’m all of these things, plus.”

If you go, the wall texts are the most engaging I’ve experienced at SFMOMA—they’re rich with fascinating autobiographical details which make Brown’s paintings come to life, such as her experience being audited by the IRS after declaring her cat, Donald, as a tax write off for being the model in her 1982 painting Joan + Donald. (Brown won.)


“Joan Brown” closes Sunday, March 12, 2023 at SFMOMA.  Free entry with general admission. Tickets: free for SFMOMA members; $25 adults; $22  65 and older; $19 19-24 years; free 18 and under.  Save time and buy tickets online before coming to SFMOMA.  

Ragnar Kjartansson’s beloved ethereal video installation The Visitors (2012) is back at SFMOMA. This is a surcharged exhibition. For guaranteed entry to The Visitors, choose “The Visitors with GA” tickets. A limited number of additional tickets for this exhibition may be available onsite, capacity permitting.

March 3, 2023 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment