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A Portrait of Joan Brown

by Jesse Hamlin

Noel’s First Christmas (1963), oil on canvas. Below: Brown in her studio in 1986. The artist and Berkeley faculty member created autobiographical work, often painting her son, Noel, among other beloved characters who recurred in her colorful life. Brown’s self-portraits were windows into her eccentric soul: In 1970’s Self-Portrait With Fish and Cat, which graces our May 2018 cover, she sports paint-splattered clothes, holding a fish in one hand and a paintbrush in the other while a feline friend prowls nearby.

Family and friends recall the provocative painter’s tough love, unconventional life and “heroic death.”

Joan Brown painted some marvelous pictures in the 1970s, including two rich series of works exploring her passions for swimming in San Francisco Bay and big-band dancing, and an homage to Picasso, whose freewheeling creativity spoke to the masterly San Francisco painter.

“I respond to Picasso and respect him tremendously because he wasn’t worried about ‘style’ as a definition of his ego,” Brown said in 1973, nearly a decade after she’d abandoned the thick-impasto figurative expressionist style that had brought her fame, shifting direction when she saw that she could fake the paintings’ spontaneous quality. “He didn’t need to be an ‘abstract painter’ or a ‘portrait painter’ — he did whatever he pleased, setting his own rules and breaking them just as soon as he made them.”

The same might be said of the late Brown, a prolific artist who changed modes repeatedly over three decades. Drawing inspiration from many sources — Rembrandt, Velazquez, Matisse, Rousseau, Indian miniatures, Egyptian art, Theosophy and Hinduism — she created an expansive body of work, painting vital autobiographical pictures that often merged the factual and fantastical, comic and ominous tones. She portrayed herself and people and things she loved: her young son Noel in many settings; her husbands (she had four); family pets like Bob the dog and Donald the cat; her swimming coach Charlie Sava (framed by Goya and Rembrandt).

Brown, who tried to “paint the human condition,” created symbolic, spiritually minded pictures in the 1980s, when she began making large-scale public sculptures because, as she put it, “I don’t like the elitism which is happening in the art world these days. I’m really for bringing the art back to the people.” In 1990, she was installing a tiled obelisk that she’d created to honor her guru, Sai Baba, at the construction site of the Eternal Heritage Museum in southern India when a turret came crashing down and killed her and two assistants. She was 52 and believed in reincarnation.

SFMOMA painting and sculpture curator Janet Bishop met Brown the year before, while helping mount a show of Bay Area figurative art at the museum. It included paintings by Elmer Bischoff, who had mentored Brown at what’s now the San Francisco Art Institute and inspired her to follow her instincts, and other works from second-generation practitioners like Brown and her second husband, sculptor Manuel Neri, Noel’s father.

“I was struck by the incredible vitality and freedom in her work,” says Bishop, who’s planning a Brown retrospective that SFMOMA intends to present around 2021.

In the pictures that brought Brown acclaim at 22 — when she had her first New York gallery show and was featured in the Whitney Museum’s prestigious “Young America” exhibition — “she just loaded the brush and the canvas with paint,” Bishop notes. “They have an intense physicality that was very much her own. Later on, in the ’70s, when her work becomes more flat and graphic, I think she emerged as a truly distinctive voice. That work is still underappreciated.”

Bishop admires the way Brown painted any subject that mattered to her. “It wasn’t necessarily a cool thing to be painting Christmas trees, Thanksgiving turkeys and your kid. She painted really personal things. Much of Joan’s life and artistic practice was a process of self-exploration. She had broad interests, and those interests emerged very fluidly in her paintings.”

SFMOMA has 29 Brown works, several acquired in recent years, like the beautiful “Green Bowl” from 1964, one of her last thick impasto paintings, and one of her dynamic picture-within-a-picture “Alcatraz Swim” paintings, given for the opening of SFMOMA’s expanded home in 2016.

In the mid-’70s, Brown was one of the women who successfully sued San Francisco’s all-male South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club to admit women. She also won an IRS appeal allowing her to take Donald the cat as a tax write-off.

“Joan was tough and direct but had a sense of humor. She was great,” recalls painter Squeak Carnwath, a retired Cal art professor who got her initial teaching job at Berkeley on the recommendation of faculty member Brown.

“What I love about her painting is its boldness,” Carnwath says. “She was skillful but didn’t rely on skill. She could do anything, but she didn’t have to show you. They’re confident paintings that don’t shirk back.”

The venerable Bay Area artist William T. Wiley encountered Brown when he came here from Washington state to study. The slight, feisty woman was a year ahead of him. “Right away I noticed her and the work,” Wiley recalls. “She was a great painter and a great spirit, not afraid to change and try things. She was always interesting. She had that wonderful sensibility about how much is enough.”

Interest in Brown’s idiosyncratic work has increased in recent years as younger artists and curators have embraced it. Because of the “slickness and ubiquity of digital imagery,” younger viewers “respond to things that are done by hand and show it,” says Ed Gilbert, owner of San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert Gallery, which has long represented Brown (and now her estate) here and regularly sells her paintings, which go for $200,000 to $400,000.

Brown’s 1975 painting Woman Waiting in a Theatre Lobby evokes the stillness of solitude, with an intriguing undercurrent of melancholy or discontent. The artist had aimed to paint “the human condition,” and was an influential female voice in a male-dominated field. SFMOMA, which has 29 works by Brown, is planning a major, long-overdue retrospective for 2021. Above: Joan Brown stands next to her tiled obelisk near the Embarcadero in 1986. Brown’s obelisks can be found throughout the city.

“Certain so-called eccentric figurative painters like Joan are heroic, especially to younger women painters right now,” adds Gilbert, standing in the Dogpatch gallery office where one of Brown’s symbolic self-portraits, “Year of the Tiger,” hangs on the wall. Her Chinese astrological symbol was the tiger and “she saw herself as a cat.”

Noel Neri, a conceptually minded sculptor who lives in Philadelphia, says of his mother, “Joan was not a genius artist by any means, but she was a really good painter. What she had to offer was herself. There’s a lot of her in the work — that’s what she gives. Joan was a very generous and kind person. Her students have very nice things to say about her. One guy said she kicked his ass when he needed it, and she’d support you at the same time.”

Neri accompanied his mother to Puttaparthi, India, in 1990 to help install the obelisk. But when work was delayed, he came home after several weeks. A few days before she died, Brown wrote letters home to Noel and her husband, Mike Hebel, the San Francisco cop and lawyer she’d married in a Hindu ceremony at the old SFMOMA on Van Ness. The letters only arrived weeks later.

“She was in an absolutely happy, elevated state of mind,” says Neri, who found comfort in the letters. “She died a kind of heroic death – museum roof caving in on an artist! She had an extraordinary life.”

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