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Issue 234

Joan Brown Paints for Herself

The most thorough exhibition of the artist’s work in two decades showcases her iconoclastic, diaristic style

BY Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 02 FEB 23

From her beginnings as a painter until her tragic death at age 52 in 1990, Joan Brown made work that was in both explicit and implicit dialogue with self-portraiture: in painting herself, Brown also painted for herself, developing a distinctive style that had little in common with her contemporaries. Her documentation of everyday personal experience, combined with surreal dream logic, often executed on a grand scale, resulted in a highly eccentric oeuvre that, though largely relegated as an oddity regional to the California Bay Area where she lived and worked, has long held legendary status for a significant clique of clued-in painters. Her retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the most thorough in more than 20 years, and will be the first to travel outside her locale to the Orange County Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, reintroducing her incomparable work to a wider audience.

A cat in a white, red-ribboned dress, with fish swimming behind, flowers underfoot, and a large rat at the front of the canvas
Joan Brown, The Bride, 1970, oil, enamel paint and glitter on canvas, 2.3 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Brown; photograph: Johnna Arnold/Impart Photography

Despite achieving early success and critical acclaim in the late 1950s and early ’60s for her then-signature style of heavily impastoed figuration painted in lush jewel tones with buttery passages of abstraction – her canvases were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1960, and shown on the cover of Artforum in 1963 – Brown refused to be pigeon-holed by past success or bound to one style. She broke with her New York gallery in 1964 and developed what would become her mature style: large-scale portraits of people and animals set in reductive yet ornamentalized environments of either very shallow space or space with minimal illusionism. Preferring enamel house paint, Brown dialled up the colour in these works in flat shapes and patterns. Several stunners from the early 1970s, such as The Bride (1970), flaunt accents of densely applied gold glitter. Instead of rendering volume and shadow, she opted for tonal contrast and heavy outlining to define form. Brushwork is either not evident or deliberately loose.

An almost all-red painting: the artist stands at the front, holding a large trophy, wearing a blue cap; in the background, a white-T-shirted figure leaps into whirling water
Joan Brown, The Bicentennial Champion, 1976. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Brown; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Anglim/Trimble, San Francisco

The Room, Part 1 (1975) exemplifies Brown’s genius for compositional syncopation and imbalance: a single bare leg, wearing a white sock and a yellow shoe, hangs over a red-and-purple-patterned armchair that sits off-centre on a flat grey ground defined as a room solely by three black lines. At the very top is a framed painting of men, horses and birds based on a ninth century Chinese work by Hu Gui (Khitans Using Eagles to Hunt). As with the rest of her strongest work, an easy awkwardness hits the eye askew, indelible and naked.

A painting of a woman with red hair in paint-splattered clothing, in her studio
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

While that painting reads obliquely as a withholding self-portrait – the artist in solitary communion with an artwork from a culture to which she lay no biographical claim – the bulk of Brown’s self-portraits are full-frontal affairs with a disarming diaristic intensity. She appears in hybrid animal form – usually half-cat, as in Harmony (1982) – or paired with animals that held symbolic and personal meaning, as in Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat (1970). She presents as the competitive, open-water swimmer she trained to be: with her coach (Self-Portrait with Swimming Coach Charlie Sava, at Larsen Pool, San Francisco, 1974); in her bathing suit holding a trophy (The Bicentennial Champion, 1976); and backed by the bay waters in which she loved to swim (After the Alcatraz Swim #3, 1976). We see her as mother with son in Christmas Time 1970 (Joan + Noel) (1970) and as wife with husband (and dog) in Gordon, Joan + Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House (1969). But, mostly, she portrayed herself alone as a painter. In Self-Portrait in Studio (1984), for instance, she holds a loaded brush, sports paint-streaked clothes, is adorned with jewellery and eye makeup and wears protective gloves. Though her features are characteristically placid, they convey concentration and heightened inwardness – time and again, we see the artist looking hard at herself.

‘Joan Brown’ is on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 12 March. 

Main image: Joan Brown, Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees,1968, enamel paint on canvas, 1.8 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Brown

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer is a writer who publishes the journal Pep Talk, co-runs The Finley and teaches at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (2014, Afterall). She lives in Los Angeles.