Edited by Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim

University of California Press. 276 pages. £46.  ISBN 978-0-520-39196-3

(Catalogue of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. November 19, 2022 to March 12, 2023)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I doubt that the name of Joan Brown will mean a great deal to frequenters of galleries in the British Isles. Based in San Francisco she attracted some attention in the USA during her lifetime, but I’ve not been able to trace any record of her exhibiting in Britain. She did visit this country on more than one occasion, but more as an individual keen to see what was on display in the National Gallery and other large institutions. Did she contact any artists or critics while in London? The book under review doesn’t indicate that she did, nor does an earlier publication, Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965 by Caroline A. Jones (University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1990) in which she is prominently featured.

Joan Brown was born and christened Joan Vivien Beatty in San Francisco in 1938. She doesn’t seem to have had a particularly happy childhood. Her father drank and her mother suffered from epilepsy. Brown later said of her home environment : “It was tense, and I had made up my mind very early that as soon as I got the opportunity I was going to get the hell out of there”. Her parents wanted her to enrol at Lone Mountain College, “a single-sex Catholic institution”, but she instead opted for the California School of Fine Art after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper and visiting the establishment where she found the atmosphere to her liking. She had “no real experience or exposure to art” but was accepted on the basis of some drawings of film stars she had done.

She was seventeen and felt out of her depth among older students with a greater awareness of art history and practices. But she was encouraged by Bill Brown who, aged twenty-four, had served in Korea and studied at the Arts Students’ League in New York. He gave Beatty, as she was then, books about Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and the Impressionists. She was, as she put it, “knocked out. I’d never seen any of this stuff, and I felt this tremendous surge of energy”. She also received some early encouragement from the painter Elmer Bischoff who was teaching at the California School of Fine Art : “Elmer talked my language, although I hadn’t heard it before”.

There was something of an emphasis on abstraction at the time, especially in the form of the Abstract Expressionists who were then making their mark in New York. Some of Brown’s early paintings from around 1960 do show a degree of their influence (one comment noted her “total abandon with impasto paint”), especially from the work of Willem de Kooning, but she never really gave up on the figurative. And Bischoff’s advice to paint “simple things” also had its effect. There is a 1964 painting, “Green Bowl”, that is eye-catching in its simplicity. She was inclined to look favourably on work by Bonnard and Vuillard, both French painters noted for their domestic interiors, that she saw either in galleries or in reproductions in books. Phrases such as “use of daily household subjects”, and “simplified forms drawn from her environment, her family, and her own life”, were used to describe her work.

 There was also the fact that the Bay Area tradition of figurative art, as seen in the paintings of David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, probably interested Brown as much as, or more, than, what was coming from the East  Coast. I suspect that too many West Coast artists have been overlooked in Britain. I recall seeing a Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2015, but not much else.

It’s of value to consider the general atmosphere in San Francisco in the late-1950s and early-1960s. It was a time when the Beats were in the news. But the city had what might be called an older and wider bohemian tradition embracing poets, painters, musicians, and others. Brown mixed with artists like Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick, poets like Michael McClure and his wife, Joanna, and many others. I can’t find any reference to it but I wonder if she attended the famous poetry reading at the 6 Gallery in 1955 when Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time and other poets like Gary Snyder and the surrealist-influenced Philip Lamantia also performed their work?

Brown did have some early success when a New York dealer came to San Francisco and, visiting Jay DeFeo, happened by chance to see some of Brown’s paintings. He immediately bought two and gave her a cheque for three hundred dollars. He also suggested that she be included in a show, Young America, at the Whitney Museum. It was an auspicious start for a young artist. The money, together with earnings from teaching at a local private school, enabled her to make a trip to Europe. Among other things she was impressed by works by Velasquez, Goya, and the Rembrandt paintings she saw in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London : “It was an absolute knockout……It just showed this guy never took a middle road. It was either all the way or nothing”.  Descriptions of the work she produced when she returned to San Francisco in 1961 use phrases like “the pigment is trowelled, knifed, and (rarely) brushed on, the colors  lush and abundant in orange, pink, red, green, blue, and brown”. Colour was always a key factor in Brown’s paintings. In this connection her comment that she preferred “oil-based enamel……the stuff you paint chairs with, household paint” is worth noting.

The expressionist style that Brown had developed sold well through her New York dealer, but ultimately left her dissatisfied. Never one to stand still with her work she moved towards a simpler approach which, it seems, did not find favour with most critics. Nancy Lim’s introduction to Joan Brown suggests that comments were often “scathing” and “likely motivated as well by sexism, anti-figuration prejudices, perceptions of provincialism, or vague reasons of taste”.

Later, when she was ready to open up again, she expressed an interest in the so-called “primitive” or “naïve” painter, Rousseau. Janet Bishop says that the fact that he “was largely self-taught would have appealed to Brown, as would his unpretentious visual interests, ranging from botanical gardens to city scenes to children’s book illustrations and taxidermy”. There were additionally “the relative flatness of his paint application and his interest in animals”. Two thoughts occur to me. One is Brown’s remark that she had “a hell of a time with perspective” and, Bishop says, “rarely attempted it, preferring shallow settings that could be established with a single horizontal line, and room – or stage-like spaces that could be defined with just a few lines, formulas that she would turn to again and again”. Brown herself referred to Rousseau’s “starkness, the frontal figures, lack of concern for fancy shadows or perspectives as we know it to be”.

The second thought relates to Brown’s depictions of cats in her paintings. She was obviously fond of cats - she had a dog as well that often cropped up on canvas – and at one time was said to have had sixteen.  And I have to say that I can’t help thinking of cats when I consider the self-portraits – one hundred or so – that she painted. What is noticeable about them is that the expression tends to be always the same, fixed and unsmiling. As with cats, there isn’t an emotion decipherable. Am I being too simplistic in suggesting that Brown may have had this in mind when creating the self-portraits? She didn’t want the viewer to attempt to know what she was thinking. The essay by Helen Molesworth which looks closely at the self-portraits offers several suggestions about the paintings. She quotes Sanford Schwarz: “Most of the women are self-portraits, but that isn’t something you absorb when you’re looking at the paintings, the women don’t seem like specific people and they’re all vaguely alike”. There are some Brown paintings where a cat’s head has been imposed on a woman’s body.

Molesworth also reflects on Brown’s oeuvre which, she says, “is bifurcated by a stylistic change”. And she says that it’s difficult to pin a label on her work: “not quite Abstract Expressionism, not quite Pop, not quite Pattern and Decoration”. Is this why critics and art historians grew impatient with her? They found it difficult to fit her into a handy slot and establish a clearly defined line of development for her work. Molesworth makes a telling reference to “the other iconoclast”, Philip Guston, and his change of style that confused the critics. It requires a great deal of intellectual courage to leave behind what was done in the past and turn to something new and different, and it’s not guaranteed to make one popular.

It seems to me that Brown was constantly searching for something, not just in her painting, but also in her life. She was married several times, and inclined towards the East for fulfilment in a religious direction. Her work took on aspects of what was called “New Age spirituality”. Marci Kwon defines it as thought drawn “from a number of sources including the Vedas, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the dubious category of ‘indigenous spirituality”. I have no way of knowing how successful she was in translating her beliefs into her art, other than on a surface level.  There  are paintings indicating a turning towards Eastern mysticism. In her journal she did say: “My most important work is teaching because I can pass on a higher consciousness to my students directly”. This was written after spending time in the presence of the guru Sai Baba.  

It was while following her spiritual inclinations that Brown died in an accident. In 1990 she travelled to Puttaparthi in India to install an obelisk at the Eternal Heritage Museum : “Crowned with a golden globe, the sculpture depicts animals in harmony along with the words truth, righteousness, non-violence, peace, and love in English and Sanskrit”. But a turret in the Museum collapsed during installation of the obelisk and Brown and two assistants were killed.  

How important was Brown as an artist? I’m asking this question from the point of view of someone   looking at her work as it changed over the years between the late-1950s and her death. It is, perhaps, possible to consider certain periods when colour and content seemed to coalesce successfully. But from what I’ve seen through a combination of reproductions in books and what is available from the Internet, I’d be inclined to the view that her canvases could sometimes be variable in quality. This is not to suggest that she is ever less than interesting, though again the level of interest isn’t always sustained. Is the obsession with self-portraits truly all that effective? Granted there is a consistency about them, but consistency can become boring after a time. The paintings just don’t vary enough in their structure and background to be meaningful. On the other hand when Brown was at her best, as in paintings like the 1975 “Before the Alcatraz Swim”(on the cover of the catalogue), the 1976 “After the Alcatraz Swim 3”(Brown was an experienced long-distance swimmer),  the 1973 “Homage to Picasso”,  and the 1976 “Let’s Dance”, I find her work immediately attractive. There are often art references in her paintings, even though she occasionally spoke dismissively about critics and art historians.   I’m being selective and indicating my own personal preferences for paintings which are predominantly figurative and direct.   

Despite any doubts I may have about some aspects of her work, this catalogue is a fine tribute to an artist who didn’t follow fashionable trends and was prepared to take chances. It’s a pity her paintings aren’t better known in Britain. A careful selection of them would surely appeal to viewers with open minds. I might add that there is humour in Brown’s canvases, and that could make them appealing. There are several informative essays in the well-illustrated catalogue, together with a useful chronology.

I consulted other books when writing this review. One, Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965, I’ve already mentioned. The others were, Rebecca Solnit’s Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1990), The Beat Generation Galleries and Beyond by John Natsoulas (John Natsoulas Press, Davis, 1996), and American Women Artists by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein (Avon Books, New York, 1982). They are all valuable from the point of view of establishing the social and artistic milieu in which Joan Brown developed her highly personal style.