A woman with a blue printed shawl on a lion with a plant in the right corner.
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

Joan Brown’s pithy, self-assured paintings are kaleidoscopic narratives that are simultaneously autobiographical and mythic. She was an original and uncompromising artist. 

“The more I am able to express the various dimensions of myself, the richer and freer the art will be. 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 these things plus, and the more areas I can tap, the richer each one of the others will be,” Brown said in a 1982 interview, quoted in a piece on her 2011 exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art.  

Brown was also keenly aware of fashion and clothing as a visual language. She painted herself in swimwear, fur hats, her painting clothes, underwear, party dresses, and bathrobes. She is often pictured with one of her husbands or lovers, her son, or accompanied by her beloved dogs and cats. 

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s marvelous retrospective of Brown’s work, which runs through March 12,  is curated by Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim. The San Francisco native’s work remains bracingly fresh and relevant. This expansive retrospective is the latest presented by several Bay Area museums over the years to showcase her work. It includes 80 paintings and sculptures, mostly self-portraits. Her images of the life of a woman artist continue to speak to generations of artists, including  Cindy Sherman and The Mission School Artist Margaret Kilgallen.

Brown was born on February 13, 1938, and raised in San Francisco. She went to the California School of Fine Arts, (the now-defunct San Francisco Art Institute) in the late 1950s, where she studied with Bay Area figurative painter, Elmer Bischoff, and met the first of her four husbands, Bill Brown. 

A child and a dog in a painting that is done in thick colors
Joan Brown, Noel and Bob, 1964; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, Mr. and Mrs. J. Alec Merriam Fund, and Morgan and Betty Flagg Fund; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Courtesy Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

She had early success with thickly painted expressionist oil paintings featuring images of her family and domestic life. They are rooted in abstract expressionism and European painting techniques. Her only child, Noel, who she had with her second husband, Bay Area artist Manuel Neri,  appears in many of these affectionate paintings.

By the late 1960s, Brown’s painting surfaces and materials had changed dramatically from layered oil impastos to large, flat, colorful, and cartoonish paintings, mostly in oil and enamel and set against bold patterns, or solid colors. 

The fiercely independent Brown was part of a  Bay Area art scene starting in the 1950s  beat era through the mid-1980s that was far from New York. It was intimate, affordable, fun, sexy, free-spirited, and awash with feminism, Zen, drugs, Beat poetry, punk, and funk. West Coast art denizens worked with found objects, collages, ceramics, and painting to reimagine their art as personal koans or absurd maps to other dimensions. 

These iconoclasts rejected being defined or labeled by academics, market forces, or even by each other. The group included Brown, Jay DeFeo and Wally Hendricks, Bruce Conner, William T. Wiley, Jess, Alan Ginsberg,  Ken Price, and Roy De Forest. Although often later referred to as a feminist painter, Brown rejected being labeled as part of the women’s movement, because she felt she would be taken less seriously as an artist. She insisted her paintings were based on her life experience rather than on any political ideology.

Brown married her third husband, artist Gordon Cook, in 1968. Her portrait “Gordon, Joan + Rufus in Front of  S.F. Opera House (1969)” shows Cook in a tux, and Brown in a deep navy gown with her scruffy black dog, Rufus.

a split canvas . tree on one side and a couple in dinner dress on the right.
Joan Brown, Gordon, Joan + Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House, 1969; Collection of Adam Lindemann; © Estate of Joan Brown.

Brown and her husband loved to dance. In “New Year’s Eve Dance #2 (1973),” she playfully dances at a New Year’s ball with a skeleton dressed in a tux and top hat. When Brown’s marriage to Cook ended in 1976, she traveled to Europe. Her voyage resulted in several paintings, including “Let’s Dance (1976),” in which she sits at a table, drinking red wine with her lover, the wine in her glass spilling onto the white tablecloth. 

Brown was a competitive swimmer. In “Bicentennial Champion (1976),” she painted herself wearing a stars-and-stripes swimsuit at her local pool, holding an award. Her light blue swimming cap and baby-doll shoes each feature one white star. “Self-Portrait with Swimming Coach Charlie Sava at Larson Pool, San Francisco (1974)” shows them both staring straight ahead, Charlie with wild grey hair and glasses, and Joan in goggles and a plastic orange and white swimming cap. In “Charlie Salva + Friends (Rembrandt and Goya) (1973),” his bright white T-shirt contrasts with Brown’s favorite painters, who sit in shadow on either side of him. 

While swimming with an all-women swim team to Alcatraz Island, 13-foot waves from the wake of a large freighter nearly drowned Brown. “The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim (1976)” depicts Brown sitting in a room with a cup of tea calmly, contemplating her swim at dusk. Her pants and shirt are black-and-white checked, and her shoes are bright yellow. Out the window, the black shadow of Alcatraz looms against a deep purple sky. In “After the Swim #1,” she casually leans against a lit fireplace, wearing a long blue dress with a white anchor stitched at the top. A painting of a distressed swimmer struggling in dangerous waves hangs over the mantel. In “After the Alcatraz Swim #3 (1976),” she sits in profile, a black telephone within reach, her blue dress emblazoned with repeating patterns of the freighter that almost killed her.

Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Brown continued to travel. In 1977, she received a Guggenheim and went to Egypt. In 1980, she also married her fourth husband, Michael Hebel, a police officer and a lawyer. They traveled together to Mexico and India. While in India, she and her husband Hebel became followers of the guru Sathya Sai Baba. During this time, she painted herself in both contemporary and ancient garb with mythical animals and goddesses.

A woman split one side in a blue pants suit and on te other side a cat.
Joan Brown, Harmony, 1982; private collection, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; © Estate of Joan Brown

 In “The Long Journey (1981),” she wears a sari while riding a tiger, like the goddess Durga. Brown portrays herself as half-woman and half-cat in the diptych, “Harmony (1982),” in which a gold sun shines over her human self while a white crescent moon beams over her cat self.  In “Year of the Tiger (1983),” she shows herself painting the gold outline of the Egyptian sky goddess, Nut, half-naked in a backbend against a light blue background. Mystical symbols and astrological constellations surround Brown while two black cats on pedestals stand guard.

The show closes with “Cat and Rat Obelisk (1981),” a tall, cerulean blue obelisk with the face of a cat at the base, and black rats scampering along golden bands at the top and bottom. The eight-foot obelisk captures the light and shadow of her life, and her journey through her mythic memoir of self-portraits, and a kaleidoscope of color.

Brown died October 26, 1990, in Puttaparthi, India, while installing a 13- foot obelisk at an ashram to honor Sathya Sai Baba’s birthday. During the installation, a concrete turret fell onto her. She was 52. 

Joan Brown
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Through March 12, 2023

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  1. Like your straight forward, just the facts presentation on Joan but also curious about your personal take on her, I.e. most inspired pieces and perhaps more problematic work in the show.

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  2. I’ve been vaguely aware of Joan Brown for years but seeing this show at the SF MOMA really introduced me in much more depth to her. Your writing here about her is a strong companion piece to the show. Thanks Lani.

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  3. I think this is an excellent article. I like the descriptions of the artworks and their contexts

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