Joan Brown: Artist Out of Water

The San Francisco painter Joan Brown achieved international recognition when she was scarcely out of her teens. By 1960, the same year she graduated from the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI), she was represented by a major New York gallery, and was one of thirty-six artists included in the Whitney’s Young Americans exhibition. But even as she worked in San Francisco among a burgeoning cohort of fellow artists that included Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo and Manuel Neri, Brown’s work developed in the following decades in a way that was distinct from others. Thinly brushed lines of enamel replaced her signature thick oil application, and shifting concerns in composition and tonal contrasts followed. However, themes within her imagery remained consistent even as her style evolved—namely, the reoccurring motif of water. Although many other California-based artists are known for their water-themed works—David Hockney for his swimming pools, and Richard Diebenkorn for his aquatic-framed cityscapes, among others—this running theme throughout Brown’s work is rarely given critical attention in the same way. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Joan Brown, Rio Vista, California, 1971; Courtesy of The Joan Brown Estate

Joan Brown | The Bicentennial Champion, 1976, Oil enamel on canvas, 96 x 78 inches. Estate of Joan Brown

A San Francisco native, Brown swam in the Bay for most of her life. A body of water known for its icy temperature and harrowing currents, this was not for the faint of heart. Although she had competed in amateur swims for many years, in 1972 Brown began training with Hall of Fame swimming coach Charlie Sava, who became a life-long friend and mentor, and a frequent subject of her paintings.

Joan Brown | Self-Portrait with Swimming Coach Charlie Sava at Larsen Pool, S.F., 1974, Oil enamel on canvas, 34 x 48 ¼ inches. Denver Art Museum

By 1975 Brown competed in her first Alcatraz race, swimming from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shoreline. When a large freighter ship passed the swimmers, it created a surge that disoriented many of them. Brown was pulled from the water over an hour later, hallucinating, and stiff with hypothermia. Traumatized by the experience, she went on to create a related series of paintings and drawings. However, the artist was not deterred by the experience, remarking in 1981 that she depended on the daily ritual of swimming in the Bay, saying: “I like to do it at the end of the day, near sundown when the light on the water is very beautiful and peaceful. It is actually a form of meditation, and many of my ideas for paintings have materialized when I’m out on my daily swim.”

Joan Brown | After the Alcatraz Swim #3, 1975, Oil enamel on canvas, 96 x 77 ½ inches. Palm Springs Desert Museum, California

Joan Brown | After the Alcatraz Swim #4, 1975, Oil enamel on canvas, 96 x 78 inches

Brown’s connection to the water also extended beyond her activities as a swimmer. An avid traveler drawn to the cultures and religions of other countries, the sights and experiences of her wanderlust emerged in her work. Thus water signified a medium of transport and a backdrop to foreign lands.

Joan Brown | The Journey #3, 1976, Oil enamel on canvas, 72 x 90 inches. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum

Water also served as a symbolic passageway to other worlds. Chinese Statues Guarding a Delta Landscape reflected the artist’s emerging interests in the philosophies of mysticism and spirituality, allowing viewers a glimpse into a serene night landscape that allegorically represented the afterlife. This theme is more literally stated in her enormous double-panel work, No Excess Baggage, in which the inscription reads “He for whom this is accomplished, his soul shall live in eternity and he shall not die again in the underworld,” hinting yet again at spiritual journey by way of water. The painting’s title was also a double entendre for Brown’s shifting painting technique. In a contemporaneous interview she commented: “I want to get rid of excess baggage in terms of old attitudes about a certain kind of paint quality, ways of describing volume, drawing, space, [and] light or form.”

Joan Brown | Chinese Statues Guarding a Delta Landscape, 1969, Oil on canvas, 72 ¾ x 84 ¾ inches. di Rosa Foundation Collection, Napa, California

Joan Brown | No Excess Baggage, 1977, Oil enamel on canvas, 78 x 180 inches. Estate of Joan Brown

In many other paintings, water is simply implied by a vast expanse of a blue that fills the background, a technique that is reminiscent of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. In A New Age #1, Brown references the end of the Piscean Age, symbolized by a parting red curtain of falling fish. Past the curtain is a stretch of sparkling blue water, representing the approaching Aquarian age, a period believed to be characteristic of spiritual change and renewal. Thus, water is used as a symbol of purification and evolution, a period in which transition from old to new is imminent.

Joan Brown | A New Age #1, 1983, Oil enamel on canvas, 78 x 96 inches. Estate of Joan Brown

The feminist art movement’s use of figurative imagery and portraiture as politically radical, and as a device to confront the norms of societal constructs in the 1970s, makes the shifting development of Brown’s work around this period all the more intriguing to reconsider. Early feminist artists advocated reliance on the ‘self’ as a source of knowledge, and a method of raising consciousness. The invention of personas and exploration of the inner self, outside of inscribed gender roles, was also a notion explored through Brown’s use of fantastical figures—part animal, part human—and her re-occurring alter ego, the figure of the cat. These leitmotifs defied categories by collapsing the distinctions between the ‘self’ and ‘other,’ focusing instead on the collective human condition. They also allowed her to reflect on and incorporate the flora and fauna she encountered in her coastal environment into her art.

Joan Brown | The Bride, 1969, Oil, oil enamel, and glitter on canvas, 91 x 55 inches. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum 

Photographic study used by Brown, c. 1970, Courtesy of The Joan Brown Estate

However, as the style and content of Brown’s paintings transformed, the unprecedented success of her early work began to wane. By the 1980s, critics denigrated her work as “undeveloped,” “self-righteous” and “paralyzingly self-conscious,” and the emergence of her new flattened imagery as garish and cartoonish. But as Brown was fond of declaring, her aim was not to please critics, but rather to use her art as a tool for introspection.

Interestingly, her work was also developing at the same time as fellow San Francisco artist Robert Arneson, a close friend of Brown’s. The work of both artists was very much in dialogue, with uncanny stylistic similarities, and a tendency towards self-portraiture. The whimsical nature of each artist’s work is indicative of the humor and inventiveness that they brought to their practices. The artists also shared a blatant disregard for the critics that derided their work, at times creating pieces in reaction to their criticism.

Robert Arneson, California Artist, 1982, stoneware with glazes, 68 1/4 in. x 27 1/2 in. x 20 1/4 in., Collection SFMOMA

Joan Brown | Harmony, 1982, Oil enamel on canvas, Two panels: 96 x 60 inches. Estate of Joan Brown

The enormous size of Brown’s later canvases was one such reaction against critics and collectors. In a 1987 interview she admitted: “I’ve gotten so disenchanted over the years with so-called collectors. I’ve had paintings in the past that have changed hands in one week. I’ve had shows where nothing is for sale, or work is so large that pieces are inaccessible.” This also echoes a tone common among artists like Robert Smithson in their desire to liberate artwork from galleries, and what artists were beginning to view as a capitalist and corrupt art market.

Joan Brown | The Mermaid, 1970, Oil enamel, glitter, and sequins on Masonite, 48 x 96 inches. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum

Brown’s consistent exploration of the water theme—whether she called upon it in the production of veiled self-portraits, such as in The Mermaid, or simply to recall the meditative qualities of her daily swims—reveal the profound transformations and explorations that took place throughout her career, and a commitment to her practice despite the tumultuous nature of the art market. It was this rigorous process of introspection that led to self-awareness and ultimately, self-definition.

Joan Brown | Golden Gate Bridge, 1987, Woodcut or lithograph, edition of 80, 36 ¼ x 26 ¼ inches. Estate of Joan Brown


Joan Brown was born Joan Beatty in 1938. Born and raised in San Francisco, she attended the California School of Fine Arts where she earned a BA in 1959 and an MFA in 1960. She taught at CSFA from 1961-68, and later at UC Berkeley from 1974 until her death in 1990. She died while installing a sculpture in India, when the building collapsed on her and an assistant. She was 52 at the time of her death.

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.


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