Joan Brown at the San Jose Museum of Art

One of Joan Brown’s first encounters with art was as a Catholic high school student in San Francisco. It mainly consisted of calendar covers in her Christian family living course. She later said of her parochial education: “I [knew] that this was just one tiny bit of what there was, and that I just had to get through this—get old enough is what it was—and get the hell out of there.” After graduating, Joan submitted a few pencil sketches of movie stars to the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) on a whim, and was admitted in 1955 at the age of seventeen. It was during her initial year at CSFA where she met her first of four husbands, William Brown (whose name she kept), and Elmer Bischoff, an influential teacher that would become a lifelong friend and mentor. - Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco Contributor

Joan Brown | Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow, 1962, oil on canvas,72 x 72 inches, Collection of Suzanne Diamond

The exhibition at SJMA traces Brown’s progression from a young art student in the 1950s to a mature artist, and includes paintings made up to her untimely death in 1990. Early works demonstrate the formative elements of west coast-style abstract expressionism learned at CSFA—thickly painted canvases largely based in abstraction, but with hints of figuration. Beginning in 1965 Brown departed from the abstract style and moved definitively towards that of figuration. This coincided with a simultaneous shift to a more brilliant palette and thinner paint handling. Although she enjoyed early and unprecedented success as a student—she was included in the Whitney’s Young America exhibition in 1957 and featured in several contemporary art publications—Brown was not deferred from changing the course of her aesthetics. This perhaps was due to Bischoff’s influence as a teacher who taught students to trust their artistic instincts. It was also around the mid-1960s that Brown grew wary of the commercial art market and its tendency to box artists in to categorical styles.

Joan Brown | Self-Portrait in Knit Hat, 1972, enamel on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, Private Collection
Although lacking in the artist’s early paintings to some extent, the exhibition does boast a sizeable group of self-portraits, which succeed in displaying the artist’s physical, emotional, and spiritual developments throughout her life. A particularly large group of self-portraits from the 1970s gives viewers a glimpse into Brown’s rigorous and repeated exploration of self. It is interesting to note, as the show’s curator has done, that this occurs in a period of American history when second-wave feminism was coming to the forefront. Although Brown herself insisted that she did not identify as a part of the feminist movement, the timely development of this type of work is difficult to ignore.

Joan Brown | Self-Portrait in Fur Hat, 1972, enamel on panel, 46 ¾ x 29 ¾ inches, Courtesy of di Rosa, Napa
The exhibition is particularly engaging because a great deal of Joan Brown’s biography comes through in her paintings. Her son, pets, relationships, and hobbies are frequent subjects of many works, highlighting her roles as a mother, wife, teacher, swimmer, and artist. While her paintings usually focused on what she was, rather than what she wasn’t, there is one piece that provides a rare tongue-in-cheek reflection on the qualities she lacked. In Self-Portrait (1977) the artist depicts herself painting, immaculately clad in a formal dress with matching white heels. In reality, Brown was famous for her somewhat careless use of materials, often ending each day covered head to toe in paint, as was her studio. The portrait becomes a commentary on the neatly composed housewife she may have felt pressured to be. It may also have been a commentary on the type of subject matter women as artists were expected to produce. In it she portrays herself painting a pretty but bland still-life. Behind her rests another work, The Kiss, (1979), also in the exhibition, yet the embracing figures are conspicuously cropped out.

Joan Brown | Self-Portrait, 1977, oil enamel on canvas, 90 x 72 inches, Collection of Sandra Shannonhouse

Joan Brown | The Kiss, 1976, enamel on canvas, 96 x 78 inches, Estate of Joan Brown

Brown had a great love of traveling, and many of the countries and cultures that she encountered influenced her paintings. In 1969 she spent a semester teaching at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. While there she became enamored with art and objects discovered in Victoria’s Chinatown for their colors, designs, and symbolic meanings. Although Brown did not travel to China until the late 1970s, the culture’s imagery and aesthetics are incorporated into her 1971 Portrait of a Girl. In it Brown depicts herself as a child wearing a floral-print dress, standing in front of a larger-than-life dragon. The dragon and color red in Chinese culture are symbolic of happiness, celebration and good fortune, notions that sharply contrast the young girl’s apprehensive demeanor. This disparity might represent a reflection on Brown’s troubled childhood, or may have been a cathartic exercise following her mother’s suicide in 1969. Similarly, time spent in Egypt and India spurred paintings indicative of a fascination with each country’s visual cultures and spiritual motifs, which she then incorporated into her own personal narratives.

Joan Brown | Portrait of a Girl, 1971, enamel on masonite, 97 ¾ x 49 ¾ inches, Estate of Joan Brown
There was one factor that noticeably stayed constant throughout Brown’s transformative career, namely, the large scale of her paintings. She once confessed that she painted that size because it allowed her to feel like a participant rather than a spectator, and that she was better able to identify with her life-size figures. As a viewer walking among her powerful and sometimes provocative works, their large scale and emphatic energy certainly makes becoming absorbed by the artist’s life and stories an effortless task.

This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown is on view through March 11th, 2012.


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 curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

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