Joan Brown

1938 – 1990

Joan Brown was a second-generation San Francisco Bay Area Figurative artist, who in the late 1950s fused Abstract Expressionism and figuration in her personal, autobiographical paintings.  At times her portrayal of everyday subject matter was so abstract that her work was difficult to understand without the help of descriptive titles.

In 1957, she was a student at the California School of Fine Arts.  Her 1957 “Brambles” won second prize in a juried exhibition.  In the same year, she made her first “funk” assemblages – dark mixtures of scrap paper and cast-off junk, bundled into animal forms and exhibited at the Spats Gallery a year later.  

After World War II, Joan Brown emerged as a confident painter at the male-dominated San Francisco Art Institute where the focus was shifting from Abstract Expressionism, taught by Clifford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko, to Bay Area Figuration, led by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Elmer Bischoff.  She merged both of these two styles in her paintings.  Years later in 1986 Brown would receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts from this school.

Brown credits Bischoff with her approach to still life, which she based on simple household objects. One example is her 1959 painting “Thanksgiving Turkey,” which shows her joyful manipulation of paint. She used palette knives and spatulas to apply paint onto canvases, and sometimes the paint could be three to four inches thick.  

She had her first New York show at Staempfli Gallery in 1960 when she was just 22 years old.  She made her family and friends the subject of her work.  This break with abstraction eventually lost her the affiliation with this particular gallery in 1965 and left her with ten years of obscurity.

Her 1961 painting “People and Eye Trees in the Park in Madrid” is a 6-by-8-foot canvas and continues her break with abstraction.  She divided the canvas right down the middle, creating two equal zones.  The left zone is figurative with a female figure, dressed in red, emerging from a grove of trees. Strong colors of pink, yellow,  red, and brown dominate. The right zone is almost totally abstract with one small exception: a female nude in the lower part who is bowing to the abstraction before her with her naked derriere facing the viewer. 

In 1963, she painted her one-year-old son,  Noel Neri, whose father sculptor Manuel Neri was her second husband. “Noel at the Table with a Large Bowl of Fruit” continues her use of exuberant color.  Vivid pinks, lush reds, lemon yellows, greens, and electric blues leads the eye to the abundance of fruit on the table.  Only afterwards do we notice her little boy, sitting behind the fruit. In addition to painting her little son, she painted still lifes, interiors, and kitchen scenes in vivid colors and rich impasto as she chronicled her life as a mother. 

In 1965, after separating from Neri, she immersed herself in the still life paintings of Italian artist  Giorgio Morandi. She “decided to work very subtle, very small . . .  and I went underground for three years – exploring and studying new areas and painting new pictures.”

After living on a river delta for two intensely productive years, Brown returned to San Francisco in the fall of 1971 and had a major solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. She took a position at San Francisco’s Academy of Art College (now Academy of Art University) after having taught at Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento.) 

In her mature paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, Brown exploited the decorative and narrative in paintings which continued to illustrate her personal life.  These works departed from the modernist strategy of flatness by her use of outline and broad blocks of thick, unmodulated color. 

She flourished as a public sculptor and built eleven public art commissions in malls, parks, and plazas in California, Washington State, Ohio, and Texas. The form she chose was that of the obelisk. Some of them were more than forty feet high, covered in ceramic-tile mosaics with motifs representing the particular location of each obelisk. 

In the 1980’s, Brown traveled extensively to the Yucatan and to other archeological sites in Central America, South America, Egypt, China, Burma, Thailand, and India. She joined the spiritual community of guru Sathya Sai Baba in India.  For Sai Baba’s sixty-fifth birthday she decided to honor him by building a thirteen-foot-tall, five sided obelisk in his Eternal Heritage Museum’s open central hall.  Brown wanted to complete the obelisk on time for his celebration even though an engineer reported the museum’s central dome too heavy for the structure.  Brown and two others didn’t listen, and the massive dome collapsed instantly killing her and one assistant.  The second assistant died shortly afterwards.

Brown was only 52 at the time of her death.  She had more than fifty solo exhibitions during her lifetime.  She was awarded major grants and fellowships. Her work is in the collections of major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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