Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1938-1990: Joan Brown, American

Joan Brown was a major figurative artist in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s. Her work is almost always on display at one or more museums in the area, but she is also recognized nationally as well.

Her principal theme was her own life. Her pioneering use of domestic imagery, autobiographical narrative, patterning, color, and revealing emotional scenarios clearly predicted and reflected the new aesthetic territory forged by women artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Background: Joan was born in San Francisco. Her Irish-American father worked at a bank; her mother was a native Californian. The family lived in a cramped three-room apartment in the Marina district, and Joan shared a room with her grandmother. Her mother was depressive and her father drank heavily. Joan attended Catholic schools; she was an indifferent student but read extensively.

Training: Joan was educated in Catholic Schools in San Francisco. While looking for a way out of the Catholic college for women that her parents wanted her to attend, she discovered the Bohemian atmosphere of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Joan's most influential teacher at the Art Institute was Elmer Bischoff, a major Bay Area figurative artist. Bischoff was one of a group of artists who started out as Abstract Expressionists and later moved on to figurative work, while retaining flexible and expressive brushwork and applying abstraction to the forms.

Joan went on to earn both B.A. and M.A. degrees at the Art Institute and to teach classes there as well.

Career: Joan's first works were thickly painted and largely based in abstraction, with hints of figuration, in the manner of her teachers.

Joan's work first caught the attention of the New York Galleries in 1959, when she was about 21. According to one story, a dealer who was visiting neighboring artist Jay DeFeo was the first to recognize her potential. This brought a quick flurry of shows and media attention.

Around 1965, Joan departed from the abstract style and moved definitively towards figuration. At the same time she shifted to a more brilliant palette and thinner paint handling. She also became more clear about the narrative elements in the picture.

The 1970s—when she was in her 40s—was a big decade for Joan. Her flatter painting style and plain story-telling was well-received, and she began exhibiting regularly in galleries in New York again.

She began traveling extensively and her paintings reflected her informal study of world cultures.

In 1974, she joined the faculty at the University of California; she was a popular teacher and attained the rank of Professor in 1981.

Swimming in San Francisco Bay became a major pre-occupation of Joan in the 1970s. She had been swimming in the Bay for most of her life and had competed in amateur swims for many years. In 1972 she began training with a famous swimming coach with a goal of competing in the Alcatraz Swim—a 1 1/2 mile race from Alcatraz Island to the beach in the S.F. In her first try, she and the other swimmers were swamped by waves from a passing freighter, and she had to be rescued. The following year, she successfully finished the Alcatraz Swim. Joan's swimming activities were the theme of many paintings at this time.

In the late 1970s, Brown became increasingly interested in spirituality and New Age ideas.  In 1980, she traveled to India and became a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. Her canvases began to fill with animal images, esoteric signs and symbols that illustrated her personal belief that the Age of Aquarius was indeed dawning. Later she began focusing on public sculpture.

Private life: When Joan was 18—in 1956, when she had just started at the art school, she married fellow student and teacher William H. Brown. They were deeply involved in Beatnik culture, living in an apartment on Fillmore Street, next to artist Jay DeFeo and her husband. Joan’s marriage to William Brown was annulled in 1962.

From age 24 to 28 (1962 to 1966), Joan was married to Manuel Neri, a prominent Bay Area sculptor and teacher, with whom she had a son, Noel. Noel became the center of her life and the subject of many paintings.

When Joan was 31, in 1969, her mother, who had often threatened suicide, finally succeeded; her mother's death, it is said, lifted a burden from Joan and had a liberating effect on her personality.

Gordon, Joan and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House, 1969

From age 30 to 37 (1968 to 1976), Joan was married to artist Gordon Cook. During that time Joan took up long-distance swimming.

In 1980, when she was 42, Joan married Michael Hebel, a police officer and lawyer who shared her spiritual interests and love of travel. They were married in a Hindu ceremony at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They had 10 years together.

Joan died at the age of 52, in the Fall of 1990. She had traveled to India to help with the installation of an obelisk she had created for Sai Baba's Eternal Heritage Museum. While they were working, concrete turret in the museum collapsed, instantly killing Joan and 2 assistants. She was 52.

She is said to have been at peace with herself because of her spiritual realization. Her loss was deeply felt in the Bay Area art world.

Obelisk at Horton Plaza,
San Diego, CA, 1985
Ceramic tile, 36' tall

Here's a link to a selection of her works: Wikiart

For a fuller understanding of Joan's life and work, see this very authoritative blog: Into the Light

Our photos of Joan's work:

Flora, 1961
Crocker / Jan's photo

Bob, Sultana, Guard, 1961
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2017

Young Girl, 1962
de Young Museum / Jan's photo, 2017

Girl Sitting, 1962
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2014

Girl in Chair, 1962
LACMA / Jan's photo, 2017

Nude, Dog and Clouds, 1963
Smithsonian American Art
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Portrait of Lupe, c. 1964
Oakland / Oil on canvas
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Noel and Bob, 1964
de Young / Jan's photo, 2017

Portrait of Carolyn Singer, 1971
Enamel on Masonite
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2014

A Family Portrait, 1971
Enamel on Masonite
Photo by Dan L. Smith
The panda represents her father, the wild cat dressed in fur is her mother, the fish on the floor and the wall represents Joan, who felt like a "fish out of water" with her family. Brown's astrological sign was Aquarius.
Wolf in Studio, 1972
Crocker / Jan's photo

Woman Wearing Mask, 1972
Oil enamel on Masonite
Photo by Dan L. Smith

The Dancers in a City #2, 1972
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2017

The Vanity, 1973
SFMOMA /Jan's photo, 2017

Self-Portrait with Swimming Coach Charlie Sava, 1974
Denver / Jan's photo

After the Alcatraz Swim 1, 1975
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

The Journey, 1976
Enamel on canvas
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2007

Bather #5, 1982
SFMOMA / Internet