Paint wielded by Joan Brown seems to have been purpose-built and mission-driven, especially when that mission involved dressing down painting’s most grandiloquent sense of self-regard and putting it to pointed and playful personal use. Many of the works in Brown’s feet-on-the-ground, head-in-the-clouds retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art could have been made as gifts for family and friends—or, better yet, as intimate painterly diary entries to be seen and appreciated by no one aside from the artist herself. Where some painters in her 1960s-’80s milieu aspired to change the world, Brown bent the tools of her trade toward chronicling the world she was in a constant state of building and rebuilding around her.
Brown—whose retrospective closed in San Francisco in March and moved to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it opens May 27—made her name as a budding Bay Area artist whose thick impasto style turned abstraction toward embodiment, sometimes with the air of a wry aside. The earliest works in the SFMOMA show gleamed at the top of layered oil surfaces that suggest a lot of searching underneath (the catalogue describes formative paintings by Brown “so thick they could weigh 100 pounds and take decades to dry”). But as soon as she scaled certain heights that would thrill so many artists making their way, Brown took a bow—and moved on.
Thanksgiving Turkey (1959) is emblematic of her early work for its mix of mystery and a sort of mastery that can be deceiving. The depiction of a carcass hanging in the air nods toward classicism—wall text describing it included an image of Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox as inspiration—but its strange coloring makes it an evocative oddity while its deadpan matter-of-factness makes it somehow funny in a way that’s hard to pin down. The same goes for Green Bowl (1964), an austerely geometric still life that marked an audacious turn for Brown away from early success (Thanksgiving Turkey had already been acquired by MoMA in New York, and she was secure with a dealer with whom she would soon part ways after her stylistic twists left him bemused) toward a more idiosyncratic calling that took its own cues.
“Brown’s aim was not to undermine the art world in a way that was consciously subversive; she simply did not care, and part of what makes her so interesting is this disregard for acceptance,” Nancy Lim writes in the catalogue. (Lim, an associate curator, worked under SFMOMA chief curator Janet Bishop in organizing the show, which after its stop at the Carnegie Museum travels to the Orange County Museum of Art next year.)
Following Brown’s circuitous trains of thought thereafter leads to different way stations and destinations for indelible visions that never stayed fixed for long. Even more indicative of her more mature years than Thanksgiving Turkey and Green Bowl are works like Noel in the Kitchen (1963), an early instance of Brown painting her son with a mix of motherly wonder and fascination with the dreamier dimensions of domesticity. The work tells a heartwarming story, with a bare-bottomed toddler reaching mischievously toward a too-tall counter while a pair of dogs stand sentry. But it also flies off into aesthetic revelry, with a checkered floor that shakes up the pictorial space and a curious patch of wall on the side rendered with enough acuity and care to make it class as a painting in its own right.
Brown painted her family a lot, and with enough earnestness and sincerity to suggest Norman Rockwell as filtered through a sense of post-Beat Generation San Francisco sass. She loved holidays (enough to name her son Noel), and the exhibition took care to pair certain family tableaux with the sepia-toned snapshots that inspired them. Brown became even more interesting, however, when she started painting herself.
Of the many things that figuration in deft-enough hands can do, revealing a sense of both inner and outer selves has to rank near the top. For Brown, the prospects of that compounded when she turned to self-portraiture in which she seems to have painted in service of her own and others’ gazes, all at the same time. A forthright, almost confrontational look projects from many of her paintings of the sort, but the stare-downs seem to have been staged first and foremost between the artist and herself.
Then there are signal-scrambling highlights like Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat (1970) and Woman Wearing Mask (1972), the latter featuring Brown standing, hand-on-hip, in red heels, black lingerie, and a cartoonish plastic cat mask. It’s simultaneously sexy and sexless, and a whole spectrum of degrees between—with the lingering result for a viewer (or some viewers, at least) of having been seen by Brown while in the act of looking at her look at her own figure figuratively rendered.
As later paintings chronicle the years that followed—with age, Brown falls in thrall to swimming the forbidding waters of San Francisco Bay, focuses on the joys of dancing with one of the four husbands she courted, and ventures into realms of New Age spirituality that surrounded her at the end of her life, when she died in an accident at the age of 52 while installing an obelisk in the ashram of her guru in India—the exhibition offered an unusually intimate vision of Brown, as an artist but also as a person who lived and loved and painted in a way that suggests a private practice would have suited her just fine.
If that reaction is right, consider it a testament to Brown’s approach to the art she made and art as a whole. If it’s not, more power to her.