Joan Brown


Joan Brown

By Anton Stuebner November 18, 2014

In viewing Joan Brown’s (1938–1990) body of work, it is difficult to discern a singularly definable style. Although commonly associated with the Bay Area Figurative painters, Brown never fully committed to the strictures of figurative portraiture, and while her earlier work (until around 1960) bears stylistic similarities to that of contemporaries like Manuel Neri and Elmer Bischoff, Brown’s subsequent pictures were equally influenced by then-burgeoning shifts toward Abstract Expressionism, especially in the diffuse lines and colors of painters like Clyfford Still. Brown’s work could be described in terms of an amalgamation of influences, and yet part of what makes her work so curious and endlessly fascinating is her unwillingness to identify with specific arts movements or schools.

Joan Brown. Partially Painted Model, 1973; ink, graphite, acrylic on paper; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

Likewise, the works on display at Brown’s most recent retrospective at Gallery Paule Anglim irreverently play against the assumed parameters of figurative painting. The four large-scale canvases that anchor the show—The Lovers #2 (1973/74), Woman Jumping (1974), Summer Solstice (1982), and Year of the Tiger (1983)—chart the various stages of Brown’s formal diversions. At first glance, the works seem incongruous, the amorphously blank pink and black color fields of The Lovers #2 difficult to reconcile with the dense symbologies of text and astrological signs in the later self-portrait Summer Solstice. The juxtaposition of these stylistic discontinuities—between figuration and abstraction, between semiotics and planes of color—is unnerving because it disrupts the presumption that all artists have a consistent, easily recognizable “signature,” whether in their choice of particular subjects or the repetition of certain forms. In her refusal to compromise, Brown gave herself the permission to experiment in her practice in paradoxical but compelling ways.1

Joan Brown. The Lovers #2, 1973; enamel on canvas; 73 x 85 in. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

The canvases at Gallery Paule Anglim can be equally divided by both period and style: While The Lovers #2 and Woman Jumping directly play with the tension between figuration and abstraction through minimal use of line and color, Summer Solstice and Year of the Tiger position highly graphical symbols and signs—whimsical animals, zodiac wheels, crimson Sanskrit letters—next to colorful and expressive portrayals of the artist herself. These paintings present an interesting study in contrasts as Brown transitioned from the more stylistically formal early works to the highly personal style of self-representation in the later paintings.   

Equally compelling are a series of works on paper from 1973, which were produced contemporaneously with The Lovers #2. Smaller than Brown’s canvas work, these pieces serve as studies in miniature of Brown’s gradual deconstruction of figurative and embodied forms. Partially Painted Model (1973), for example, depicts a female figure in profile seated in front of a black backdrop. From the torso up, her form is painted a soft pink, the outlines of her fingers and the contours of her nose barely visible through the thick and nearly opaque overlay. But the paint abruptly stops at her waist, the brushstrokes coming to sudden halt, the thighs and legs exposing the manila-toned paper underneath.

Joan Brown. Woman Jumping, 1974; oil on canvas; 84 x 72 in. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

It would be all too easy to describe the image as unfinished. In labeling her model as “partially painted,” however, Brown not only subverts expectations of what an complete/incomplete painting should look like; she also challenges conventions of figuration that presume a certain level of formal realism. The errant brushstrokes become the mark of the artist’s hand, but they also signal Brown’s own attempts to de-familiarize—and even abstract—traditional modes of representing the body. The Lovers #2 challenges those conventions even further, the amorphous and freeform pink and white shape in the foreground standing in for the figurative models from the works on paper (which have the same pink flesh/black backdrop color scheme as the canvas itself). Traces of human forms still remain—the curve of a shoulder, the soft roundness of a head, the indented angling of an arm—which makes the abstraction of the body in these works even more profound.

Joan Brown. Summer Solstice, 1982; oil, enamel on canvas; 88 x 59 in. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

These forms, however, become infinitely stranger in Summer Solstice, in which Brown composes her own body out of red Sanskrit letters. Historian Karen Tsujimoto notes that the repeated representation of symbols in the later works—from the Sanskrit letters here to the zodiac imagery in Year of the Tiger—stemmed from Brown’s increasing distrust of the commercialization of the art market, a distrust that in turn led to her own search for faith and introspection through the study of ancient religions.2 Insofar as these symbols function as highly personal markers of Brown’s spiritual self-discovery, they also evince a continuation of her inquiry into representing how bodies are composed of both material substances (flesh, blood) as well as immaterial matter (language, belief). The image of her Sanskrit-covered body represents her fully embodied commitment to her faith, while also marking her body as an object that can be translated and read as if it were a text, in turn making herself even more vulnerable to the viewer’s gaze. It’s a startling representational shift that establishes a felt (if imagined) intimacy with the artist’s physical and interior selves.

Brown died at the age of 52, and the brevity of work on display here invariably reflects a brilliant career prematurely cut short. But Brown’s willingness to experiment with new modes of painterly expression continues to inspire and serve as an important reminder, as Brown herself would say, to follow one’s own creative instincts with unfailing and unwavering passion.


  1. Brown’s description of instinctual practice is further explicated in her correspondence with curator Brenda Richardson, in which she notes, “I believe in following my insti(n)cts in art whatever they are and thinking about them later.” Full citation in: Brenda Richardson, foreword to The Art of Joan Brown, by Karen Tsujimoto and Jacquelynn Baas (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), xxxiv.
  2. Karen Tsujimoto, “Painting as a Visual Diary: the Art of Joan Brown.” From The Art of Joan Brown, by Karen Tsujimoto and Jacquelynn Baas (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 98-99.

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