Joan Brown, “After the Alcatraz Swim #3” (1976), enamel on canvas, 96 x 78 inches
Essay by Jodi Throckmorton, Associate Curator, San Jose Museum of Art
The deeply introspective paintings of Joan Brown (1938 – 1990) reveal the importance she placed in everyday moments, relationships with family and friends, and her spiritual state. Her art and life were inseparable. Over a career of thirty-five years, Brown was not afraid to go against the latest trends and attitudes in the art world. Although she never wholeheartedly identified with any specific group and, in fact, rejected such categorization, her work has been discussed within the context of many movements including Abstract Expressionism, assemblage, Bay Area Figuration, and New Image Painting. Little is written, however, about Brown's work and the rise of second wave feminism, which paralleled her career and had a significant impact on the visual arts. Her apolitical approach to subjects of domesticity, gender, identity, aging, relationships, and motherhood may be the cause of her exclusion; nonetheless, time has shown that her choices as a woman and as an artist were anything but neutral.
At the young age of twenty-two, Brown began to receive national acclaim for her work, which, at the time, reflected the dueling influences of Abstract Expressionism and Figuration that she had absorbed as a student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). The year 1960 proved to be pivotal for Brown as she began to show her work at the Staempfli Gallery in New York and was the youngest artist featured in Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. This level of success was rare for any young artist and extraordinary for a woman. That year, her work was also included in the traveling exhibition Women in American Art and Look magazine featured her in a spread about the exhibition with other notable female artists such as Lee Bontecou, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Georgia O'Keeffe. These women (and others from the 1950s and 1960s) were treated as disciples, followers, or even at times, imitators, of the styles started by men and, for many critics, their success was tied to this reliance on male ideas. Brown was fearful of this designation and that the label "woman painter" would impact the serious consideration of her work. In an interview with Michael Auping, now chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, Brown said:
"I didn't want the distinction made – "female painter,'' or "She's good for a girl," all that crap. I still get very pissed off when people make those distinctions. It's such bullshit. At a certain point, you couldn't tell my paintings from any of the guys' of my generation, except that in some cases mine might have been better. In the early days, like all the guys, I just wanted to be a part of something, part of the scene."
Her early accomplishments establish Brown as a pioneering woman artist who achieved success prior to the women's movement. While she was a trailblazer, she had no premeditated feminist agenda. A fascinating tension existed between her words and her practice during that pivotal time of social transformation. She found the feminist approach "a totally exterior motivation for working" – and thus contradictory to her own process. Yet, even in the 1950s and 1960s, her subject matter aligned closely with the personal and psychological imperatives of feminist art. Brown was motivated to find the "feminine" in her art not by suggestion or mandate, but by her own interests as an artist.
There is a connection between Brown's introspective approach to art and the consciousness-raising encouraged by the women's movement. Although the feminist adage that the "personal is political" implies too much purposeful protest and activism to be applied to Brown's work, she thoroughly painted the details of her life and experiences to arrive at larger issues on the roles and representation of women in society. In Self-Portrait (1977), Brown called into question the stereotypical image of the female artist. She depicted herself perched on a chair, legs daintily crossed, wearing clean, white gloves, high heels, and a fashionable print dress. With a fine brush, she paints a still life with a flower – a genre often stereotyped as for housewife hobbyists and, thus, not serious artists. In reality, Brown was often covered from head to toe in paint when she worked—a truthful nod to her process suggested in the paint-splattered floor and the large painting-in-progress behind the figure (The Kiss, 1979). In 1979, Frank Goodyear, then curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, included Brown in his exhibition Seven on the Figure and asserted: "Brown's Self-Portrait is essentially a caricature of the modern female artist as comprehended by modern society; it speaks to the public's expectations of a female artist and indirectly to Brown's commitment to disabuse the public of these traditional ideas."8 Brown arrived at conclusions about women's roles in society (in her case, the reality and validity of being an artist and female) by exploring her own life.
Brown scrutinized every angle of her evolving identity, including her physical appearance. In 1972, she painted a group of small, bust-length self-portraits. In Self-Portrait with Knit Hat, she wears a stylish cap; a healthy blush sweeps across her high cheekbones and her delicate lips are painted crimson. This is a woman who recognizes and appreciates her own beauty. By contrast, in Self-Portrait with Scarf (aka Woman in Scarf), Brown's skin is blotchy and her ears jarringly stick out from the tight wrap around her head. She is the subject in these self-portraits, but not as a sexualized object, as was the norm in much of Western art history. She took a hard look at herself and examined the complicated and contradictory feelings that women have about beauty – to be attractive or taken seriously, beautiful or ignored. In these works, the props that characterize the narrative paintings are gone: the artist gazes steadily back at the viewer from a flat, monochrome background. The penetrating and unsettling stare is actually directed toward the artist, not the viewer. Brown noted: "Looking in the mirror, becoming a spectator, literally describing myself, is a very graphic way of being introspective." Through this careful observation of self, Brown subverted the male gaze, although to her, the only important gaze would have been her own.
Brown's pioneering use of domestic imagery, autobiographical narrative, and self-revelatory emotional scenarios clearly reflects the new aesthetic territory forged by women artists in the 1970s. However, Brown was an exemplar of feminism rather than a follower. She had a tough sense of artistic identity and initially eschewed feminist thinking, fearing that participation in the women's movement would trivialize her art. Her painting was motivated by personal thought and experience rather than any political ideology:
The more I am able to express the various dimensions of myself, the richer and freer the art will be. I'm not any one thing: I'm not just a teacher, I'm not just a mother, I'm not just a painter, I'm all these things plus, and the more areas I can tap, the richer each one of the others will be.
This Kind of Bird Flies Backward
The title of this exhibition is from Diane di Prima's 1958 book of poetry This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, which was also a line from her poem "The Window." Di Prima came to prominence in the 1950s as a Beat poet in both New York and San Francisco. The Beat movement was dominated by male poets and artists, yet just as Joan Brown did in her paintings, di Prima focused her writing on subjects stereotypically associated with women – for example, their personal lives and relationships. Di Prima is the author of over forty-four books and her work has been translated into more than twenty languages. She is currently Poet Laureate of San Francisco.