“Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lives” at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (May 2–September 15, 2019), installation view; photo: Jenna Bascom (image courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design)

I first wrote about Roger Brown’s art in the mid-1980s. Shortly afterward, the curator Sidney Lawrence invited me to contribute an essay to the catalogue, Roger Brown (1987), published on the occasion of his exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. In preparation for the essay, I visited Brown in his home and studio at 1926 Halstead Street, Chicago, Illinois, which became the Roger Brown Study Collection after his death, preserved and overseen by School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to being a tough, opinionated, acerbic, visionary artist, whom I believe still has not quite gotten his due, Brown was a collector of folk art, handmade objects both functional and not, and the work of self-taught artists, such as Lee Godie, Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger, and Aldo Piacenza. Brown introduced me to the work of many self-taught artists that I had seen only in reproduction. He had also turned his home into an environment where his various collections could be displayed.

“Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lives” at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (May 2–September 15, 2019), installation view; photo: Jenna Bascom (image courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design)

My short time with Brown was memorable and eye-opening, which further motivated me see the exhibition, Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lifes, at the Museum of Arts and Design (May 2 – September 15, 2019). According to a statement posted on the museum’s website, the exhibition “brings together, for the first time, a vast grouping of the artist’s “Virtual Still Life” paintings (1995–97) made near the end of his career.” He died in 1997.

The exhibition reminded me of how adventuresome Brown was at different moments of his career. Although he developed a recognizable style by the early 1970s, he also ventured out of his comfort zone. These works, which are not as well known as his signature portraits, or his cityscapes and landscapes with their ominous skies, reveal an artist who worked with unlikely materials, including commercial carpeting, and on a variety objects, including chairs and irons.

One purpose of the exhibition is to trace Brown’s interest in theatricality, starting with his paintings of movie theater interiors, which first gained him attention in 1968, when a number of them were included in the first False Image exhibition at the Chicago storefront gallery, Hyde Park Center, along with the work of Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, and Eleanor Dube.

Roger Brown, “Virtual Still Life #14 Pots and Piedmont and Piru” (1995), oil on canvas, mixed media, 49 1/2 × 62 × 11 inches (image courtesy Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago)

As the exhibition suggests, Brown’s early experience of going to movies – which dates back to his childhood in the town of Opelika, Alabama – and the images he saw projected onto a screen were central to his attention to presentation and theatricality. In an interview with Russell Bowman (Art in America, January 1978), Brown stated:

One of the things I have always thought is important is simplification. There has to be complexity in a painting, but to make things instantly readable is very important. […] But people who are just beginning to look at paintings can have problems with complexity. That’s why I’m very interested in simplifying and making a painting easy to read. Reducing a certain form so that you can repeat it over and over again, and then continually adding new forms and getting more complex as you go along is what I am trying to do.

[…] I was interested in the Roger Shattuck book, The Banquet Years [Vintage, 1968], because he talked about how [Henri] Rousseau would use a little man not as a symbol, but as an emblem. It was interesting to me because it was not symbolic of something else, not standing for something else; it was the thing used as itself.

While Brown’s movie theater paintings are concise and readable, the image on the movie screen was often enigmatic. In “Untitled (Movie House with Nude Female)” (1967), the image on the screen echoes the female nude we see through a peephole in Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” (1946 – 1966). In “Untitled (Movie House with Father’s Dream)” (1967), we encounter an angled view of a bald man in a jacket building a brick wall in front of a car. Since the wall is L-shaped, we cannot be sure what purpose it has.

Roger Brown, “Jack/Knife” (1975), oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 43 1/2 x 7 inches, (image courtesy Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago)

One of the standouts from this early period is “Cutting the Rug” (c. 1967-69). In this work, Brown cut and juxtaposed differently colored sections of pile carpet to depict the silhouette of a man’s profile with a brimmed hat. The man, or his shadow, is looking at a building contained within a niche-like arch, which is separated from its darker surroundings as if it were something seen in a dream.

As intriguing as these early experiments are, the later works presented here are just as unfamiliar — painted objects by the artist himself, along with shelves full of things, such as the work of artisans, that he collected and arranged.

Through these paintings and painted objects, which, he told Bowman, he considered “three-dimensional paintings,” along with his hybrid paintings, we get a sense of Brown’s interest in the relationship between a place and the things made there:

They talk about Abstract Expressionism being the first American art. I think it was the last European art. Just like New York is a very important European city, while Chicago is a very American city.

In 1975, Brown made two hybrid paintings that anticipate his virtual still lifes. In “Jack/Knife,” a single-lane highway snakes down from the horizon, near the top of the vertical painting, until it intersects a highway spanning its narrow width, with a steep incline below. We see three semis, two on the descending road and one on the intersecting thoroughfare. We also see a guardrail, which has been broken, and below that, on a painted gray shelf jutting out from the painting’s bottom edge, Brown has placed a model of trailer upside down, lying on its back.

Roger Brown, “Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers” (1995), oil on canvas, mixed media, 37 1/2 × 50 × 9 inches, Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan; (image courtesy Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Brown, particularly in the first half of the 1970s, was interested in mishaps and disasters, as well as aspects of the American landscape, especially in Alabama and the Deep South, where he grew up. Above all, Brown was interested in what was American.

This is what sets him apart from other artists who are considered part of the Chicago Imagists. Brown had a deep love for regional art and the local, especially self-taught art and crafts from the South. You see him express that love in the late works, such as “Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers” and “Virtual Still Life #14 Pots and Piedmont and Piru,” both 1995. For him, there was no hierarchy between art and crafts, such as ceramics.

A row of pitchers is placed on a shelf before a painting of repeating waterfalls. The color of one pitchers’ glaze echoes the color of the waterfalls. But the water, of course, never reaches the pitchers and does not fill them. Instead, the space between the illusionistic painting and the actual pitchers is activated by color choices and by subject matter. The waterfall is the bottomless pitcher. It is the bond that Brown establishes between the painting and the objects that make his virtual still lifes more than things placed before a backdrop. By making various, subtle connections between objects and paintings, Brown placed something new before our eyes.

Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lifes continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 15.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...