SAN FRANCISCO — Full disclosure right at the top: I found writing this review of Joan Brown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art more than a little challenging. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so torn about an artist’s work, particularly after a retrospective — Brown’s first in more than two decades — that in this case includes some 80 pieces, including a handful of witty sculptures, but mostly paintings, many of them monumental, most of them colorful and hella fun. Which is to say that I enjoyed, and admired, a lot about Joan Brown. But even after revisiting the show to check my reactions and my notes, and after reading the smart and thorough essays in the excellent exhibition catalogue (no hesitation on that count), I remain very much of two minds. Was Brown a protean powerhouse bravely willing to buck the art world status quo at any expense to her own reputation? Or was she an artist who too easily embraced ideas and influences with the same restless energy with which she took up endurance swimming, spiritual practices, and spouses?
Unlike most West Coast artists of her time — especially women — Joan Brown found success early. Born in 1938 in San Francisco, she attended art school in the city and by her late teens was already exhibiting her work and palling around with other someday-notable local artists like Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri (second of her four husbands), and Bernice Bing (whose own retrospective is currently at the Asian Art Museum). When she was just 22, Brown’s gestural “Thanksgiving Turkey” (1959) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and the following year her painting “Flora” (1961) graced the cover of Artforum. Inside, the magazine described Brown as “Everybody’s Darling.” But amid so much early acclaim, which included museum shows on both coasts and representation with a New York gallery, everybody’s darling went rogue.
The SFMOMA show opens with Brown’s early lauded work, big canvases that are figurative and gestural, with troweled-on swaths of oil paint applied so thick it’s almost sculptural. Brown later said of this time, “I really dug paint.” Yeah, I dig it too, and these paintings are immediately likable, if familiar, in their painterly exuberance.
Although by the end of the decade Brown would pivot away from anything that might be called painterly or gestural, her lifelong subjects are already present — animals, self-portraits, swimming. “Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow” (1962) beautifully conveys her lifetime love of water — a nude pair hold hands in moody ocean spray that crashes over the figures in thick, three-dimensional waves of blue paint — while “Dog and Chair in Environment” (1961) is an indoor portrait of her beloved bull terrier, Bob. Brown’s pets had human names — her cat was called Donald — while in her art animals would increasingly stand in for humans. And for herself, especially the cat.
Brown’s early success led to dissatisfaction, as much with the art market as with what she was making. She resented the easy commodification of her work, and the incessant demand for her to create something just so others could own it. She also began to feel dishonest in producing painterly gestures that implied spontaneity, whether true or not. In short, her motives were pure. But the pivot to stiff figuration and flat color planes is for me nearly as off-putting now as it was for critics in the late ’60s.
It feels churlish to have qualms about an artist who is beloved by many in the Bay Area. Though, to be fair, maybe not as many as SFMOMA’s entrance implies by proclaiming, Joan Brown: Local Legend. While a press release describes her as “one of San Francisco’s most important local heroes,” a totally unscientific poll of some dozen Bay Area friends, mostly writers wise to local culture, found only one who knew anything about Joan Brown. And that friend discovered Brown after doing research on Bernice Bing.
If only to reveal the life and work of Joan Brown to a wider audience, this retrospective is important. There is so much about Brown to admire: a working artist all of her adult life, a revered and influential teacher, a mother who brought her son into her art, an earnest spiritual seeker, and a passionate swimmer who, with five other women in 1974, successfully sued for membership in the men-only outdoor swimming clubs of the Bay. But I’m still uncertain when considering the totality of her art.
Brown’s mature style is a little wacky (in her catalogue essay, Helen Molesworth calls Brown “wonky”), but that weirdness is offset by preternatural calm, a still, airless quality akin to ancient art, especially that of Egypt. Like ancient Egyptian art, Brown’s figures and ground have a static, timeless air. They do not explain themselves. They are evocative and mysterious, faintly familiar, but also ciphers, which can be part of their power. But I miss the energy of her early work.
Which is not to say her mature style didn’t produce wonderful paintings, particularly the self-portraits, some as ageless as any Egyptian Fayum mummy, even with a teacup to her lips; or Brown’s dual portrait with her swim coach, Charlie Salva, deities of their pool domain; and the large paintings commemorating her dangerous Alcatraz swim with wry energy and heroics.
Though Brown helped liberate the local swimming scene, she had little interest in feminism, much less feminist art. That’s fine, but lapses of interrogation — of herself, of culture, of history — are less easily overlooked. When she depicts herself as an odalisque, for example, she’s overtly interested in Ingres, but indicates no questions around where her blue eyes fit in to this Orientalizing, othering, sexualized trope. As Marci Kwon writes in her catalogue essay, about a painting (not in the show) in which Brown reimagines Gérôme’s “The Bath” of 1880–85, depicting a Black woman bathing a white woman, “Brown’s triptych transforms the Black woman into a black cat. … But what of the cat? She has no say in this matter. She exists in these pictures to cleanse Brown of her sins.” If Brown’s earnestness can be off-putting, it’s also sometimes more troubling. That unwillingness to grapple feels like a significant flaw.
I’m more than willing to concede that there may be something I just don’t get. Brown anticipated such ignorance. In her essay Kwon quotes from Brown’s 1983 text, “The Artist versus the Art Historian and the Art Critic,” wherein Brown asks, “Why can’t art historians and critics learn the difference between knowing and knowing about?” Brown claimed, as an artist, to know. As a spiritual seeker she sought to know more, and it led to her early death in Puttaparthi, India, where at age 52 she was killed by a falling turret, along with two assistants, while installing an obelisk she created for the Eternal Heritage Museum of her guru, Sai Baba. Spiritual artist killed by spiritual architecture. Is it tragedy or transcendence? Maybe it’s both.
Joan Brown continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco, California) through March 12. The exhibition was curated by Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, SFMOMA curator and associate curator.