In reaction to the widespread pursuit of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, several avant-garde artists in the San Francisco Bay Area began to reengage with the visible world, applying the gestural style of action painting to depictions of people, landscapes, and still lifes. Two such artists were Paul Wonner (1920–2008) and William “Theophilus” Brown (1919–2012), who met at the University of California, Berkeley, and stayed together for 56 years. Together, the couple aligned themselves with this new direction and became leading practitioners of the style known today as Bay Area Figuration. Throughout their lives, Wonner and Brown broke the rules of the times, professionally in their choice of subject matter, technique, and style, and personally as they lived openly as a couple despite the private and professional consequences. 

Over time, in both Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, both artists’ works became less gestural and more overtly representational and, in Wonner’s case, increasingly detailed and precise. Brown became best known for his psychologically evocative landscapes with classic bathers, as well as for his lonely urban scenes. Wonner also painted figures but received greatest acclaim for his “baroque” still lifes laden with everyday objects, animals, and flowers. This exhibition, which includes 75 paintings, watercolors, and drawings, showcases all of these genres in the most comprehensive exhibition of the couple’s work to date. 

Breaking the Rules is on view at the Crocker in Sacramento from April 30 through August 27. The exhibition is accompanied by a 240-page catalogue written by Scott A. Shields, PhD, with additional recollections by Matt Gonzalez. After the exhibition closes at the Crocker Art Museum, it travels to the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California (October 14, 2023–January 7, 2024), and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee (January 28–March 30, 2024).

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