Dodie Bellamy on the art of Joan Brown

Joan Brown, Self-Portrait at Age 42, 1980, enamel on canvas, 71 3⁄4 × 60

I LOVE A GOOD RETROSPECTIVE and its implicit narrative of salvation. I enter the gallery prepared to witness the career of some super-deserving artist plucked from the wreckage of disregard or misunderstanding. I expect to feel thrill and awe; I want to depart teary-eyed. “Joan Brown” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art did not disappoint me.

The plot of this retrospective is more compelling than most: Woman artist finds early success in a male-dominated scene but shockingly turns her back on that success. It’s the story of a woman who constantly reinvents her art, who follows her gut despite what others think, and curators Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim construct it skillfully. Arranged chronologically to highlight developments in both Brown’s style and inspirations, a series of interlocking rooms track the artist’s engagement with family life, animals, self-portraits, swimming, ballroom dancing, travel, spirituality. The galleries are so distinct from one another that as one moves through them there is a sense of tunneling through an ever-evolving consciousness. Friends who entered the retrospective skeptical reported they came out convinced.

Joan Brown, Flora, 1961, oil on canvas, 71 3⁄4 × 72

At the exhibition’s opening reception, SFMoMA director Christopher Bedford stated that the retrospective signaled the institution’s commitment to California artists. Born and raised in San Francisco, Brown is a quintessential Northern California artist. Compared with the career-churning machine of Los Angeles, the Bay Area is a place where art fame is hard to come by. This regional marginality has been a blessing as well as a curse. Historically, with no mainstream infrastructure here to lure artists and writers into behaving themselves, radical innovations have arisen along with a distrust of establishment recognition. Brown once said of her New York peers, “All they do is visit each other’s studios and talk a lot of baloney about art.”

It’s no secret that the mid-twentieth-century art scene was not woman-friendly. It was rare for any female artist to receive attention. But Brown garnered plaudit after plaudit in the late 1950s for thick impastoed paintings that wobble between abstract and figurative modes—a style reflective of the Bay Area Figurative aesthetics promoted at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute), where she received her BFA and MFA. In 1960, at the age of twenty-two, Brown became the youngest artist in the “Young America” exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, which led to her work being collected by the Museum of Modern Art, and had a solo show at New York’s Staempfli Gallery. Yet within a few years, she not only withdrew from the mainstream art scene but also began to create work that was at odds with just about every art trend. This resulted in her losing gallery representation and the monthly stipend that came with it.

The Bride becomes a nightmare of alienation, of unconscious drives that refuse to remain hidden. The goofiness of the painting destabilizes the viewer and puts Brown in control.

View of “Joan Brown,” 2022–23, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Foreground: Divers, 1974. Walls, from left: The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975; After the Alcatraz Swim #3, 1976; After the Alcatraz Swim #1, 1975. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

So why did Brown walk away from her triumph? Her teacher Elmer Bischoff is credited with encouraging her to cast off received values and follow her intuition. But there has to have been more to it than that. Brown’s friend and (in the late ’50s) next-door neighbor Jay DeFeo also turned her back on career opportunities. For eight years, DeFeo obsessively piled toxic paint onto her Guinness Book of Records–worthy one-ton painting The Rose, 1958–66, which was only exhibited twice during her lifetime. When curators requested work from her, she’d say she was too busy. I imagine both Brown and DeFeo were impacted by the regional skepticism toward the mainstream. Even I, who moved to San Francisco in the late ’70s, am conflicted about the notion of commercial success, seeing it as somehow impure. But, again, there has to have been more to it than that.

I was determined to understand, so I reached back in time and read the piece that put Brown on the map—“Joan Brown: Everybody’s Darling” by Philip Leider, founding editor of Artforum. Published in the magazine’s June 1963 issue, which sports Brown’s Flora, 1961, on its cover (where it was printed incorrectly, with the left-right orientation reversed), the article is eye-opening in its attitude toward women creators. Though Leider practically foams at the mouth over Brown’s greatness, his praise centers on her position as a perfect receptacle of the “rich mood (and mode) that has been developing in San Francisco over the past decade.” He discusses the men who shaped that mode, opining, “What is important is that what she inherited she did not adulterate, and that what she brings to her inheritance is a strong and considerable talent.” In other words, he lauds her for her lack of innovation. He further credits Brown with abandoning the “sign,” for hating art as decoration, and for favoring “a surface of tough, moody, coarse, and even ugly paint in muted colors.” In the following decade, Brown went on to embrace symbolism, decorative elements, and brilliantly colored flat surfaces. It’s as if she was creating a dark mirror that reflected back at Leider the very traits he disparaged.

Joan Brown, Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat, 1970, oil enamel on fiberboard, 96 × 48

Leider’s article was published a mere four months after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. In my fantasy alternate universe, Plath holds out a few more years and feminism saves her. Though Brown came of age as an artist at the dawn of second-wave feminism, she never embraced it. Her work shares many second-wave concerns—personal narrative, self-identity, the body, love, relationships, the domestic—but she put her personal spin on everything. Rather than critiquing domesticity like, say, Tillie Olsen did, Brown embraced it as subject matter, focusing on pets, objects in her home and studio, and her son, Noel. Noel, who was named after Christmas because Brown loved holidays, said she was a really good mother. She enjoyed cooking and would make meals for a local shelter. She also carried sandwiches in her pockets to hand out to unhoused people. Intense and passionate, she continually threw herself into new interests. She was married four times, traveled extensively, and swam competitively without a wet suit in the frigid San Francisco Bay. In 1974, she joined the faculty of the art-practice department at the University of California, Berkeley, where former students say she was a dedicated teacher. Through all this, she produced an enormous amount of work, and though she diverged from her early art-star trajectory, she regularly exhibited in solo and group shows. Some see Brown as a role model for later generations of female artists, but her work has not featured prominently in surveys of feminist art.

The SFMoMA show, which contains some eighty paintings and sculptures in total, is full of self-portraits (Brown created more than one hundred during her lifetime), but the woman who peers out from canvas after canvas remains a mystery, as do the private symbols that repeat, sometimes in the background, sometimes (as with the enormous fish she holds in the 1970 Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat) front and center. Interpretations of Brown’s symbolism can feel far-fetched or inadequate. Knowing the artist was raised in San Francisco’s Marina District does little to solve the puzzle of all those fish in her paintings. Some of her contemporaries turn to astrology for clues. Brown was an Aquarian—thus the water and fish. In the Chinese zodiac, she was born on the cusp of the Ox and the Tiger—thus the tigers. Following this thread, I was excited to learn that her painting Thanksgiving Turkey, 1959, was a restaging of Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox, 1655. Cusp of the Ox!

Joan Brown, Thanksgiving Turkey, 1959, oil on canvas, 477⁄8 × 477⁄8

Brown’s use of animals in her art was influenced by the dogs in Renaissance court paintings—the way they seem to have an existence of their own outside the human drama in which they’re embedded. She was fascinated with the psychic connections between animal and human nature, and she was not afraid to be cartoony and even a bit goofy while exploring those links. In The Bride, 1970, she fills an aqua sky with a school of fish. In the foreground, standing in the midst of a complicated field of poppies, the bride in her white gown has not a woman’s head but a cat’s. Her hands are hidden behind a bouquet, and draped over her right wrist is a ribbon leash attached to a very large rat. The image looks more like an illustration from a children’s book than high art. The cat-headed woman stares at the viewer. It’s difficult to determine whether she’s feeling confrontational or trapped. The blushing pink cleavage that spills out of her bodice is the only element that suggests this figure is truly human. The pinkness is reflected in the fish, the poppies, the bouquet, and even the rat’s leash. The more I look at it, the more vulnerable and distressing that patch of flesh becomes. So The Bride for me becomes a nightmare of alienation, of unconscious drives that refuse to remain hidden. The goofiness of the painting destabilizes the viewer and puts Brown in control. It is a powerful strategy.

In more conventional self-portraits, where Brown portrays herself as woman rather than animal, she peers back blankly at the viewer, revealing little. She often looks caught or unwilling, as in a mug shot. As they do in The Bride, backgrounds and symbols as stand-ins for the self provide meaning and emotional impact. When I look closely at the facial expressions, I see hints of terror, awe, of being stunned, like when you catch yourself in the mirror and have that uncanny Who is that? moment.

Why did Brown walk away from her triumph?

Joan Brown, The Bride, 1970, oil, enamel, and glitter on canvas, 91 × 55

In her “After the Alcatraz Swim” series, 1975–76, which focuses on the aftermath of trauma, Brown’s use of displacement is more overt. In 1975, while the artist was on a long-distance group swim to Alcatraz, a steamer sailed too close and Brown almost drowned. In the paintings, her avatars gaze to the side, lost in thought, totally unaware of the viewer’s existence. They appear numb, but evidence of Brown’s brush with death pops up everywhere. Through windows, the steamer floats ominously in the bay. In paintings depicted behind Brown, swimmers are being swallowed by churning waves. In one image, Brown wears a blue gown decorated with an anchor. In another, her blue dress is patterned with steamships, like an endlessly repeating flashback.

The profound impact of Brown’s confrontation with mortality is felt throughout the galleries that follow the one showcasing “Alcatraz Swim.” The impermanence of life looms large. Even in her exuberant ballroom-dancing canvases, the male partner is sometimes transparent or a skeleton. Toward the end of her life, Brown devoted herself to New Age spirituality. She was inspired by Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics and by the books of Jane Roberts, oracle of the discarnate entity Seth. In 1981, she became a devotee of controversial guru Sathya Sai Baba and dedicated her art to being a channel for his teachings. In work from that period, figures divorced from time and space move through color fields that represent the limitless cosmos. In effervescent patterns of light, the figures morph into energy fields. All this sounds pretty hopeless, but some of the most stunning works in the show hail from this chapter. I kept thinking in awe, How did she pull this off? It’s a feat comparable to T. S. Eliot’s wrenching from the bowels of Anglo-Catholicism the breathtaking Four Quartets.

Joan Brown, A New Age: The Bolti Fish, 1984, enamel on canvas, 72 × 120

The painting I cannot quit thinking about is the monumental A New Age: The Bolti Fish, 1984. In the midst of a featureless blue six-by-ten-foot background floats a giant fish that shimmers with vivid multicolored dabs of enamel. The painting is patterned after a postcard found in Brown’s papers—Jonah and the Whale, a folio from the Jami‘ al-tavarikh, or “Compendium of Chronicles,” ca. 1400. Here Brown replaces the whale with a fish drawn from Egyptian iconography. The bolti fish, or tilapia, common in the Nile, hatches its eggs in its mouth and is thus a symbol for regeneration and rebirth. Inside its gaping jaws stands a tiny Joan Brown wearing the paint-spattered clothes featured in many of her portraits and holding a paintbrush. She is both creating and engulfed by her art, hovering through vastness. The ecstasy of Brown’s late work is contagious, wiping out my ability to respond to it on anything but an emotional level. I left the exhibit excited and really, really happy. I know that’s cheesy, but Brown has convinced me that cheesiness is a rich terrain.

“Joan Brown” is on view through Mar. 12 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; travels to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, May 27–Sept. 24; Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa, CA, Feb. 7–May 1, 2024.

Dodie Bellamy is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

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