PRINT June 1963

Joan Brown

Everybody’s Darling

IN 1955, aged 17, Joan Brown enrolled as a freshman at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. In 1959 she received her B.F.A.; in 1960, aged 22, she 1) received her M.F.A. 2) held her first one­-man show in New York, at the Staempfli Gallery; 3) became the youngest artist to be shown in the Whitney Museum’s “Young America” exhibition. Since this modest entry into the art world, her work has found its way into the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Albright Art Gallery, among those of many other important institutions and individuals. Even magazines like Look and Mademoiselle cannot seem to resist her, lavishing upon her all the screwball awards and honors for eminent ladies with which they periodically come up.

An observer accustomed to a more stately, time ­consuming biography, tends to find his comprehen­sion somewhat stunned by this sort of progression. Can one so young be so deserving? Are the times such that one can simply be run through an art school as if on a conveyor belt, flopping out into success at the other end? Is there not, regardless of the amount of native talent, a process of self-discovery, maturation, experience, through which there is simply no short­cut, which an artist must undergo? It would seem, at least in Joan Brown’s case, not, for her work offers some of the finest and most exciting examples of the rich mood (and mode) that has been developing in San Francisco over the past decade.

If there is a San Francisco style, a San Francisco attitude, that style and that attitude can be found epitomized in her paintings. That it was not her intelligence that went into the formation of this sensi­bility is irrelevant; that it was not out of her lifetime that the years of labor and experimentation came is simply her good fortune; what is important, and what is fascinating, is that the product of that intelligence and those labors appears in her work in pristine form. 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.

“The Attitude”

The situation into which Joan Brown happened to be born had been developing at the California School of Fine Arts since the days when Clyfford Still was teaching there, in the middle and late forties. They were the days when Still, Rothko, Pollock, and Gott­lieb, among others, sought to embody in painting a new kind of energy by releasing into it a sign, at once abstract and concrete, having no reference in nature, but sounding within the viewer a response out of a common, primeval and mysterious consciousness. Communication on this level could not be easily talked about, and indeed a great part of the Still legacy in San Francisco is a mistrust of verbalization which easily became a mistrust of intellectuality: an entire complex of anti-intellectual attitudes remains characteristic of San Francisco art and artists. Corol­lary to a hesitancy to explain came a solemnity in the face of the high seriousness of this art, an attitude of fierce dedication which precluded concern with the fashionable aspects of the art world, and a distinct aversion for all its commercial aspects. (Still’s subse­quent removal of himself to isolation, his refusal to be handled by a commercial dealer and his refusal to exhibit his works except under the most exacting conditions has been often regarded as an irritating pose in Eastern art circles; in San Francisco it re­mains a subject of total admiration.) Lastly, and per­haps most important from the point of view of the image that was to evolve, was a total and violent rejection of any consideration of the painting as decoration. Above all, the form was to reflect the content, and a surface of tough, moody, coarse, and even ugly paint in muted colors, much worked-upon, was preferred to anything that might be called “at­tractive.” (A tolerance for inexpensive materials––Joan Brown works, to the persistent dismay of her dealers, in the cheapest paints––derives in some part, at least, from this disdain for the decorative qualities of the media.) Lastly, the scale of the work was to correspond to its seriousness: the large painting be­came fundamental to the San Francisco style. These ideas, germinating in the San Francisco atmosphere, remained embodied after Still’s departure, not only in his students, but in early works by himself, Rothko, Pollock and Gorky at the San Francisco Museum of Art. They formed the prevailing sensibility of the San Francisco Art Institute (the current name for the School) and reached succeeding generations of stu­dents primarily through the influence of Elmer Bis­choff and Frank Lobdell.

Lobdell’s own work, with certain modifications, re­flects the tradition perfectly. Bischoff, a figurative painter, embodies the tradition in his person, and it is interesting that Lobdell's students are universally attracted to Bischoff, almost never because of his work, but because of his “attitude.” (Joan Brown's figurative work is among the strongest and most in­tense figurative painting being done on the West Coast, and the reason for its compelling qualities is that it is informed by the “attitude” of the Still tra­dition. It has nothing in common with what is usually known as “California Figurative” painting, which drifts, for the most part, with neither attitude nor tradition to drive it.)

Still de-Stilled

What Joan Brown’s work typifies is not, however, the complex of ideas and methods which derive directly from Clyfford Still, but the assimilation, and considerable distortion, of Still’s teachings, by suc­ceeding groups of San Francisco artists, who have pushed, twisted, ground and hammered Still’s tradi­tion into the image of San Francisco painting today. That image is not Still’s image, though it is vastly informed by Still’s attitude and method. Some of the elements of the Still tradition have been abandoned; some have been intensified; some have been completely misinterpreted. What we are dealing with is the progress of a mood.

For one, the idea of the “sign” as a totemic, prime­val, and mythic communication has been steadily abandoned. In its place emerges simply the shape, or the “thing.” Joan Brown’s titles, for example, con­sistently refer to “things”: Things in the Sky at Night, Trying to Spear Things, Things in Land­scape. The “shape” or “thing” can be almost any form at all, and is not above being a joking reference to the shape of a car fender, a comic-strip lightning bolt, a penis or a breast or a vagina. A tendency to draw the shape from the vulgar (meaning low-brow) more than from the austere is characteristic of the entire trend of newer young painters in San Fran­cisco, and this derives, not from the pop art move­ments recently so prominent, but from the congenial­ity of that other element of the tradition—anti-intellectualism. From what they are certain is the kiss-of-death of rationalism and intellectuality, they protect themselves with hillbilly music, comic strips, and monosyllables. This kind of anti-intellectuality is not what Still had in mind. What was to Still’s group simply a mistrust of (and despair of) verbalizing, is for this group a rejection of the total verbal milieu.

A part of the attitude that remains, however, with­out modification is the total seriousness in the con­frontation of art, and an intact sense of the distance between its mission and its mongers. “The attitude” combines a solemnity about art with a total rejection of standard art attitudes, particularly those of the Eastern artists. Joan Brown, whose dislike of New York artists and New York art is overt: “Those New York artists. All they do is visit each other’s studios and talk a lot of baloney about art.”

Intensified to the point of fanaticism in this area of San Francisco painting is the hatred of art as dec­oration, and to this can be attributed, more than to any other single factor, the sense of honesty, vitality and promise of the second generation of the San Francisco school, as opposed to the sense of chic, facility and compromise of the second generation of the New York School. Joan Brown, at the current stage of her career, holds more promise than Michael Goldberg, for example, does at the current stage of his.

This, in spite of the fact that she is, and will be, capable of committing some pretty horrible messes to canvas. For somewhere a long the line the price of a stubborn and willful dumbness has to be paid. The vitality, and the sense of a totally uncontaminated image that currently marks the best of her work and the work of her San Francisco contemporaries is only one side of the coin. On the other side are canvas after canvas exploiting “discoveries” that were com­monplace to the Fauves, enormous dislocations of scale, and inept paint handling as an alternative to decorative paint handling. Whether or not the price of total commitment to a mood is ultimately even higher than this remains to be seen.

––Philip Leider