“Transformations: The Art of Joan Brown”

UC Berkeley Art Museum / Oakland Museum

For years I’ve had a jones for Joan Brown’s ’70s work. The paintings—with their ham-fisted clarity, their relish for pattern and costume, their goofy hieratics and allegorizations, in those hip housepaint colors—hit me in the solar plexus. Brown (1938–1990), a Beat-era youthquaker with a Look-magazine mention and an Artforum cover to her credit by age twentyfive, had evolved by the early ’70s into a cool, funny, contrarian painter (included in Marcia Tucker’s epochal “‘Bad’ Painting” show at the New Museum in 1978) even as she was veering into the loopier byways of the post-Beatles, as Eastern-spiritualist zeitgeist. Brown’s public-art projects of the ’80s—tiled obelisks, featuring cheerily postmodernist, Sanskrit-Egyptoid motifs—kept her on the road and were the main focus of her energies until she was killed, at age fifty-two, in a construction accident in Puttaparthi, India, while installing an obelisk for her guru.

Despite its occasional howlers and cliches, Brown’s autobiographical enterprise in this mammoth retrospective attests to a genuine fierceness of spirit. The exhibition was divided between two museums, with the more substantial, Oakland section subtitled “The Self,” and the diffuse display in Berkeley dubbed (rather mystifyingly, given Brown’s steadfast solipsism) “The World.” The Berkeley sampler, shown in a badly earthquake-damaged building, didn’t do the artist any favors, and was suffused with precisely the regionalist, cultish aura from which Brown’s reputation still needs to be liberated. The few strong paintings, most notably the fanatically detailed Buffalo in Golden Gate Park, 1968, barely survived the effect of stale festivity conveyed by the hodgepodge installation as a whole.

But in Oakland, viewers were treated to the rough draft of a great retrospective exhibition, which suffered only from the presence of a few clinkers, as well as the absence of several key paintings. Here, the emphasis fell squarely on images of the artist, her immediate family, and her pets. These particular works form the strongest argument for Brown’s importance as a painter. The catalogue’s insistence on her roles as a folksy humorist, housewife-feminist, mermaid-swimmer, sphinxy spiritualist, or heraldic litigant reads as special pleading, even if she did dramatize these other identities to the hilt in her art.

After a few very early years of murky, impasto work in the manner of Richard Diebenkorn. David Parks, and Elmer Bischoff, Brown moved into more overtly representational domestic scenes. Noel in the Kitchen, ca. 1964, with its great checkerboard floor, depicts the artist’s young son hanging around the stove with his pants down in the company of two big dogs. At once Bonnard-ish and Hispano-Flemish Baroque in feeling, it’s an early tour de force.

Here, emphasizing Brown’s role as mother, was the lovingly collaged scrapbook that the artist made in 1962 for Noel, which actually worked as feminist art. Brown’s whole early-’60s cult of the self as artist and young wife and mother reminded me, for better or worse, of the emotional exhibitionism of Sylvia Plath’s poetry from roughly the same period. Where I really started to perk up, however, was in front of a sharply limned—in the manner of the Douanier Rousseau—1969 wedding portrait, of herself and her third husband, the artist Gordon Cook, standing proud outside the San Francisco Opera House with their dog Rufus.

Brown is best known—justly—for her self-portraits from the early and mid-’70s. Some of these are plainspoken in the American-primitive sense, such as Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat, 1970, with its paint-splattered-clothing pun on Abstract Emressionism. Others are more fanciful in their materials (glitter, etc.) and redolent of an exuberant, somewhat kitschy Pacific Rim orientalism: Portrait of a Girl, 1971, with its pink-pinafored child standing before the operatic backdrop of a Chinese dragon, was the showstopper here.

Brown’s passion for swimming, together with her preoccupation with aquatic symbolism in general, formed the most resounding leitmotif in this retrospective. The lineup of her bold, anxious, marvelous swimmer paintings formed the brilliant core of the Oakland show, though, the best one of all, The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975—a seated self-portrait in Op-patterned clothes, against a window view of the daunting former prison—was unfortunately missing from this survey altogether.

Animal totems, ankh signs, and the artist’s distinctive, neo-Coptic eye-makeup style that shows up in her self-portraits lend a rich period flavor to Brown’s later paintings. Although many of these cartoonish works transcend derision in their high-keyed Matissean clarity, a few, such as The Lesson, 1981—in which the artist-as-initiate ponders a Sanskrit inscription while flanked by images of Ganesha and Hanuman—bring to mind Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent.

Many of Brown’s best later works made me—would make almost anyone—think of Alex Katz, and a couple of her most interesting late-’70s paintings look a lot like Susan Rothenberg’s work from the same period; but there’s no mention of either name in the exhibition catalogue. There’s the obvious parallel between Brown’s India-influenced paintings from the ’80s, and those by Francesco Clemente: again, no mention. It would seem that in their zeal to establish her singularity, the curators have sentenced Brown—a cultural Geiger counter, as well as a teacher throughout her career—to an Alcatraz-ish isolation. I remain a convert but worry that this show was preaching mainly to those like me.

Brooks Adams is a writer and critic based in New York.