New York

Vivian Browne, Little Men #70, ca. 1967, acrylic on paper, 23 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4". From the series “Little Men,” 1966–72.

Vivian Browne, Little Men #70, ca. 1967, acrylic on paper, 23 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4". From the series “Little Men,” 1966–72.

Vivian Browne

RYAN LEE

The masculinity emanating from “Little Men,” 1966–72, a series of paintings by the artist Vivian Browne (1929–1993), is unequivocally toxic. In this exhibition at Ryan Lee Gallery, her subjects—a particularly vicious strain of businessman—stagger, shriek, and contort. They’re also white, and Browne, a supreme colorist, has availed herself of Caucasian flesh’s myriad hideous possibilities: ruddy pinks, contusive purples, jaundiced yellows, pallid grays, and a now-familiar tangerine hue. Whether these overweening barons of industry are in the throes of sexual ecstasy or death was hard to tell. The reeling grotesques of Browne’s epic Seven Deadly Sins, ca. 1968, swill liquor, suck on their own extremities, and scream like Francis Bacon’s popes. The uneasy duo in Wall Street Jump, 1969, appeared hoofed, Minotaurish. Several of these tiny balding bastards threaten, through their wrath, to dissolve into the smeary colors that gird them. See, for instance, the tyrant in Little Men #102, 1967, whose baby hands are balled into tight orange fists à la Donald Trump. But the man’s mouth is enormous—a voracious, insatiable maw.

A piece by Browne was featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 survey “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–85,” but the show at this gallery was the first major presentation of her work in New York in roughly two decades. And though she was a force within the history of black feminist art, her exhibition history remains incommensurate with her output, doubtless thanks to gargoyles like those she parodied in “Little Men.”

Browne was tireless: She became an original member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in 1969 after the disastrous “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That show primarily condescended to museumgoers with sociological documentation, rather than spotlighting work by black artists. Two years later, with Dindga McCannon and Faith Ringgold, she formed the arts collective Where We At and co-organized a show of the same name—among the first devoted exclusively to black women. In 1982, Browne coedited the “Racism” issue of Heresies, the titular journal published by a New York–based feminist group. These events merely skim the surface of her activism. 

Seethe as they do against a deeply unjust society, the works comprising “Little Men” don’t read as overt protest art. It seems there’s a reason for this: In 1968, Browne told an interviewer that she sketched and painted hundreds of male figures as a way of untangling a vexed relationship with her father. But don’t mistake these images for portraits, as the empathy an artist might have for her sitter is utterly absent. At times, Browne’s depictions are so vague that they may as well be full-blown abstractions. Like Ringgold in her contemporaneous “American People” series, 1963–67, Browne weds surprising color with eccentric figuration to express the violence inherent in whiteness. Her series lacks the thematic subtlety and paradoxes of “American People,” and while the types of masculine vulgarity at first feel endless, they eventually blur into a brutal, overwhelming sameness. Yet the conceptual limitations of “Little Men” are deliberate, even key. The artist has described this body of work, made early in her career, as a sort of catharsis. A devotee of Cézanne (Browne traded in the post-Impressionist’s apples for pumpkin-headed plutocrats), she continuously returned to the same subject—not to flout the conventions of reality but to mutiny against the ubiquitous obstacles of her reality, and to turn the reductive male gaze and its gorgonizing stupidity back on itself. Unlike Cézanne, who embraced the role of experimenter, Browne firmly shunned this position. “I think that my whole push is in saying what there is to say,” she once remarked. We should all be listening to her, as there is so much more to hear.