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50 x 50

Joan Brown modeling at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, ca. 1958–60

San Jose Museum of Art
50 x 50: Stories of Visionary Artists from the Collection
Joan Brown is featured in the 2020 digital publication 50 x 50, which introduces new scholarship and fresh insights into the psyche of visionary artists in the San Jose Museum of Art's permanent collection.

The women’s movement paralleled Joan Brown’s career, yet she has been largely excluded from its history. The artist’s pioneering use of personal and domestic imagery in her work—of furniture, her studio interior, her mother—and autobiographical narrative anticipate the aesthetic terrain explored by women artists in the 1970s. In 1960 her work was included in the traveling exhibition Women in American Art and in an accompanying spread in Look magazine with other distinguished female artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

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San Jose Museum of Art, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown

After the Alcatraz Swim #1, 1975
Oil enamel on canvas
96 x 78 inches

San Jose Museum of Art
This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown
The exhibition was the first in-depth examination of this beloved Bay Area artistʼs painting in over a decade.
Essay by Jodi Throckmorton, Associate Curator, San Jose Museum of Art

The deeply introspective paintings of Joan Brown (1938 – 1990) reveal the importance she placed in everyday moments, relationships with family and friends, and her spiritual state. Her art and life were inseparable. Over a career of thirty-five years, Brown was not afraid to go against the latest trends and attitudes in the art world.

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Painting by Joan Brown titled Year of the Tiger from 1983

Joan Brown, “Year of the Tiger” (1983), enamel on canvas, 72 x 120 inches

Hyperallergic
An Endless Succession of Roles: Joan Brown’s Self-Portraits
"This introspective yet intrepid artist felt compelled to show her 'interior reasons' for creating a painting on canvas, and the two were inextricable: she was the art and art was her."

By Nicole Rudick

NEW YORK — When Joan Brown began attending the California School of Fine Arts in 1955, she was immediately dissatisfied with her classes and the structure of art education in general. The first year was mainly given over to commercial aspects, such as design, and she was dismissive of exercises centered on technical skills. Just as Brown had all but decided to leave the school, she began a landscape-painting class taught by Elmer Bischoff, a leader, with Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, of Bay Area figuration. Brown discovered that Bischoff spoke her language, even though, she recalled in a long interview with Peter Karlstrom in 1975, “I had no idea what my language was.”

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Biography

Photographic Portrait of Joan Brown teaching at University of California, Berkeley

Joan Brown teaching at UC Berkeley, 1975
 

Joan Brown was born in San Francisco, California in 1938. She studied at the California School of Fine Arts, where she completed her B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from the school in 1956 and 1959. Under the influence of Elmer Bischoff, as well as the San Francisco Beat culture she enjoyed with her peers, she honed a style remarkable for its personal symbolism and stylistic flexibility. Through her early work Brown gained considerable renown and by 1960 she was already a celebrated painter, that year joining the roster of the Staempfli Gallery. After some years in the national spotlight, Brown undertook a significant change in style and abandoned the thickly painted works for which she had been lauded, in order to focus on smaller work and reclaim her artistic autonomy. At this time, she broke off her ties with Staempfli and retreated from the public art world until the late sixties. In subsequent years Brown reemerged with a style rooted in figuration yet complicated by suggestive narratives, which blend real and imaginary scenes and often combine myth-like symbols with descriptive portraiture. Toward the end of her life, Brown traveled widely in Egypt, India, and China, and the influence of these cultures effected a final shift in her style as she integrated characters, icons, and aesthetics from her journeys. Since her untimely death in India in 1990, Brown’s legacy has tended to consolidate with the Bay Area Figurative Painters associated with her alma mater. However, the variability in Brown’s artistic process and her constantly evolving style mark her as a complex artist difficult to force into one category, never satisfied with her artistic success and always compelled to seek out new expressions of her personal vision.

Brown’s work has been exhibited widely nationally and internationally. Her work is represented in numerous museum collections including at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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