Roger Brown began exhibiting his work in the late 1960s, alongside a group of artists often referred to as the Chicago Imagists. Celebrated for their use of imagery, figuration, narrative, and patterning, these artists pulled from idiosyncratic sources to produce deeply personal and visually diverse work, shirking the cool, stylistic orthodoxies that dominated on the coasts. Brown moved in circles around the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which nurtured the unconventional interests of Brown and his peers. Brown was deeply associated with Chicago during his lifetime: he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1970; he kept a series of studios, filled with carefully selected art and objects, from both the vernacular and mainstream realms, that culminated in his building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood; and his instantly legible paintings and objects, replete with silhouetted figures, patterned landscapes, and scalloped skies, rendered in dizzying isometric perspective, helped foster a community of artists that announced Chicago as a viable site of artistic production.
Roger Brown was born in Hamilton, Alabama, in 1941. His parents owned successful groceries and belonged to the Church of Christ, known for its fire and brimstone intensity. Brown’s father, himself an accomplished woodworker, instilled in his children a love of good craftsmanship and handmade things. His mother and her large extended family recounted their extensive family history, emphasizing the importance of narrative and place. Long car trips exposed Brown to the variety of the American landscape, and with his brother, he devoured comic books and movies at the Art Deco Martin Theater in Opelika. As Brown said in 1987, “I really think that my going in the direction I did comes from being Southern.” Two of Brown’s professors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago encouraged Brown to draw on these diverse experiences in his work. Ray Yoshida, an artist and Brown’s painting instructor, organized trips to the Maxwell Street Flea Market, where Yoshida encouraged them to find inspiration in visually powerful, non-traditional sources. Whitney Halstead, professor of Art History, was an early advocate of the importance of non-western, folk, and outsider art, and organized trips to the Field Museum of Natural History, where Brown saw African and Oceanic Objects. Brown synthesized and made reference to these diverse sources for the duration of his career, making and collecting work that upset traditional art historical hierarchies.
In 1971, Phyllis Kind first exhibited Brown’s work, which began their strong relationship as the exclusive representative and advocate of his work for his entire career. In 1972, Brown was featured in the book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 by Franz Schulze, and his reputation continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, Brown met architect George Veronda (1940-1984) and the two formed a strong artistic and personal relationship. In 1974, Brown purchased a storefront in Chicago that became his first home, studio, and collection environment, which he renovated with George Veronda. Later in the decade, he commissioned Veronda to design a home and studio for a Lake Michigan dunes property that he had purchased in New Buffalo, Michigan. For several years, Brown divided his time between Chicago and New Buffalo, where he assembled a second collection of art and objects. Aware of his own mortality – Brown had lived with HIV/AIDS for nearly a decade – Brown made a series of gifts to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, establishing the school as the primary repository for his personal, professional, and artistic effects. In 1995 he gave the school his New Buffalo, Michigan retreat, which operates as a residency facility for faculty and staff. In 1996, he gave the school his Chicago collection, which was formalized into the Roger Brown Study Collection, a house museum, archive, and special collection in 1997. Brown also bequeathed his home and collection in La Conchita, California to the school, before his death in 1997.
Brown’s work has been the subject of numerous solo presentations both stateside and abroad, including exhibitions at The Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and Des Moines Art Center. Brown’s work is frequently featured in major group exhibitions, including recent presentations at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London; Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Fondazione Prada, Milan; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. His work is held in numerous public collections around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Birmingham Art Museum; Dallas Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Brown lived and worked in Chicago before his death in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1997.