The Radiant Legacy of Joan Brown at SFMOMA

SFMOMA Exhibition: Celebrating the Life and Art of Joan Brown

From November 19, 2022, to March 12, 2023, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will showcase an extraordinary retrospective of the works of Joan Brown. This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to delve into the life and artistic journey of Joan Brown, an artist who left an indelible mark on the art world. In collaboration with curators Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, SFMOMA invites visitors to experience the vibrant and captivating world of Joan Brown’s “irrational palette.”

The Early Years: From Catholic College to Art School

Joan Brown’s journey as an artist began with an unexpected twist. Initially set to attend a Catholic women’s liberal arts college, she stumbled upon a flier for the California School of Fine Arts at the age of seventeen. Despite not coming from an artistic background, Joan felt compelled to explore this newfound opportunity. Her passion for art had already manifested in her early years, as she visited local museums and showcased her drawing skills by submitting drawings of movie actresses for admission to art school. Though initially discouraged from taking painting classes, she persevered and enrolled in a summer class taught by Edward Bischoff, a pivotal moment that would shape her artistic trajectory.

Under the mentorship of Bischoff, Joan Brown found guidance and encouragement to trust her instincts as an artist. This influential relationship continued for many years, even as Joan transitioned into becoming a teacher herself. She became a valued member of the faculty at UC Berkeley, nurturing future artists and instilling them with a sense of artistic freedom. Joan’s ability to absorb and reinterpret artistic movements around her, such as abstract expressionism, allowed her to develop a unique artistic vocabulary that set her apart from her contemporaries.

Forging Bonds and Exploring Subject Matters

During her time at the California School of Fine Arts, Joan formed a close friendship with fellow artist Jay DeFeo. They even knocked a hole in the wall between their apartments, solidifying their bond and creating an artistic haven known as “Painterland.” While Joan did not adhere strictly to one artistic style, she gradually gravitated towards figuration, capturing scenes from her domestic life and exploring the themes of gender and motherhood. Some critics dismissed her work as lacking substance due to its focus on personal experiences and domesticity, but Joan’s ability to infuse poignant narratives and employ vibrant colors elevated her art to a truly remarkable level.

A notable example of Joan Brown’s artistic prowess and ability to blend abstraction and figuration is her masterpiece, the Thanksgiving Turkey. Painted early in her career, this piece reveals her deep understanding of composition and the interplay between abstract and representational elements. By referencing Rembrandt’s hanging beef carcass painting while presenting a familiar, domestic subject, Joan challenges traditional artistic boundaries and creates a visually intriguing piece that captivates viewers. The richness and depth of her colors, combined with a sophisticated understanding of spatial depth, make this painting a testament to her skill and creativity.

The Multifaceted Artist: Sculpture and Exploration

Joan Brown’s artistic talent extended beyond painting into the realm of sculpture.