San Francisco artist Joan Brown comes home in riveting retrospective at SFMOMA

Joan Brown, “The Night Before the Alcatraz Dive,” 1975. Photo: Joan Brown estate

For a few seconds, the pleasant chill of San Francisco Bay gripped me while viewing the Joan Brown retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

After works that show the evolution of the San Francisco artist from abstraction in the late 1950s and early 1960s to the bold, fantastical figurative style that would define her until her death in 1990 at the age of 52, you suddenly find yourself in the water.

Not literally, of course, but walking into the gallery dedicated to Brown’s swimming-related works is just as poignant. The paintings collected here each tell a story about Brown, including her swimming lessons with Hall of Fame coach Charlie Sava, her victory in a swimming championship in 1976, and a near-death experience during a race from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in 1975.

In the center of the gallery hangs the 1974 sheet metal and wood sculpture “Divers”, depicting from above and below a female figure breaking through the water, and a second woman in the middle of swimming. Due to the thorough writing of curators Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim, and also because of how deeply personal each painting and sculpture is, you can easily spend minutes during the exhibition with each of Brown’s works and absorb their stories.

Joan Brown, “Christmastime 1970 (Joan + Noel)”, 1970. Photo: Joan Brown estate

“She was an incredible storyteller,” Lim said. “That’s something we’re trying to emphasize in the way we’ve organized each of the galleries and how the galleries are tied together. … This impulse that she had to share everything that happened to her is part of what makes (her work) such a rich viewing experience.

Bishop and Lim’s immersive exhibit demonstrates Brown’s storytelling skills, with many of those stories set in San Francisco. The artist was from the city and spent decades painting and presenting work in Northern California. A graduate of the California School of Fine Arts (later the now-closed San Francisco Art Institute), she also had a long relationship with SFMOMA. With more than 80 works on display, this is the most important re-evaluation of the artist in two decades.

Brown’s origins in abstraction laid an interesting foundation for what was to come. You’ll see figures popping up in her paintings with works like 1962’s “Girl in the Surf with the Moon Casting a Shadow” and “Noel’s First Christmas” (which depicts her son) offering a tantalizing taste of what will fully blossom. These works are especially interesting when considered in conjunction with the companion show “Joan Brown and Friends” on the second floor, which better contextualizes some of the layering techniques and blown-out shapes Brown explored during this period, a la Beat artist Jay DeFeo.

Joan Brown, “Gordon, Joan + Rufus for SF Opera House”, 1969. Photo: Joan Brown estate

By the late 1960s, Brown’s vibrant, cartoonish figurative style is fully formed. “Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees” from 1968 is a signature animal painting for the artist (she often revisits animals) and shows the cat against an orange sky with mist rolling behind it. “Gordon, Joan + Rufus for SF Opera House,” a 1969 self-portrait featuring her third husband, Gordon Cook, and their dog, introduces Brown as her own subject.

Aside from the swim series, works like “Christmas Time 1970 Joan + Noel,” which shows Brown against changing leaves, her young son dressed in a San Francisco Giants cap, and her depiction of herself as a child in “Portrait of a Girl” with a young Brown shown against a glittering Chinatown dragon also strongly convey that peculiar attention to the story. Her paintings in the later “Journey” series depict Brown’s relationship with Modesto Lanzone, a San Francisco restaurateur with whom she traveled to Italy. The paintings show the two passing through, dancing and kissing, and feel as intimate as diary pages.

Joan Brown, “Grey Cat with Madrone and Birch Trees”, 1968. Photo: Joan Brown estate

“There was such a seamless connection between her art and her life,” Bishop said. “Whatever she was passionate about would show up in her paintings; it’s one of the things that really sets her apart. There is a kind of fearlessness in her subject. They could even be seen as corny, and yet she didn’t hold back.”

By the time you get to the last works created before her death in the 1990 collapse of an ashram in Puttaparthi, India, you feel like you’ve been through a series of vignettes. Works like the “Bather” series (don’t miss the “Bather” on the second floor at the museum’s Steps Coffee), which shows her as versions of human-feline hybrids, her “St. Francis + St. Claire” from 1989 and her 1981 column triptych ‘Ganesha, the Lesson, Hanuman’ all feel serene, while sacrificing nothing to the joy of her earlier work.

Appropriately, the last piece you’ll see before you leave is Brown’s 1981 “Cat and Rat Obelisk,” which combines the artist’s spiritual quest with the unexpected humor that makes her work so rewarding on repeat viewings.

Joan Brown, Harmonie, 1982. Photo: Joan Brown estate

“Joan Brown”: Thursday 13:00-20:00; 10am-5pm Friday-Monday. Saturday November 19 – March 12. $19 – $25. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF 415-357-4000.

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