Joan Brown (1938-1990) was born in San Francisco, CA where she lived and worked for most of her life. Almost by accident, Brown chose to attend the California School of Fine Art, alongside artists such as William T Wiley and Manuel Neri. Of the faculty at the time, none had such a lasting impact as Elmer Bischoff, who inspired Brown to paint from her life and many of her strongest paintings are of friends, family and pets. She went on to earn both her BFA and MFA at the school while an active part of the burgeoning beat scene, painting in a heavy impasto style, sometimes abstractly, influenced by the work of her teachers and peers. Close friendships with artists such as Bruce Conner, Jay De Feo, Wally Hedrick and Manuel Neri - who she was briefly married to - were also influential, leading to experimentations with sculpture and collage, both of which she returned to periodically throughout her career. Early recognition lead to her first solo exhibitions in San Francisco, at the Spasta Gallery in 1958, and New York in 1960, at the Staempfli Gallery. Quickly named as one of the leading figures in the second generation of Bay Area Figurative painters, she was included in national survey exhibitions such as Young America at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1960, and the Carnegie International in 1964, besides the definitive exhibition Funk at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1967.
By the mid-1960s however, Brown had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of her painting, feeling that she was under pressure to produce work. Making the radical choice to take step back from her career, she withdrew from her galleries and focused on re-discovering herself as a painter. While her work was already semi-autobiographical, the self emerged as an important subject for Brown and frontal, direct self-portraits became a recurring theme in her work. It was also during this period that she renewed her childhood interest in Egyptian art and culture and began a study of Chinese art, both of which would prove highly influential on her use of symbolism. The first paintings to come out of these efforts owe a debt to artists she deeply admired, such as Rousseau, Goya, Rembrandt and Gaugin. In stark contrast to the heavy paint and gestural brushwork of her earlier work, Brown switched to enamel paints in 1970 for their rich colors and glossy surface, introducing the flat and colorful style most recognizably her own. Her first museum exhibition, at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1971, was of recent paintings, including self-portraits, allegorical nudes and small paintings of mundane items on colorful, patterned grounds. A mid-career retrospective followed, at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1974, which coincided with her appointment as a professor of art at the University of California, Berkeley.
Brown was also an avid swimmer and would participate in open water swims in the San Francisco Bay. Though she never considered herself a competitive swimmer, she began training with Olympic swim coach Charlie Sava, who became a friend and mentor as well. In 1975 she attempted the annual Alcatraz Swim, from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, but due to the unusually turbulent conditions, she had to be rescued after nearly an hour in the water. While she did complete the swim in subsequent years, the experience inspired some of her best known paintings, capturing a solitary, contemplative figure both before and after the event. The work that followed was increasingly reductive, with patterning giving way to solid color and figures sometimes reduced to mere silhouettes - a format Brown felt encapsulated the energy and emotion of her subjects. In 1977, a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled her to travel to Egypt for the first time and over the next few years she made research trips to China, India and South America. This exposure to a range of visual cultures and beliefs had a profound effect on her work: her paintings going forward engage with the symbolic and spiritual, frequently depicting the artist on a path of discovery. Themes of harmony and duality began to appear in her work as well, in large part due to the teachings of Sai Sathya Baba, the Indian spiritual leader who Brown met in 1980.
Throughout her career, Brown showed herself to be a highly individualistic artist, unswayed by trends or expectations of the market. By the mid-1980s, she began to shift her focus to public installations, which she felt were a more democratic form of art, completing several major commissions before her death in 1990. In 1998, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California jointly mounted a posthumous retrospective of Brown’s work. A second retrospective was held at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2012 and the San Francisco Museum of Art organized a third in 2022. Brown’s work is represented in many institutional collections across the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Berkeley Art Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Philadelphia Art Museum; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Los Angeles County Museum; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others.