Joan Brown (American, 1938-1990)
Crocker Art Museum, gift of John S. Knudsen
In 1961, Joan Brown looked to 17th-century masters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez, informing her own contemporary manner with the pathos and worldliness seemingly imbued in their art. This was a time of personal reflection for the artist and the beginning of one of her major themes, seen here in three examples—all meditations on her life and work.
Flora directly interprets Rembrandt’s paintings of the goddess of flowers as personified by his wife Saskia. Like Rembrandt’s Saskia, Brown’s Flora stands, flowers entwined in her hair, gazing tranquilly at the viewer. Yet the thickness of Brown’s paint is anything but tranquil, nearly an inch thick in places. The pigment is particularly dense in Flora’s distended belly, a portrait of things to come for the artist. The following year, Brown would marry Manuel Neri and in August, 1962, give birth to a son.
In 1968, Brown married again, this time to artist Gordon Cook, and in 1970 they moved to a large property in Rio Vista, California. Brown’s style underwent a significant change, as did her materials and technique. She adopted oil-based enamel paints for their liquidity and brilliancy. These dried quickly and produced flat or translucent layers. Her manner became more economical and the delineation of forms broader. Animals were always important to Brown, and during this period she increasingly used them as symbols of the self. In 1972, the couple and their family returned to San Francisco, yet Brown still held an inner loneliness she was compelled to explore in the painting Wolf in Studio. The wolf, the Jungian prowler of the psyche, captures the ferocity of her solitude and commitment to the creative life, as it guards an unfinished canvas.
Cook and Brown shared a passion for exercise and swimming. In 1971, she entered a competitive swim and, in late 1972, began to train with a coach. Parallel to paintings such as Wolf in Studio, Brown painted the daily activities of her regimen as she prepared for her annual swim from San Francisco to Alcatraz. Her Running at McAteer Park shares the broadly delineated and colorful figurative manner of Wolf in Studio, but it is clearly a self-portrait of the artist running with her many dogs. While conceived in flat expanses, the composition’s spare treatment brilliantly propels us along the track with her.