Installation view, Joan Brown, George Adams Gallery, New York. 2017.

What defines modernist painting, and distinguishes it from old master European art, is the elimination of obvious details. This suppression permits expressive directness and pursuit of immediacy, which makes the figurative works of Matisse and Picasso, like the abstractions of Mondrian and Pollock, distinctively modernist. In this manner, visual art responds to the experience of everyday life in a culture where everything moves swiftly. As early as the mid-nineteenth century Charles Baudelaire recognized this much when he argued that because modern life involves rapid change, it “calls for an equal speed of execution from the artist.” Accumulation of details is fussy, and fussiness is the sworn enemy of intense expressiveness. According to Delacroix, Baudelaire observed, “a good picture, which is a faithful equivalent of the dream which has begotten it, should be brought into being like a world.” Only then, Baudelaire argued, can painting truthfully express contemporary life. What, he asks, “is pure art according to the modern ideal?” Then, although discussing Delacroix, in answering that question, Baudelaire nicely describes a great deal of modernist art, “It is the creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.” By thus bridging the gap between an artist and the world, successful artwork is as vivid as a hallucination.

Like such diverse otherwise figurative modernists as Alex Katz and Bob Thompson, Joan Brown (1938 – 1990), a San Francisco-based painter, foregrounds her subjects—people, animals, trees—on flat monochromatic and mostly detail-free backgrounds. Thus her The Captive (1975), a benign version of a Francis Bacon picture, depicts a chained dog standing on a purple field inside a large box. And in Wolf in Room (1974) a splendid black wolf sits on the floor in front of a brightly tiled wall. In Acrobats and Spectator on New Year's Eve, (1974) the two performers go through their routine in front of an abstract-looking background where someone is wearing a marvelous red and orange pointed hat. And The Cyprus Trees (1980) sets two tall trees before a violet-colored sky. The gallery handout says that her “late paintings turn simplicity into a spiritual gesture.” That is exactly right. Brown learnt from early modernism the visual power of intense, expansive high-pitched color. Look at how her New Year's Eve #2 (1973), with figures which are worthy of James Ensor, shows a skeleton dancing with a magically energetic woman in front of an urban skyline.

Joan Brown, The Captive, 1975, Enamel on canvas, 85 × 73 inches

Brown is also an unfailingly inventive iconographer. The Fan (Homage to Sai Babha) (1980)—Brown’s tribute to her Indian guru—depicts a spinning fan, which keeps turning even when the tiny power switch at the bottom right shows that the electricity to this fan is turned off. How imaginative, too, is the composition of The Swimmers #2 (The Crawl) (1974), with two swimmers, one in a one piece blue bathing suit, immersed in a green sea—Brown herself, it’s worth recalling, was a champion swimmer. And Noel's First Christmas (1963), done in a painterly style very different from the large pictures in this show, is a marvelous image of her son. What gives unity to this body of varied subject matter is Brown’s absolute mastery of the medium of painting. A well-drawn figure, Baudelaire says (speaking of Delacroix) “fills you with a pleasure which is absolutely divorced from its subject.” That description applies word for word to Brown’s paintings. Even before you can identify her subjects, her fast-moving compositions hold your attention.



David Carrier

DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.