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Journal of a woman’s life — in paint

Self Portrait (1977) by Joan Brown


Joan Brown (1938-1990) may have thought of herself as an unclassifiable artist. “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward,” the survey of her paintings at the San Jose Museum of Art, positions her as one who portrayed women’s lives, beginning with her own. Curators need to say something, but it’s an idea that hardly narrows things down. A woman is called upon to play many parts — and Brown tells us that she enjoyed most of them.

Joan Brown (nee Beatty) was born in San Francisco and received a Catholic education through high school. Her teachers seemed to offer her a choice between becoming a nun or becoming a 1950s wife and mother. By sheer chance, she saw an ad for the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, visited its campus, saw people with beards and sandals, and thought an entirely different world had been opened to her.

As a child, she had played with paper dolls, putting different costumes on a single figure, and as a teenager she had copied photographs of glamorous movie actresses. When she applied to art school, the drawings of actresses were enough to secure her admission. They were girlish rather than feminist, but they prefigured much of her career, which was dedicated to making a body of work that was a journal of a woman’s life far more than it was a product offered for sale.

For a time Brown considered herself the least qualified of art students and thought of dropping out until one of her teachers, Elmer Bischoff, changed her sense of what she could do. Bischoff told her that she didn’t need to master academic drawing — that experience would teach her what she needed to know. And as for what to paint, a cup of coffee in her studio was a perfectly legitimate subject for art.

She became enormously successful. The paintings of her student years, much admired at school, brought her to the attention of an outstanding gallery in New York, where she sold a painting to the Museum of Modern Art in her early twenties. In San Francisco at that time, being a woman artist was no great handicap; in lifetime career terms, both Brown and her next-door neighbor on Fillmore Street, Jay DeFeo, outstripped their artist husbands, Bill Brown and Wally Hedrick.

Brown was notable for getting paint on herself; she seemed almost eager to look like a mess. But she also enjoyed being pretty and dressing up, and the show includes a painting in which she and her third husband, Gordon Cook, are on their way to a performance of San Francisco Opera.

One of the most teasing works in the show, a summation of cliches about women and women artists but also an example of her refusal to be only one thing or only another, is Self-Portrait (1977). In it, Brown sits in her studio, painting a still life of a flower, and instead of wearing a paint-stained artist’s smock, she is wearing a handsome dress and high-heeled shoes and looks as if she has dressed for
a party.

Her paintings tell us that she could embrace the most varied possibilities: she could be physically strong, as a long-distance swimmer; she could be a painter; she could be a wife or mother or lover; by the 1980s, she could be a spiritual seeker in India. For her, at least, there was never any contradiction between looking terrific in high heels and being a serious, successful, and, if one wants to use the adjective, feminist painter.