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Journal of a woman’s life — in paint

Self Portrait (1977) by Joan Brown

ART | Jerome Tarshis

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 through March 11, 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.

Photograph of Joan Brown by Jerry Burchard


Joan Brown’s involvement with the art scene along Fillmore Street began with exhibitions, while she was still an art student, first at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, then at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street near Fillmore.

In 1958, Brown and her husband Bill Brown moved into the apartment building at 2322 Fillmore, where their next-door neighbors were the painters Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo. Famous as some of them are today, San Francisco artists of the 1950s had little hope of being exhibited by major galleries or museums. Bruce Conner once said that the art of that time was not made to last because nobody needed it to last. Brown herself has said, “It was important for that day, for that week, or for that moment.”

The seeming lack of any path to success encouraged a deliberate hostility to the art market and its institutions. Life at 2322 Fillmore was characterized by heavy drinking, resourceful parties and the view that making artwork was something like a meditative exercise, to be enjoyed in the present with little thought for the future.

Joan Brown had come a long way from her Catholic high school days. After a time, however, the hard partying became oppressive; quiet and privacy began to look good. In 1959, she separated from Bill Brown and moved to North Beach to live with the artist Manuel Neri, who became her second husband.