Joan Brown: Her Life Through Painting

By Lupita Franco Peimbert

Joan Brown was a San Francisco-born artist whose work spans four decades. She is credited with popularizing the San Francisco Bay Area as an arts destination. Her paintings are vivid, her sculptures are creative, and her style changed as she incorporated aspects of her life, travels, and exposure to other cultures.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art pays homage to her legacy by presenting the first Joan Brown exhibit in almost twenty years. The exhibition is extraordinary, encompassing eighty pieces showing the artist’s personality, craft, and evolution through large, colorful paintings. 

Janet Bishop, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, said: “We are thrilled to present Joan Brown, a reassessment of the unabashedly personal, defiantly independent, and enduringly relevant career of one of San Francisco’s most important local heroes.”

Born in 1938, Joan Brown’s prolific work began in the 1950s and ended in 1990 when an accident took her life while in India. She and two other people from Northern Californian were installing the mosaic obelisk at Sai Baba’s Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India, when a concrete turret from the floor above collapsed, taking their lives. 

She was part of the Bay Area Figurative movement, a professor at several colleges and universities, including a long tenure as an art professor at UC Berkeley. 

Some of her work incorporates her passion for swimming and her non-conformist nature. She shows Alcatraz, the waters she couldn’t cross, other swimmers, and the Dolphin Club, which she, among others, sued the club because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow women as members. 

Brown admired Picasso; when he died, she created a piece in his honor. 

As her paintings show, she loved pets: cats, dogs, fish, and even rats, which are included in her work. In a self-portrait, “The Bride,” she depicts a woman (she) with the face of a cat and a background of fish and flowers, and a rat. 

Her passion for dance, romance, and marriage is also illustrated in many of her beautiful paintings. As she became more acquainted with the cultures in India and Egypt, her paintings included words in Sanskrit, figures, and forms relevant to those cultures. 

Perhaps the world outside the art circles has missed acknowledging an artist and women ahead of their time. Hers was a life story filled with non-conformism, trial and error, authenticity, and creative gifts. Thankfully, the art world did recognize her talent, as her paintings are highly valued —even though it is said she didn’t care as much for the commercialization of art. 

SFMOMA honors her legacy with this extraordinary exhibit, beginning on November 2022 through March 2023. 

What I mainly want is to be surprised,
the joyousness of that surprise, going

past what I know.”

-Joan BRown

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