California Women Artists

Joan Brown, Girl Sitting 1962

Joan Brown: Bay Area Figurative Artist 

by Tracy Le

       Being the only young female artist during the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Joan Brown gained recognition and stardom quickly and produced her most mature work from 1955 to 1965. Brown was a San Francisco native born on February 13, 1938, and she attended the California School of Fine Art (now called San Francisco Art Institute) in 1955 and graduated with a Master’s in Fine Arts in 1960.

       The Bay Area Figurative Movement was formed in 1950 and lasted till 1965 in San Francisco, California. The movement consisted of artists who were influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning who were known as the canon of artists in the New York Art School. The Bay Area Figurative artists no longer wanted to create abstract work that was non-representational; rather they wanted to emphasize the figure into representational focus. Moving away from Abstract Expressionism was eventually supported in San Francisco’s art schools and the figurative abstraction was embraced. The Bay Area artists started to create representational works that gave meaning, rather than relying on the emotional aspect in Abstract expressionism. Ultimately, the Bay Area Figurative artists were beginning to truly create pictures instead of just paintings.[1]

       The movement primarily consisted of male artists and one woman, Joan Brown. The movement was divided into three parts: the First Generation, the Bridge Generation, and the Second Generation. Artists in the First Generation included: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Rex Ashlock, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, and James Weeks. The Bridge Generation included Nathan Oliveira, Theophilus Brown, Paul John Wonner, Roland Peterson, John Hultberg, and Frank Lobdell. Whereas in the Second Generation, who studied under the first movement included: Bruce McGaw, Henry Villierme, Manuel Neri, Robert Qualters, and Joan Brown.

       Amongst many male painters, Brown stood out because she started to implement a Diarastic impulse sort of way to record her life in her paintings, a tactic often used by feminist artists.[2] Overall, her paintings displayed representational images not solely focused on achieving mimetic reproduction, although Brown considered herself to be more expressionist for technical and emotional reasons that related to the Abstract Expressionist’s style. [3] In 1959, a New York art dealer named George Staempfli originally came to see another artist but by accident stumbled upon Brown’s studio. He viewed her paintings and purchased $300 worth of her work. Upon discovering a young talented woman, Staempfli supported Brown to have her own solo show in New York. Then a year later she was the youngest artist to have her work featured at the Whitney Museum for the exhibition Young America 1960. [4]

      One of Brown’s mature oil paintings titled Girl Sitting, made in 1962, is considered a nude study rather than a portrait. It embodies the entire Figurative movement’s style in that it is full of aggressive impasto, formed with highly saturated colors but at the same time reflected Neo-Expressionist style. The brushstrokes also eluded sensuality of the figure as they contour the figure, accentuating the form. Brown was often influenced and referred to Willem de Kooning, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Francis Bacon in her earlier paintings.

     Eventually, her style started to become less abstract but dominantly involved the figure by 1965. Brown no longer wanted to focus on exhibition but decided to concentrate on a new direction by going back to the basics sharpening her form, color, and voice. Her brushstrokes started to become more defined and less expressive and abstracted. However, her work was often described as having a “perverse humor with a sort of primitive intensity” which would be seen later that she began to be influenced by Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau.[5] After teaching for a few years at California School of Fine Art and UC Berkeley, she traveled abroad to Egypt and India and studied Archeology and Anthropology. Her paintings became heavily influenced by Egyptian art, Asian art and New Age spirituality.

     With Brown jumping back and forth between symbolisms and referred to her admired artists, she transcended her personal style further and left no trace of Bay Area Figurative style. For example, Brown’s 1969 painting titled Gordon, Joan, and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House, is a portrait of Brown and her husband on a narrow pathway; this piece lacks a definite light source and shadows that are similar to Henri Rousseau’s style. At the same time, Brown implemented a familiar Egyptian composition by putting her dog on the left as a guardian while combining her “aesthetic and autobiographical interests” in one.[6] Overtime in her artistic career, her style transitioned to works that are symbolic and spiritual. Largely contrasted from the typical impasto that is very representative of abstract expressionists, Brown became aware that she wanted “more conscious control” of her work by creating works that are less abstracted and contained subjects that she was most comfortable and familiar with.[7]

    From a viewer’s perspective of first seeing Brown’s body of work, they may identify her as an Abstract Expressionist or Pop Artist if we are to look at her early artistic career to later career. From the explosive and strong brushstrokes and bold colors to flat and controlled paintings, Brown’s artistic mastery has covered a wide spectrum of talents and versatility. Joan Brown was an active mother, wife, professor, feminist, and artist. Her roles as a woman were documented into her paintings, narrating her life experiences and at the same time revealed to her audiences her wide range of influences and from artists she grew inspired with. While her work ranged from many themes and styles, she managed to explore various types of mediums and subjects that inspired her and interested her. She primarily was identified as a predominant figure from the Bay Area Figurative Movement but her later body of work had a definite change of transition that allowed her to explore her own independent expression and direction in art.




Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980. Berkeley and Los

Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Jones, Caroline A. Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965. Berkeley and Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 1990.

Rudick, Nicole. “An Endless Succession of Roles: Joan Brown’s Self-Portraits.”

Hyperallergic, October 31, 2015.

Tsujimoto, Karen and Jacquelynn Bass. The Art of Joan Brown. Berekeley and Los

Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

[1] Caroline A. Jones, Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 1.

[2] Jones, 153.

[3] Ibid, 149.

[4] Ibid, 147.

[5] Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 77.

[6]  Karen Tsujimoto and Jacquelynn Bass, The Art of Joan Brown (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 89.

[7] Nicole Rudick, “An Endless Succession of Roles: Joan Brown’s Self-Portraits.” Hyperallergic, October 31, 2015.

California Women Artists