Joan Brown, Bay Area Figurative Artist

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Joan Brown, Girl Sitting 1962. Oil on canvas.

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Joan Brown, Gordon, Joan, and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House. 1968. Oil on canvas


Joan Brown, Oblelik at Horton Plaza, San Diego, Ca. 1985.

Being the only young female artist in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Joan Brown gained recognition and stardom quickly and produced her most mature work in 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 MFA in 1960.

The Bay Area Figurative Movement was formed in 1950 to 1965 in San Francisco, California. The movement consisted of artists that were influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, whom were known as the canon in the New York Art School. The Bay Area Figurative artists no longer wanted to create abstract work that were non-representational; rather they wanted to bring back the figure into representational focus again. Moving away from Abstract Expressionism was eventually supported in San Francisco’s art schools and the figurative abstraction was embraced. Ultimately, the Bay Area Figurative artists were beginning to truly create pictures instead of just paintings.[1]

The movement primarily consisted of artists that were mostly men and one woman, whom being Joan Brown. It was divided into three parts that led the progression of their individual style in each movement. The First Generation Artists 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, which was often used by feminist artists.[2] Overall, her paintings displayed representational images but not solely focused on achieving mimetic reproduction, which Brown had considered herself to be more expressionist for technical and emotional reasons. [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 most mature oil paintings titled Girl Sitting was made in 1962 and is considered a nude study than it is a portrait. It embodies the entire Figurative movement’s style that is in aggressive impasto that is formed with highly saturated colors but at the same time reflects Neo-Expressionist style. The brushstrokes also eludes sensuality of the figure as they contour the figure, accentuating the form. Brown was often influenced and refers to Wilem de Kooning, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Francis Bacon in her earlier paintings.

Eventually, her style started to become less of abstractive figuration and association with the Figurative movement. By 1965, Brown no longer wanted to focus on exhibiting but decided to concentrate on a new direction by going back to the basics by sharpening her form, color, and voice. Her brushstrokes started to become more defined and less expressive and abstracted. However her work and was often best 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 started to be heavily influenced by Egyptian art, Asian art and New Age spirituality.

With Brown jumping back and forth to symbolism and references to her admired artists, she transcends her personal style further and leaves no trace of Bay Area Figurative style anymore. For example, Brown’s painting titled Gordon, Joan, and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House, 1969 is a portrait of Brown and her husband on a narrow pathway; this piece lacks a definite light source and shadows that is 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 from 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 active as a 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 expression and direction in art.


[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.



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.