Contributed by David Carrier / Joan Brown’s retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh includes some 40 paintings, most of them large, and a couple of sculptures. The high, white-walled galleries on the top floor of the museum afford her paintings ample room to breathe. The marvelously painterly Noel in the Kitchen from 1964, the earliest painting in the show,shows the roots of her work in West Coast Abstract Expressionism. Like modernists as divergent as Alex Katz and Bob Thompson, she learned to foreground her figurative subjects on flat, bright monochromatic backgrounds. She may also have gained from the German expressionists, Matisse, or the San Francisco figurative artists an awareness of the visual power of intense, expansive, high-pitched color. Whatever her influences, though, she synthesized them into something all her own, turning funky informality into a personal style.
Her subjects are herself, cats, fish, dogs, and, occasionally, men. In Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat, she wears overalls and is holding a paint brush and a large fish. In The Bride, Brown shows herself as a cat-woman, surrounded by rows of fish. She loves plaids, as in The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim. And in The Long Journey, she is riding on a striped tiger. Occasionally she has a partner, as in The Dancers in a City #2, in which she dances with the outlined male figure, watched over by a large wary dog who looks out right at you. She sometimes incorporates pictures within the picture. In The Search, she stands alongside her representation of an Egyptian sculpture; and in The Room, Part 1, she is seated, mostly hidden, on a chair in front of a ninth-century Chinese painting. Her later paintings are themselves like enlarged Persian miniatures
Brown’s intense, fully saturated colors communicate pure visual pleasure, leaving no doubt that she loved the activity of painting. An acute sense of humor is also evident, as is an enchanting benevolence towards her artistic subjects. There is no menace in her pictures. Her unexpected and illogical juxtapositions of herself and animals can be funny and are certainly intriguing. What did fish mean to her? It may be relevant that she was a dedicated swimmer. But you don’t need to be a swimmer to admire her self-portraits. Endlessly inventive, Brown is a great and very original colorist and never repeats herself. Feast your eyes on the different patterns in Woman Preparing for a Shower, the all-over white The Cosmic Nurse, or the plentiful fish in The Bride. Whatever she depicts, bliss is her true subject. This superlative exhibition triumphs in showcasing this singular quality of her work. Right now, amid revived interest in narrative figurative painting, it should resonate.
“Joan Brown,” Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Galleries, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. Through September 24, 2023.
Also on view in NYC: Joan Brown :Facts & Fantasies, Matthew Marks, 522 West 22nd Street, New York, NY. Through June 17, 2023
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail.