(active Hamilton, Alabama, 1941 – 1997, Atlanta, Georgia)
Days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 10, 1941, James Roger Brown was born in Hamilton, Alabama to James Gordon Brown and Mary Elizabeth Palmer Brown. (1) As part of the war effort, Brown’s father initially lived apart from his family while working in a munitions plant in Childersburg, Alabama. During this period, his wife and eldest son (Roger) lived in Hamilton, Alabama with Cora Lee Palmer, his mother-in-law, and next door to Mary Dizenia (Cora Lee’s mother). “Mammy” as Mary Dizenia is known, becomes an important figure in young Brown’s life. In 1945, James Brown relocates his family to Opelika, Alabama where they live on his father’s cotton farm for a few years until he establishes his grocery store, Central Market. After that he settles his family (including son Gregory, born 1948) into a permanent home.
Demonstrating an interest and a natural aptitude in art from a young age, both Brown and his brother Greg took private art lessons from the second grade through ninth grade. Volunteer teachers fostered and nurtured Brown’s artistic development. The lessons proved valuable and during his sophomore year in high school Brown designed a poster for the statewide competition Hire the Handicapped and won first place. In addition to the visual arts, Brown, by his junior and senior year in high school, was an active participant in a local theater group, acting in several productions.
After graduating high school in 1960 Brown traveled to New York City before attending the Bible school, David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee. The choice of school corresponds to Brown's religious upbringing within the Church of Christ, and his initial, but short-lived, desire to become a minister. Unfulfilled, Brown left the school but stayed in Nashville undertaking odd jobs and pursuing life drawing classes at the University of Tennessee, Nashville. Determined to study art, Brown applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for several reasons, one because he noticed many art instructors from various colleges received their degrees from there, and two, because he had relatives in Dixon, Illinois, a town not far from the city.
Ultimately, Brown received both a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree from SAIC, completing his studies in 1970 but it was not a smooth road. Prior to beginning at SAIC in 1962 Brown first spent a semester at Chicago's American Academy of Art, which promoted a program of commercial art. When Brown finally started classes at SAIC he experienced much frustration with the lack of structure in the classrooms and dropped out after only a few months to return to the American Academy and complete a program in commercial design. Brown describes his reasoning “It was like going from high school to graduate school. You are almost on your own. It’s so free and open about the way the classes are…well, which is what art is about. But when you are from southern schools, so conservative an atmosphere. I wasn’t ready for that. I was much more ready for the stuff at the American Academy.” (2)
Brown resumed his studies part-time at SAIC in 1964 while also working as a commercial artist creating decals at the Chicago Decal Company. Beginning in 1965 Brown became a full-time student and took classes with both Roy Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, two professors who each had a great impact on Brown's development as an artist. Yoshida challenged and encouraged his students to incorporate personal elements into their work while building their confidence in what they accomplished. Both Yoshida and Halstead broadened their students' education far beyond fine art. Halstead took his students The Field Museum introducing them to arts of other cultures and Yoshida would take students to Maxwell Street Market, urging them to find ‘trash treasures’ (Yoshida’s term). In fact, often among the students and friends there were contests to find the best items for a dollar. At Maxwell Street, Brown first encountered several self-taught artists whose work he helped bring to wider recognition, and he personally collected.
Brown's fellow students, including Eleanor Dube, Philip Hanson and Christina Ramberg, became friends and exhibition partners with whom he participated in the group presentation "The False Image" at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968. These artists, along with Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Kerig Pope, Barabara Rossi, and Karl Wirsum grew to fame as the Chicago Imagists. (3) The Imagists style "centered on emotionally charged transformation of imagery whether from the real world or the popular media, a high degree of pictorial incident, manipulation of figure-ground relationships, strong color, vivid patterning, and an emphasis on painting as object.“ (4) Although often grouped with the Imagists, Brown's oeuvre sits uneasily within this categorization. In fact, his work stretched beyond their stylistic constraints to occupy a place that is uniquely his.
Certainly, the objects and works of art by self-taught artists that Brown discovered during these trips to Maxwell Street and other places had an impact on his own style.(5) The patterning and forms apparent in Joseph Yoakum's (American, 1890–1972) work, for example, influenced Brown's sense of shapes and patterns. Many works in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago also excited Brown and stimulated his thinking and approach to his work. In particular, Georgia O'Keefe's (American, 1887–1986) "Sky Above Clouds IV," 1965 (Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) had an impact; the way O'Keeffe portrayed light, illuminating the objects from within and the way she dealt with cloud forms was a strong influence. Other artists also provided inspiration: Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888–1978, Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967) and René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Outside of the visual arts, Brown strongly identified with country music, likening his paintings to a visual representation of the same content and stories found in country songs.(6) Moreover, Brown felt that being from the American South also had a great impact on his work.
Brown expressed a lack of interest in Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, the predominant art styles of the day. Instead, he created images based on recognizable vernacular imagery and, while Brown shied away from the label "narrative painter," he recognized that narrative is an important aspect of his work.(7) His individual style encompasses certain hallmarks: use of pattern, strong angles and a shifting perspective often rendered in a palette primarily consisting of grey, pine green, black, yellow, white, and light blue all bordered by black outlines. Bringing these compositional elements to varied subjects of rural landscapes, political events, and works from his imagination, Brown evokes an unnerving psychological element.
Deceptively simple, and reminiscent of comic art and advertising, Brown's work is complex and sophisticated. Though referencing reality, his works are very stylized. In a sense, Brown is a history painter, recording a distinctly American landscape. He perceives art to be a way to communicate and he does so by portraying places and events of his time. For example, Brown turns his brush to events such as the assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the disaster at Three Mile Island, the Serbo-Croatian War, as well as natural disasters. Yet, he deals to some extent with illusion and ambiguity, by integrating satire and often a critical commentary with humor and irony. Poet and art critic John Yau explains, “His work can be said to explore the foundations of our socially conditioned perceptions. In doing so, he has revealed the disturbing extent to which various states—horror, irony, and boredom—mesh.”(8) While not all his works deal with disasters, there is an undercurrent of unease throughout his body of work.
Brown's stable of motifs include high-rise buildings that have an anthropomorphic quality; crescent, scalloped, pillow-like shape clouds (inspired both by Asian art and Georgia O'Keeffe's clouds); space rendered flat with very little depth (influenced by the work of the 15th c. Italians Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia [1403– 1483] and Giovanni di Consolo, known as Il Sassetta [1392-1941]); luminous light; and silhouetted people styled in clothing and hair styles from the 1940s. Writer and curator Russell Bowman, defines Brown's work as having an "emblematic style", one that incorporates "a complete pictorial and expressive language" that relates both to the world as well as to imaginary elements.(9) Brown agrees with this assessment stating, “I am interested in things being emblematic; to create your own vocabulary as an artist and use those [motifs] over and over again. That’s been a simple way for me to do it. It varies from time to time.”(10) In fact, Brown feels that this use of emblems and creating a simplified visual language is a way to make the work of art easy to read and understand. He states,
"One of the things I have always thought is important is simplification. There has to be complexity in a painting, but to make things instantly readable is very important. I’m much more tolerant of different ways of looking at a painting than I used to be. But, then, I’m more experienced now; the more you see, the more you understand and read paintings. But people who are just beginning to look at painting can have problems with complexity. That’s why I am very interested in simplifying and making a painting easy to read. Reducing a certain form so you can repeat it over and over again, and then continually adding new form and getting more complex as you go along is what I am trying to do."(11)
Response to Brown's work was generally strong and positive, although several critics in Chicago, who favored more abstract work, did not initially promote him.(12) The first museum to acquire works was the Art Institute of Chicago, which purchased several prints in 1969. The Phyllis Kind Gallery of Chicago and New York began representing Brown in 1971 and Brown had his first major museum exhibition at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts from October 5-November 23, 1980. Since then, Brown's work has been acquired by numerous collections and exhibited worldwide.
The place in which Brown lived and worked was always extremely important to him. While being from the South certainly had an impact in the way he approached many of his subjects, so did his other living environments. In 1974 Brown purchased a storefront property on North Halsted Street in Chicago and had his partner, architect George Veronda convert it into both a home and studio. Here, Brown surrounded himself with his personal collection of artists' works and artifacts. After several years, Brown longed for a retreat away from the city and relocated just a few hours away in New Buffalo, Michigan. Veronda once again designed this space, completing the project in 1982. Brown, for many years spent time at both places. In 1988, Brown looked to leave the Midwest, finding a property in the beach town of La Conchita, California and hiring architect Stanley Tigerman to complete a studio. Once complete, in 1993, Brown relocated permanently and in 1995-96 Brown gifted his Chicago and New Buffalo homes and studios, along with works of art and his collection to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon his death in 1997, his California residence was bequeathed to the school for the express purpose of selling it to help finance the Roger Brown Study Collection.
Toward the end of his life Brown felt the pull of the South once again, and targeted one more property for purchase. Despite knowing he had limited time, Brown undertook plans for a new space in Beulah, Alabama to convert a structure that he admired in childhood. Brown died on November 22, 1997 from liver failure, two days shy of the closing date on this property. His parents and brother purchased the property in his memory, restoring it to Brown’s specifications and opening it to the public as the Roger Brown Memorial Rock House Museum on Brown’s birthday in 1999.
(1) Resources for information on Brown’s life and work are numerous as there are multiple exhibition catalogues, published articles and interviews. Primary sources for this essay come from the following: Information on file, (Artist's Vertical File, MMFA Library and MMFA Objects Record File, 2011.16) Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Mary Matthews Gedo, “An Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama: The Art of Roger Brown,” Postmodern Perspectives, Issues in Contemporary Art. Ed. Howard Risatti, Englewood Cliffs, JG: Prentice Hall, 1990, pp. 276-289; Mitchell Douglas Kahan, Roger Brown, 1980; Sidney Lawrence, Interviews relating to Roger Brown, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Sidney Lawrence, Roger Brown. New York: George Braziller in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Sidney Lawrence, Roger Brown: Southern Exposure. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007; Nick Lowe and Lisa Stone of the Roger Brown Study Collection, conversation with the author, December 1, 2011; Roger Brown: A Different Dimension. Montgomery, AL: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2007; Raechell Smith and Lisa Stone, Jesse Howard and Roger Brown: Now Read On. Kansas City, MO: UMKC Center for Creative Studies, 2005.
(2) From interview transcripts with Sidney Lawrence, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
(3) Many of these artists showed together as the group the Hairy Who, but the group merged and grew into the Imagists, with many exhibitions following that would feature some or all of the artists.
(4) Russell Bowman in Mitchell Kahan, Roger Brown, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1980, p. 19.
(5) While Yoakum used pattern in discrete areas to build his compositions, Brown began layering and using them as a device to fill the picture plane. However, as Bowman suggests, for both artists, the use of pattern became a visual language. For a fuller discussion of this see Russell Bowman in Mitchell Kahan, "Roger Brown," Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1980, pps.21-22, 24.
(6) Roger Brown interview with Joy Wagner, WXPW Radio Station, recorded October 22, 1987.
(7) From interview transcripts with Sidney Lawrence, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
(8) John Yau, in Sidney Lawrence, Roger Brown, p. 15.
(9) Russell Bowman in Mitchell Kahan, Roger Brown, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1980, p. 21.
(10) From interview transcripts with Sidney Lawrence, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
(11) John Yau, quoting Brown from an Interview with Russell Bowman, “An Interview with Roger Brown,” Art in America, 66, no. 1 (January-February 1978): 107 in Sidney Lawrence, Roger Brown, p. 13.
(12) Brown, in his fashion, skewered these critics in the painting "Giotto and His Friends: Getting Even," 1981 (Private Collection).
Image credit: James Arkatov, Roger Brown, 1995, Photograph courtesy of the Roger Brown Study Collection.