On ViewSan Francisco Museum Of Modern Art
November 19, 2022–March 12, 2023
On ViewAnthony Meier
In the Shadow of Mt. Tam
January 31–March 17, 2023
Mill Valley, California
Joan Brown’s first museum exhibition was held at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) in 1971, which makes her current retrospective there—the largest pulled together in over two decades and done so expertly by Janet Bishop and Nancy Lim—a homecoming. But in truth she never really left. Born in the Marina District, she earned her BFA and MFA at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute), studying with mentor Elmer Bischoff. Her first gallery show, in 1957, while still an undergraduate, came at the fabled 6 Gallery, and the following year she moved to a building on Fillmore Street dubbed Painterland, where she worked alongside Jean and Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick, and Jane and Michael McClure. Increasingly visible through solo outings in San Francisco and New York, Brown likewise participated in, among others, Young America at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1960 and the Carnegie International in 1964. By then, she had already been designated—somewhat gruesomely—“Everybody’s Darling” by Philip Leider in Artforum in 1963. In 1964, too, she left her dealer, George Staempfli. She abandoned the slathered and incised oil surfaces that were nevertheless proving a commercial success but had also become routine.
For his part, Leider wrote, “If there is a San Francisco style, a San Francisco attitude, that style and that attitude can be found epitomized in her paintings.” (He characterized it as comprising a predilection—the product of intention as well as pragmatism—for inexpensive materials, coarse surface treatments, and outsized scale.) Such critical framing has persisted, even as Brown traded the thick, heavily painted works from this period for simplified, frieze-like figures, rendered in vivid enamel. Their vital intensity of address remains even as the procedural signs of expressivity become superfluous. All the way through, Brown is at the center of the world of her making, observing feeling as response modulated in paint, and then as subject depicted within the frame. The exhibition tracks this course chronologically, unfurling from the first tangerine and lilac walls with nearly sculpted paintings that still look wet. Successive rooms feature still lifes and domestic scenes involving Brown’s bull terrier and son and monumental tableaux of animals and more explicit if symbolic self-portraits, arriving at her spiritual questing. One especially tight grouping midway through involves Brown’s daily practice of swimming; these canvases process Brown’s near-death experience while attempting an open-water race from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in 1975.
Mt. Tamalpais and other landmarks served as orienting beacons for Brown in the water and likewise anchor the compositions. It is here that the work sets her most explicitly against a backdrop of the city’s skyline and watery shores, a contextualization within geography that redoubles that of community—of family, friends, and lovers, together with the sociability of pets—felt throughout. A related collection hang, Bay Area Stories: Joan Brown + Friends, productively literalizes this associational structure and insists on the relationships subtending the monographic presentation upstairs. The emphasis in this installation is on the Bay Area and its networks of affiliation through artist-run spaces, galleries, and schools. One pitch-perfect pair twins Hedrick’s Here’s Art For’em (1963) with DeFeo’s The Verónica (1957). Both made at Painterland, they share the same elongated vertical dimensions, like flat steles flush to the wall. But the former—made after Artforum profiled Hedrick—flaunts a heart that could be genitals, ablaze, cleaved by a phallic rod in an altogether consumptive space, while the latter wrestles similarly coursing energies of the bullfight into something DeFeo named as seeking but also escaping grace. Cumulatively, then, Joan Brown and its complement insist on the artist’s imbrication within the social, even after her intermittent departure from the city into adjacent sites (e.g., Snug Harbor in the Sacramento Delta in 1969). And they do so, quite profoundly, without sacrificing individual agency, but rather through suggesting that it necessarily comes into being relationally.
The situation of place is focal for In the Shadow of Mt. Tam at Anthony Meier, the inaugural group show christening a new space in Mill Valley. The checklist charts the neighborhood’s past inhabitants—including, perhaps least surprisingly, Etel Adnan, as well as DeFeo, Gordon Onslow Ford, David Ireland, Lee Mullican, Wolfgang Paalen, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, and Rick Yoshimoto—and argues for the area as unsung nexus from the 1940s through the 1970s. The proximity to SFAI and the University of California, Davis (where Bruce Nauman, for one, went to graduate school) matters. But so, too, does the show conjure a mood of, as Michael Auping puts it in the related catalogue, citing Bill Berkson, an “on the edge of the continent mystique”: focalized in springs under dense redwood canopy and a palpable dampness cut, at forest edge, by the Pacific sun. Adnan’s verdant mountain-scape conjured in dynamic strokes, Untitled (1999), hung in the entryway, announces the formative nature of topography. But no less does Nauman and William Allan’s silent film of the duo erecting a makeshift sculpture in a Muir Woods creek bed, Span (1966), bracket this attention to place differently. Projected to be seen from the street, it merged anew with its temporary surround as light hit the window and was overlaid, as I watched the repeating loop, with the reflection of wind-blown trees.
Back in the main gallery, a capacious but careful selection—from JB Blunk’s totemic eucalyptus carving, Presence (1969–72), to Luchita Hurtado’s diminutive glyphic crayon and ink drawing, Green Glows the Moon (1949), made at her dining room table—charted so many connections, formal and otherwise. It may be that this ineffable but no less real “otherwise,” while often harder to reconstruct, is precisely the point.