Theophilus Brown: Paintings, Collages and Drawings by John Arthur

The San Francisco Bay Area Figurative Movement

By: - Feb 26, 2008

Theophilus Brown: Paintings, Collages and Drawings
By John Arthur
144 pages, hardcover, illustrated, list of solo and group exhibitions but with no index or bibliography. An Epilogue reprints a 1967 essay by William Inge. $45, Chameleon Books, 31 Smith Road, Chesterfield, Mass, 01012. Published 2007.  1SBN: 9780915829750

"Theophilus Brown: A Painter's Life"
Paintings, drawings and collages from 1956 to 2007
February 2-29, 2008
Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery
49 Geary Street, Suite 520
San Francisco, California 94108
415 981-1080

           This book by the realist/ figurative, critic/curator, John Arthur, represents my introduction to the work of the Bay Area Figurative artist, Theophilus Brown (born 1919, Moline, Illinois). Never having actually seen the paintings, drawings and collages of the West Coast based artist, these comments are limited to the superb reproductions in this monograph and  brief essays on the different modes of the oeuvre which range from reductive, painterly narrative fantasies of nudes, generally moving through landscapes and sometimes with horses and dogs, portraits mostly of friends, a period of industrial landscapes, and, from 2001 on, collages of scrapings of acrylic paint from the artist's palette, creating small abstract paintings.

          The primary challenge of this monograph is to explore the question of just why one should be more aware of  the work and, in that process, consider why I, for one, am not acquainted with the oeuvre. Of course one cannot know everything. There is the matter of geography. I reside on the East Coast and am familiar with a lesser known practitioner of a "regional" movement only if it is brought to wider attention in some compelling manner. Other members of the Bay Area movement- Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, James Weeks, Paul Wonner, David Parks, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri and Nathan Oliviera- are more widely known.

         John Arthur has written many books and organized numerous exhibitions, including "America 1976" a traveling Bicentennial project organized by the United States Department of the Interior. Arguably, his advocacy of realism and figurative art, for which he has remained a consistent spokesperson, was more unique and relevant then than now. The changes in the art world have reconfigured critical debate and there seems to be less resistance to work that he has championed. He played a major role in the initial debates that strove to define differences between "eyeball" and "photo" realism.  There have been important projects and publications with Jack Beal, Richard Estes, Alfred Leslie, Robert Cottingham, and Philip Pearlstein, among others. His polemical position, a holdover from the palpable struggle for acceptance of these artists, is embedded in this critical treatment and often not to the best advantage of the artist.

            Although Arthur informs the reader of his considerable access to the artist as the primary source of understanding the work very little of this direct knowledge finds its way into the monograph. It is surprising, for example, to come upon few if any quotes or even paraphrased anecdotes. Arthur tells us that a complete biography and document on the life of the artist should be undertaken, but that this is not that occasion. Perhaps. But having read the monograph, and studied the images, I find the persona of the artist and  unique character of his art practice continues to be evasive. The author has succeeded in making one want to pursue that effort. It is unfortunate that in this monograph, other than the reprint of a one page essay from William Inge written in 1967, there are no references to other critics. There are no quotes from reviews or clues to how Brown was seen in the context of the Bay Area movement. Omitting a bibliography discourages further study of the artist.

          Discussing various phases and developments of the work Arthur is so insistent on making comparisons to other movements, cultures, periods and artists that it is difficult to understand what if any originality exists in Brown's efforts.

            Discussing a chapter of work with the title of "Quiet Beaches and Other Reveries" Arthur states that "Such unabashed depictions of the nude in art connect with many centuries of our Western Tradition. On the classical side of the equation, these range from the idealism of the Greeks; the realism of the Romans; and the early Christian depictions of the scrawny, pale-skinned Adams and potbellied Eves, fragilely protected by leafy sprigs; to the pale, doughy odalisques of Ingres and the stolid Cubist figures of Cezanne.
           "However the character of Brown's nudes more closely parallels the unabashed sexuality that floats to the surface of Asian and Western art- from the jewel-like Mughal miniatures of elegant, turbaned men and dark eyed, full bosomed women; the élan of Japan's ukiyo-e and their deliciously caricatured magna; to the haunting femmes of Edouard Munch, the flaunted eroticism of Klimt and Schiele's worldly, seasoned women; Bonnard's perpetually youthful wife; Balthus's nubile seductresses; and Picasso's raunchy, rollicking ladies of the night- which provide a discursive and widely divergent map of our carnal desire."

             Indeed. In just a couple of paragraphs Arthur has provided a thumbnail of the Survey of Art, and the figure, from the Greeks through Picasso, with sidebars on Mughal miniatures and the ukiyo-e of Japan. Good grief. What a challenge for the work of any contemporary artist to withstand such comparisons. With that reference the author then offers mostly description, rather than critical analysis, of specific paintings. We are instructed to bear in mind all of that art history as a signifier of the relevance of the work under discussion.

             In the process of serving the needs of the artist in a monograph of his work Arthur has peppered the text with eccentric pet peeves. For example he describes the odalisques of Ingres as "doughy" while the "Cubist" works of Cezanne (correct me if I am wrong but didn't the term and style of Cubism develop After the death of Cezanne?) are "stolid." Hmm. So we have "doughy" Ingres and "stolid" Cezanne. Or Schiele's "worldly seasoned women." The author appears to be amusing himself by writing in code with single adjectives and truncated phrases "scrawny, pale-skinned Adams and potbellied Eves" which we are expected to absorb without challenge. This is more indicative of the approach of journalism than that of a scholar. Is this an instance of  "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him?" Like Marc Antony, the author may have some other agenda to advance in addition to an oration, or monograph.

              The chapter "Urban and Industrial Landscapes" takes pains to tell us how the work is and isn't like that of the earlier Precisionists and its most known practioner, Charles Sheeler. For example,  Brown's industrial landscapes appear less "precise" and more "painterly." Arthur also draws comparisons to the metaphysical tropes of Giorgio de Chirico. Again one is more interested to know in what manner they are uniquely "Brown." Arthur gives us a clue by ending the chapter stating that "Brown is incapable of obsequiousness and far too intelligent to deal in ironies, and these gritty industrial views- without doubt his least ingratiating subjects- are among his most noteworthy and inscrutable paintings."

              So then, is it dumb to deal in ironies? That sure blows off a lot of options for artists. Hey man, cool it on the ironies, you are far too "intelligent" to go there. And watch it on the "obsequiousness." In another chapter he raises a similar point that none of the portraits are commissioned and therefore devoid of pandering (my word). Arthur also informs us that these industrial landscapes are examples of his "least ingratiating subjects" perhaps because there are "inscrutable." Does this imply that other aspects of Brown's oeuvre are guilty of the precise elements- ingratiating and scrutable- that accordingly undermine their merit?

              This is a point that Inge touched on and may represent a signifier of the work of Brown. He discussed a review of an exhibition in which a New York critic wrote that the paintings are "very comfortable to live with."  Expanding on that theme Inge wrote that "The paintings of William Theo Brown are comfortable to live with. But one must not be deceived that this comfort is of blindness or indifference to the contemporary world. Rather it is the comfort we feel in the presence of a sagacious friend who knows all the scandals and atrocities of the town's happenings, but who sees no reason to alarm his friends with shocking gossip and strives above all to retain humanness in all his relationshipsÂ…"

             Regarding the "scandals and atrocities" that Inge refers to it appears that Brown was witness to his share of such experiences. After graduating from Yale in 1941, where he studied music and painting, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he stayed in Paris to "study" under the GI Bill; less to attend classes and more to have a stipend for living expenses. There he knew Picasso and Giacometti and was in and out of the studio of Fernand Leger. As well as that of Amedee Ozenfant in New York.

              Returning to the U.S. in 1950 he participated in the events of the New York School, witnessed the "Triumph of American Art" while involved with the activities and debates of the Artists's Club. He was close to Mark Tobey, Phillip Guston, Mark Rothko, and in particular, Willem de Kooning. The influence of de Kooning is particularly evident in the "Untitled (Football)" series of the mid 1950s which first attracted critical recognition. Surely he was a part of the discussion of a "Return to the Figure" after the "Triumph" of Abstract Expressionism.

            This appears to have crystallized with the work of David Park (1911-1960) the major figure and influence in the West Coast style of painterly figuration. This was different than but parallel to the developments in Chicago (Leon Golub) and New York/ Provincetown (Bob Thompson, Jan Muller, Lester Johnson, Red Grooms, Jay Milder, George Segal and the artists of the Sun Gallery). With experiences of working in Paris and New York it appears that Brown introduced a different sensibility in the Bay Area movement which he eventually was involved with. He became a life partner with the artist Paul Wonner.

            Because of his study of music this is another aspect of life experience and influence. It is noted that he was friendly with Igor Stravinsky and other leading musicians and composers. As Arthur states Brown led a rich and diverse life as a witness to issues and events that invite further research and publication. It would have been enticing to include more of that flavor in this monograph. But the publication is successful in its intent of making us want to know more about the artist and his work.