The Journey of Joan Brown in Six Spectacular Works

A deep dive into the legendary Bay Area artist’s paintings with SFMOMA curators

by , January 2023

Unswayed by the pressures of the art market, Joan Brown made offbeat, highly individualistic work inspired by her love for swimming, animals, travel, spirituality, and the Bay Area. While her early-career impasto paintings were popular with critics, she shifted to flat surfaces, high-key colors, sharp imagery, and smooth, efficient forms later in life. “I was bored with what I was doing and there was a lot more to be learned,” Brown said of her changing artistic style. “So, I stopped painting heavy, expressionist paintings and became my own teacher, a student of myself. The gallery flipped out, of course … and I said, ‘the hell with it.’”

Currently on view on Floor 7, Joan Brown is the beloved Bay Area artist’s first major retrospective in nearly twenty-five years. Organized by Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and Nancy Lim, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture, the exhibition presents eighty of Brown’s paintings and sculptures across nine galleries. The works on view span abstraction; figuration; self-portraits; portraits of family, friends, and pets; and canvases that feature her fascination with spirituality in the 1980s. Together, they reveal an artist who defied conventions and boldly did as she pleased.

Below, we take a closer look at six of Brown’s paintings, with insights from Bishop and Lim. See them in person in Joan Brown through March 12, 2023.

1. Thanksgiving Turkey (1959)

Joan Brown, Thanksgiving Turkey, 1959; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Encouraged by the mentorship of Elmer Bischoff while studying at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute), Brown swiftly gained prominence in the art world. One of her first celebrated works was Thanksgiving Turkey, which New York’s Museum of Modern Art purchased when Brown was only 22 years old. It was a decisive moment in her early career and development as an artist.

Thanksgiving Turkey shows Brown applying her mentor Elmer Bischoff’s advice to pay attention to the everyday and paint the things around her,” Lim says. “This interest in her day-to-day surroundings becomes a career-long interest of Brown’s.”

The painting draws inspiration from Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655), placing a comical spin on the work with a haphazardly positioned turkey. Perched on the edge of a table with its belly exposed, the turkey seems to defy the reality of physics.

“A strange sense of space and perspective ends up being a hallmark of Brown’s paintings,” explains Lim. “Everything seems to lay nearly on top of each other, there’s a lot of flatness, and space doesn’t quite make sense. Thanksgiving Turkey is the first time you begin to see that in her work.”

2. The Bride (1970)

Joan Brown, The Bride, 1970; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, bequest of Earl David Peugh III; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Johnna Arnold/Impart Photography

Brown created this whimsical matrimonial self-portrait shortly after her marriage to her third husband Gordon Cook in 1969. The watery backdrop and many fish reference the Sacramento Delta, where the couple briefly resided, while the poppies and forget-me-nots symbolize California, love, fidelity, and hope. “If you look very closely, you’ll notice that the glitter on the cat’s face and surrounding the rat are in the shape of little wedding bells,” says Jenny Dally, curatorial associate of painting and sculpture, noting the nod to Brown’s recent nuptials.

The bride is a cat-woman hybrid inspired by Bastet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of domesticity, childbirth, cats, and women’s secrets. Throughout her childhood, Brown had read books on ancient Egyptian history and mythology, and she developed a lifelong fascination with animal-human hybridity and sphinxes. “Sure, I see human characteristics in animals,” said the artist. “But maybe more to the point is that I see the animal characteristics in people. And very often, the roles are reversed.”

At the bride’s feet, a gigantic, leashed rat represents Brown conquering her dark memories of her childhood. She once dreamed about seeing a rat in her kitchen, with nails hidden menacingly in its tail. After the nightmare, Brown assembled the sculpture Fur Rat (1962) out of chicken wire, wood, nails, plaster, string, and her own raccoon fur coat. The sculpture became famous in Bay Area art history and is on view in Joan Brown in the gallery before The Bride.

3. Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat (1970)


Joan Brown, Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat, 1970; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Fish were a central motif for Brown, who grew up swimming in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park and loved the water. Many of the artist’s works from 1970 — including Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat — prominently contain fish. At the time, Brown was living with Cook in the Sacramento Delta, the hub of California’s water supply. She painted fish from the market, integrating them into her paintings’ borders and backgrounds — or in this case, placing a fish front and center against a bright red backdrop.

“The painting shows her defined absurdist sensibility,” says Lim. “Why is she holding a fish? Why is the fish so big? These absurdities are a huge part of the work’s charm and irresistibility.”

“She presents herself as an artist in her painter’s clothes, wearing the gloves that she used to protect herself from toxic materials after developing an allergy to oil-based paint and turpentine,” adds Bishop.

A black cat roams around Brown’s feet — fitting for the woman who cared for sixteen cats at one point and closely identified with felines. “I think the cat is an alter ego,” Brown said in 1985.


4. The Dancers in a City #2 (1972)


Joan Brown, The Dancers in a City #2, 1972; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Alfred E. Heller; © Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Katherine Du Tiel; courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Brown delighted in dancing and nightlife, visiting local ballrooms with Cook. She was interested in painting the full range of social connection, from the joy and exuberance of coming together on the dance floor to the loneliness of a marriage that was falling apart. Painted four years before her divorce, The Dancers in a City #2 shows the couple happily dancing, with musical notes unfurling around them and a dog poised at attention before the San Francisco skyline. Captivated by how the body moves through space, Brown depicted Cook as a porous outline.

“It’s during this time, the early and the mid-1970s, that Brown was exploring various ways to render the body in dynamic motion,” Lim explains.

“Cook is translucent, and Brown reads very flat, almost like a paper doll,” says Bishop. “It’s really the dog that has the most solidity or three-dimensionality, the most life to him.”

After struggling to paint the woman’s dress, repeatedly scraping the paint off and reapplying it, Brown turned to collage. With scissors, fabric, and glue, she fashioned the velveteen flower dress viewers see today.


5. The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim (1975)

Joan Brown, The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975; GUC Collection, Highland Park, Illinois; ©️ Estate of Joan Brown; photo: Michael Tropea

Brown was a dedicated swimmer, and creative ideas came to her during open-water swims in the bay, often at sunset, looking out at Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim is related to a series of introspective self-portraits about Brown’s frightening near-death experience during a race from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in 1975. A freighter unexpectedly passed the swimmers, producing thirteen-foot waves and large eddies. Brown became hypothermic and had to be rescued from the water, alongside several other floundering swimmers. In this painting, Brown appears calm, contemplative, and slightly prescient, with the island displayed behind her.

“Brown is quoted later as saying she needed to get this traumatic experience out of her system,” Lim explains. “The related paintings on view near The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, such as After the Alcatraz Swim #1, include paintings-within-a-painting that show drowning swimmers and huge waves. By safely containing the event in this way, Brown felt more equipped to process it.”


6. The Long Journey (1981)

Joan Brown, The Long Journey, 1981; di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, California

In 1977, Brown was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which supported her childhood dream of traveling to Egypt. “That trip was a huge turning point for her in terms of how she applied paint to the canvas,” says Lim. “She was not only interested in the forms and sites that she saw in Egypt, but also the quality of the light, which she remembered as a lavender hue that permeated everything.”

“I’ve always thought of my fierce side as a tiger or jaguar or lion,” Brown once reflected. In The Long Journey, she depicts herself triumphantly riding a tiger, a scene which references transcendence and a seamless passage into the next life.

During this period, Brown was deeply immersed in spirituality, frequently visiting India with her fourth husband Michael Hebel and studying with her spiritual guru, Sathya Sai Baba. Brown had an intuition that her life would be short, and it was. Nine years after painting The Long Journey, Brown died at age 52 when a concrete turret collapsed on her and two assistants as they were installing an obelisk in Puttaparthi, India.

“The unmodulated background in The Long Journey amplifies a sense of infinity, with no beginning and no end,” concludes Lim. “Joan Brown suggests that her journey will forever be ongoing.”


Presenting support for Joan Brown is provided by Janet and Clint Reilly and anonymous donors.

Major support is provided by Joachim and Nancy Hellman Bechtle, Lorna Meyer Calas and Dennis Calas, the Agnes Cowles Bourne Bay Area Contemporary Arts Exhibition Fund, the Mary Jane Elmore West Coast Exhibition Fund, The Elaine McKeon Endowed Exhibition Fund, the Stuart G. Moldaw Public Program and Exhibition Fund, Deborah and Kenneth Novack, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, the Bernard and Barbro Osher Exhibition Fund, Rummi and Arun Sarin Painting and Sculpture Fund, the Thomas Weisel Family, and Pat Wilson.

Generous support is provided by Joan Roebuck and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

Additional support is provided by Maryellen and Frank Herringer and Fred Levin

Caroline Harris

Caroline Harris

Caroline Harris is an assistant editor at SFMOMA, where she writes and edits content for the museum’s print and digital communications. A Bay Area native, Caroline is passionate about writing and majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and exploring San Francisco.
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