Sunday, February 12, 2012

William Theophilus Brown: A Full Life


The Muscatine Diver, 1962-3

[1]  “At a time when in the hands of other many other artists, Philip Pearlstein or Tom Wesselman for example, the nude was presented as inert or ironically objectified, Brown celebrated the human body as lyrical, vital and ecstatic. 

As a student of Amedée Ozenfant in New York and Fernand Léger in Paris in the late forties, and later at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned an M.A. in art in 1953, Brown was well trained in modernist abstraction, but he also has a deep sympathy for figuration.  Brown lived intermittently in New York City for six years before he settled in 1952 in the Bay Area, where he quickly became an integral part of the figurative movement and often participated in a drawing group that included Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff.  The group, which first began meeting to draw from life in 1955, wished to reject academic poses for the models in favor of something more informal.  At the time, Brown was producing gestural paintings of football players and other athletes, derived from photographs in newspapers and magazines.  Talking about the sports paintings in 1957 with the art historian Paul Mills, but equally valid for the nudes, Brown announced, , “I wanted to do figure compositions, but I was tired of the classic kind with everybody just standing around, so I used photographs in sports magazines as a starting point.”

Self-Portrait, 1994

[2]  "William Theophilus Brown, an elegant and irreverent American painter and member of the venerated figurative movement who met and befriended some of history's great artists, from Pablo Picasso to Igor Stravinsky, died Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 92.

Mr. Brown, who lived in the opulent San Francisco Towers, which he christened the "Versailles of retirement communities," was painting until the end, said his friend and gallerist Thomas Reynolds. He had a studio a few blocks from his home and continued to take drawing classes.

'Theophilus Brown was one of those rare artists who was successful at every stage of his career,' Reynolds said. 'And he was always at the center of the action - in France with Picasso, in New York with (Mark) Rothko and (Willem) de Kooning, in California with the Bay Area figurative painters.'

Reynolds added, 'He was everybody's favorite dinner companion - charming to the ladies and bawdy with the boys.'

Matt Gonzalez, the attorney, artist and former city supervisor, met Mr. Brown nearly a decade ago, and the two developed a close bond.

'We started working in his studio together,' Gonzalez said. 'Our routine was we'd get together on the weekend, start working at around noon, and at 4:30, we'd pack up and go eat oysters - and drink single malt whiskey'"

'I took him 36 oysters Saturday night and we shared dinner,' Gonzalez said. 'He had a good appetite and was in good spirits. But he couldn't leave the apartment, and he was clear that if he couldn't go to his studio and make art anymore, he didn't want to live. So it was time. He was comfortable with where he was. He was due to turn 93 in April, and lived a full life.'"

William Theophilus Brown

[3]  "Brown’s now famous joie de vivre was severely tested during the war years. He was drafted just two months after his college graduation, and would spend the next four and a half years in the middle of some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. Admittedly, Brown was not a natural soldier. 'I hated it'” he says simply. 'I went from private to corporal in four and a half years. I don’t know anybody who rose so little. Being a graduate from a college like Yale was just poison for the old sergeants. They were not kind to me' But he endured, and along the way gained perspective he otherwise might never have found. 'I like what Norman Mailer said about the war,' says Brown about a period in his life he rarely talks about. 'Mailer spent two years in the army, and he said, ‘They were the worst years of my life, but the most important.’ That’s how I feel about it, too. It was a big corrective for me. I had lived a very privileged life. The war put things into perspective for me.'”

Self-Portrait, 1964

[4]  "Four months before his death, Brown gave an interview in which he fact-checked his Wikipedia entry. He found the entry accurate, on the whole, but termed his classification as an abstract expressionist "horseshit." 

Football Players Sketch, 1954


Reading about the life of William Theophilus Brown yesterday -- his long career and devotion to painting, music and his friends; the careful, graceful way he lived as an outsider/insider  -- and reviewing the broad range of his work -- was engrossing, moving and amusing.  

David McCarthy's article cited below is well worth seeking out both for its account of aspects of life in the 1950s that few people think or write about any more, but mainly for its exploration of how Bill Brown, Wynn Chamberlain and Diane Arbus found their way forward with subject and form.  

I failed to find, as I hoped I would, something “quotable” to include here from Brown’s great friend Christopher Isherwood, so unless and until I do I think Brown's own words (especially his comment about his Wikipedia biography -- notwithstanding the good Football Players sketch above) --  and those of his other friends will suffice.


[1]  David McCarthy, Social Nudism, Masculinity and the Male Nude in the Work of William Theo Brown and Wynn Chamberlain in the 1960s.  Archives of American Art Journal 38, nos. 1-2 (1998), 28-38.

[2]  Julian Guthrie, William Theophilus Brown, San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, February 10, 2012

[3]  B. Bamsey, William Theophilus Brown, Artworks Magazine, 4-7-10.

[4]  Wikipedia entry, “William Theophilus Brown.”

No comments:

Post a Comment