San Jose Museum of Art Presents Paintings by Joan Brown

The San Jose Museum of Art will explore the work of the pivotal Bay Area artist Joan Brown (1938-1990) in the exhibition This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown, on view October 14, 2011-March 11, 2012. The exhibition, the first major survey of Brown’s art in a decade, is the first to examine and stake a claim for her work in the context of the women’s movement. The exhibition includes approximately 40 paintings (plus a select group of drawings and mixed-media works) on loan from public and private collections as well as from the artist’s estate, including some never before seen by the public. The exhibition spans Brown’s career from 1959 to 1984. Brown emerged as a successful artist just before the advent of 1960s feminism. Her pioneering use of domestic subjects, decorative motifs, and autobiographical imagery prefigures the new artistic territory championed by the women’s art movement in the 1970s.

Joan Brown, “The Journey #1,” 1976. Enamel on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. San Jose Museum of Art (Estate of Joan Brown)

“Joan Brown is a beloved figure in the Bay Area, and it is time to consider her painting in its much-deserved national and historical context,” said Susan Krane, Oshman Executive Director of SJMA. “From her early brave and idiosyncratic expressionist paintings to her highly personal narrative works, Brown’s work charts a course from the Beat era to the heyday of Ms Magazine.”

“Joan Brown’s art and life were inseparable,” said Jodi Throckmorton, curator of the exhibition and associate curator at SJMA. “Throughout a career of 35 years, she was not afraid to go against the latest trends and attitudes of the art world. She never wholeheartedly identified with any specific group and, in fact, rejected categorization. She feared the label ‘woman painter’ would affect serious consideration of her work. But her choices as a woman and as an artist were germane to her art and anything but neutral.”

Organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, the exhibition is sponsored by Applied Materials, Deutsche Bank, Christie’s, and the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. It is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. SJMA presents this exhibition in honor of former trustee Barbara Oshman and in memory of Ken Oshman.
Brown experimented freely with a range of styles, and her art has
been discussed in relationship to abstract expressionism, Bay Area figuration, and new image painting. Yet she consistently took everyday moments from her personal life as her artistic subject: her son, Noel, in front of the Christmas tree; her birthday celebrations; her routine swims in the San Francisco Bay; evenings at the opera with her husband. Throckmorton posits that Brown’s use of domestic imagery and her depiction of emotional scenarios reflect the new aesthetic territory validated by women artists in the 1960s and 1970s, but notes that the artist was an exemplar of feminism rather than a follower.

“She had a tough sense of artistic identity and initially eschewed feminist thinking, fearing that participation in the women’s movement would trivialize her art,” said Throckmorton. “Her painting was motivated by personal thought and experience rather than any political ideology.”

In a 1982 interview, Brown herself said, “The more I am able to express the various dimensions of myself, the richer and freer the art will be. I’m not any one thing: I’m not just a teacher, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just a painter, I’m all these things plus, and the more areas I can tap, the richer each one of the others will be.”

This Kind of Bird Flies Backward is accompanied by a website with an essay by Throckmorton and other information, including video interviews with Brown’s son, Noel Neri, and Karen Tsujimoto, co-author of the first monograph on Brown’s work, The Art of Joan Brown (1998). Visitors will also be able to use their smartphones in the galleries to access this additional content.

Born in San Francisco, Brown began her studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). She was influenced by her fellow artists Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, and Nathan Olivera. Her success came early: she had her first New York show at Staempfli Gallery at the age of 22. That same year (1960), she was the youngest artist included in the pivotal exhibition Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Brown’s early work was characterized by thick paint and expressive texture, and was clearly influenced by abstract expressionism. By the 1970s, Brown’s canvases were thinly painted, yet full of bold color and vibrant pattern. She moved away from her interest in traditional still-life elements toward an unrelenting examination of her own image and life. In 1976, following a divorce, Brown traveled to Europe: this trip inspired her “Journey” series, a deep personal reflection on relationships. (Brown’s Journey #1, 1976, is in the collection of the San Jose Museum of Art and included in the exhibition). Brown’s interest in spirituality and the new age movement grew throughout the 1980s. She died in 1990 in an accident while helping to install an obelisk for Sathya Sai Baba’s Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India.
Despite her early success, Brown’s work is still largely discussed in a regional context. As it addresses her place among artists of the women’s movement, the exhibition also makes a case for Brown’s significance nationally, among the prominent artists of her generation.

The Museum plans a variety of public programs in connection with the exhibition, beginning with an opening reception on Thursday, October 13, at 7:30 p.m. On Wednesday, November 2, at 12 noon, filmmaker Mary Kerr will give the Lunchtime Lecture, “Expressions and Impressions of Joan Brown.” Throckmorton will give a gallery talk about the exhibition on Thursday, December 1, at 12 noon. On Wednesday, December 7, at 12 noon, Andrea Pappas, associate professor of art history at Santa Clara University, will give a Lunchtime Lecture on “The Art of Joan Brown. Details on these and other public programs can be found at

The San Jose Museum of Art is a distinguished museum of modern and contemporary art and a lively center of arts activity in Silicon Valley. Welcoming and thought provoking, the Museum offers a surprising and playful perspective on the art of our time. Established in 1969, SJMA presents art ranging from modern masterpieces to recent works by young, emerging artists. SJMA’s permanent collection of more than 2,000 twentieth- and twenty-first-century works of art, including paintings, sculpture, installation, new media, photography, drawings, prints, and artist books, has a special focus on West Coast art, seen in a national and international context. SJMA is the largest provider of youth arts education in Santa Clara County and serves more than 37,000 students annually through curriculum-based arts programs and integrated technology.

The San Jose Museum of Art is located at 110 South Market Street in downtown San Jose, California. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students and senior citizens, and free to members and children under 6. For more information, call 408-271-6840 or visit

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