First Retrospective of Bay Area Artist Joan Brown in More Than 20 Years

San Francisco-born artist Joan Brown once declared, “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 of these things, plus.” Often considered the only female artist in the Bay Area Figurative Movement’s second generation and dismissed by critics, Brown defied easy classification as an artist and person. During her career, she created colorful, wide ranging paintings and lively sculptures inspired by her experiences in San Francisco, where she lived and worked for most of her life, as well as her travels to Southeast Asia.


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)’s new exhibition “Joan Brown'' brings together approximately 80 works in a variety of media and charts the breadth and depth of the artist’s career for the most in-depth examination of the artist’s work in over two decades. The exhibition charts Brown’s charming, offbeat body of work, which embraces autobiography, fantasy, and whimsy—as well as weightier, philosophical themes—and draws inspiration from a myriad of sources.

The Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA Janet Bishop described the exhibition as a “reassessment of the unabashedly personal, defiantly independent and enduringly relevant career of one of San Francisco’s most important local heroes.”

“Joan Brown” showcases her many artistic styles, spanning her days as a student at the California School of Fine Arts (CFSA) in the 1950s to her untimely death in 1990. Brown earned a BFA and MFA from the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)—later the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—where she met a key mentor, artist Elmer Bischoff. Over the course of her productive 35-year career, she created abstract expressionist canvases; figurative paintings portraying dogs, cats, swims, cityscapes, and her son Noel; self-portraits; and works inspired by her spiritual explorations in the 1980s. She approached her work with a single-minded dedication and curiosity, especially as her practice incorporated her spirituality. She drew from a range of references—including Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya and Matisse to Egyptian art, Chinese art, Mesoamerican visual culture, Hinduism, her swimming coach, and Theosophy—often researching them for years.

The exhibition honors Brown’s deep relationship with SFMOMA, who hosted her first major solo exhibition and acquired 15 of her works in the following years. Brown also married Michael S. Hebel at SFMOMA in 1989. The two were married during a Hindu ceremony under the museum’s Alexander Calder mobiles. Despite her travels and experimentation with different artistic styles, Brown remained committed to the Bay Area and its artistic community.

SFMOMA also included Brown in their annuals in both 1957 and 1958 and she was one of the youngest artists exhibited as part of Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At age 22, Brown had achieved remarkable critical and commercial success and was the first in her cohort to achieve prominence outside San Francisco. By 1964, her works had been featured on the cover of Artforum and were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. However, Brown disdained the commercial side of the art world, a lifelong dictate that slowed her success at pivotal moments in her career.

San Francisco’s influence on Brown’s paintings is evident in works such as “The Dancers in a City #2” and “Gordon, Joan and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House,” which reference iconic Bay Area locales and recreate subjects that are familiar to viewers. However, during the 1980s, Brown became interested in spirituality and self-understanding during trips to Southeast Asia, drawing inspiration from Hindu and Egyptian Icons. Brown documented her travels in paintings such as “The Golden Age: The Jaguar” and “The Tapir and Cat and Rat Obelisk”, while “The Long Journey,” “A New Age: The Bolti Fish,” and “Summer Solstice” serve as excellent examples of these new age influences in Brown’s oeuvre.

Brown frequently enjoyed open-water swims in the Bay, trained with International Hall of Fame swimming coach, Charlie Sava—who sat for several of her portrait paintings—and successfully sued the Dolphin Club, the Ariel Club, and the South End Rowing Club to admit women alongside five other women. Afterwards, she became an active member of the South End Rowing Club and, in 1975, participated in a women’s Alcatraz swim in the San Francisco Bay. A freighter ship swamped her and the other swimmers, nearly causing them to drown. This experience became the subject of “After the Alcatraz Swim #3” and represented Brown’s efforts to experiment with self-portraiture as a method for introspection. The freighter ship that caused their near-death experience is rendered in the pattern of Brown’s dress in the painting.  

Brown tragically died in 1990 while installing a mosaic obelisk at Sai Baba’s Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India when a concrete turret from a floor above collapsed, killing her and two others. She had produced more than 400 paintings and 50 sculptures during her career, and SFMOMA’s exhibition “Joan Brown” captures the vibrancy of her wide-ranging career for the first time in more than two decades.

The exhibition will be on view at SFMOMA from November 19, 2022 through March 12, 2023.