by Anthony Torres
Here in Pacific Heights lives William Theophilus Brown, an artist born of greatness, and a man whose life has been marked by travel and adventure, hard work, dedication, individual perseverance and resilience, and whose noteworthy accomplishments are wholly infused in art and history.
Born in Moline, Illinois in 1919, Theophilus Brown’s creative brilliance flows from his rich ancestral history. His paternal great grandfather, Theophilus Brown and his wife, Sarah Ann Brown, were famous literary benefactors, and their home provided the setting for the leading thinkers of their day, including friends Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Luisa May), and author and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who fought for the rights of freed slaves and disenfranchised peoples, and whose 1881 book Common Sense About Women, and his 1888 Women and Men advocated equality of opportunity and rights for both sexes).
His father Theophilus Brown was a legendary inventor of agricultural implements — including the hydraulic lift for tractors — who personally held at least 159 patents, and for 30 years was director of the experimental engineering division of the John Deere Company.
Steeped in this creative heritage, Theophilus Brown showed early promise as a child, when at age 11 his father submitted a portrait by his son to an art contest juried by Grant Wood. The iconic Midwestern artist selected the work for an award, and was stunned at the award ceremony when the young Theophilus came up the aisle to accept the prize.
William Theophilus Brown went on to study music and painting at Yale University, graduating in 1941, and developed close ties with modern composers such as Paul Hindemith, Samuel Barber, John Cage and Igor Stravinsky.
After serving in WWII, and having fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Brown relocated to Paris, where he and met and spent time with Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and studied briefly with Ferdinand Leger and Amedee Ozenfant.
In 1950, Brown moved to New York and became deeply immersed in the budding development of Abstract Expressionism, and befriended fellow West Coast artist Mark Tobey, as well as Phillip Guston and Mark Rothko, and developed a close and lasting friendship with Willem and Elaine deKooning, whom he says had a strong influence on his work.
Increasingly, dissatisfied with the ideological constraints of Abstract Expressionism in New York— an over arching concern with formalism, essentials of the medium, emphasis on process, and extreme subjectivity — he decided to leave New York and in 1952 headed for the West Coast, where he began graduate study in painting at the University of California, Berkeley. There he met the young painters Paul Wonner, his life partner, and Richard Diebenkorn, who along with Elmer Bischoff and James Weeks began to experiment and extend David Park’s seminal digression from Abstract Expressionism, the re-introduction of the human figure into his paintings. In a context dominated by non-objective abstract painting, Brown and these other artists pursued painterly dialogues that evolved into what is now known as the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative Movement.
In 1956, Theophilus Brown gained national attention when three of his paintings on the theme of football, which blurred and abstracted images of bodies in motion, appeared in Time Magazine.
The artists associated with Bay Area Figurative focused on the articulation of their lived experiences and personal visions, both within and in relation to the overarching hegemony of Abstract Expressionism in New York — and its simultaneous parallel development in the San Francisco Bay Area — which while valued, was increasingly viewed as stifling and constraining.
What developed was a complex and diverse range of artistic practices roughly characterized by the union of figurative subject matter, including landscape, still life, portraiture, and nudes, with Abstract Expressionism’s formal concerns and handling of paint. This development challenged the high-Modernist ideology of the time, which championed non-objective abstraction and viewed the historical mission of “Art” as a movement toward self-referential autonomy, in other words, “art for art’s sake”.
In contrast to Abstract Expressionism, Theophilus Brown and the artists associated with Bay Area figuration looked outward at the world around them, and their California lived experience. This move toward the figure and their environment was, however, characterized and denigrated by many at the time as a reactionary backward step.
This move to work within a tension between abstraction and figuration opened up a range of possibilities that is reflected in the diversity and differences among these artists, and the subjects, images and techniques that they pursued should perhaps be read as an indication of a crisis of high modernism, which constituted the field of struggle for Bay Area Figurative artists and Theophilus Brown.
However, Brown’s identification with Bay Area Figurative art has been problematic to the extent that it has tended to foster a perception that his value as an artist is bound to the historical past, in a movement that is associated with a particular historical period, and thus that his continuing artistic production and contemporary viability are no longer relevant — when exactly the opposite is true. In fact, the variety of Brown’s aesthetic pursuits over the years attests to his commitment to exploring his personal experiences in the process of addressing ongoing artistic challenges.
Now at the age of 90, his mind and wit are razor sharp, and he continues to be a fully committed active practicing artist who drives to his studio daily to work, and is involved in a numerous range of aesthetic pursuits.
Recent activities have included museum and gallery exhibitions, and a talk at the University of Texas Pan American in McAllen, Texas.
His artistic activities also include weekly life drawing sessions, playing classical piano accompanied by a violinist, and sitting in with the San Francisco Collage Collective. Also, he recently exhibited a new body of work, dynamic painterly collages, at Elins Eagle-Smith Gallery in San Francisco, which revealed a qualitatively different direction for Theophilus Brown.
Additionally, he has just served as juror for an exhibition of contemporary portraiture this month at Art Space 712 in San Francisco entitled “I’ll Bet You Can’t Paint A Portrait: The Genesis of Bay Area Art Now,” which honors the history of Bay Area Figurative Art by inviting artists from throughout California to submit contemporary portrait paintings that can be considered translations of this legacy.
However, despite Theophilus Brown’s illustrious personal and creative history, he has yet to receive the full recognition that his masterly artistic accomplishments merit. This art historical ignorance or neglect of the scope and depth of his artistic production, and thus his important contribution to the world of art, is perhaps due to the fact that Brown chose to work in the San Francisco Bay Area when New York was considered the art capital of the world; or attributable to a propensity of art history to be written as a linear narrative, a sequence of succeeding styles; or perhaps because he has refused to adhere to artistic trends, choosing instead to follow his own vision. And the amazing thing is that this artistic giant is living here in our neighborhood, pursuing his activity the same as ever, with dedication, focus and inspirational fortitude.
— ANTHONY TORRES
An edited version of his essay first appeared in The New Fillmore, September 2009; and the monograph Theophilus Brown: Nudes (SF: Thomas Reynolds Gallery, 2010).
Theophilus Brown, “Football”, oil on canvas, 22 x 34 inches, 1952.
Theophilus Brown, “One Way”, acrylic on canvas, 54 x77 inches, 1989.
Theophilus Brown, Untitled, acrylic on paper, 10 x 12.5 inches, 1978.