first published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 27, 2009
ACCIDENTAL, WITH PURPOSE
by Matt Gonzalez
WHAT BEGAN AS A FRUGAL effort to make use of leftover paint, something all painters grapple with on occasion, has spawned a late career style that realigns everything previously thought about the artistic practice of Theophilus Brown, now 90 years old. Best known for his figurative paintings as a seminal member of a group of painters gathered around David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, Brown has also been associated with painters as diverse as Rothko and Picasso, whom he both knew.
These new pieces, embarked on during the last decade, originated as abstract works composed on a peel-away palette. Brown then cuts and pastes his way to a new composition, adding acrylic paint when necessary. Part collage, part painting, the finished products have all the gravitas of the large canvases of the New York School. Although relatively small (they range from 8 1/2 by 6 1/2 inches to 17 by 21 inches), these works conceive a larger, formal enterprise reminiscent of the monumental experience projected by Conrad Marca-Relli’s smaller works.
On exhibit through mid-June at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery, “Theophilus Brown at 90: Recent Abstract Collages” reveals little evidence of Brown’s earlier figurative style other than a general nod to formal elements of spatial configurations; the collages on view are rather more akin to the Abstract Expressionist gestural emphasis, and to the movement’s early work when the Surrealist influence was greatest (of note here is Brown’s 1950s friendship with Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta).
Some undoubtedly will see this as an interesting turn in the well-known official account of Bay Area Figuration, which is commonly said to have diverged from the East Coast fixation with abstraction, in favor of emphasizing the figure, with the exhibition of Park’s canvases Rehearsal (1949-50) and Kids on Bikes (1951). Brown’s collages might evoke that narrative, with a new twist, or return, to abstraction.
But the official story belies a well-known truth among the painters themselves: many of these artists never fully abandoned abstraction. And many of the New York painters whom the Bay Area painters were said to oppose still rendered the figure at the height of Abstract Expressionism (for example, de Kooning’s “Woman” series began in 1950-52).
Paul Wonner & Theophilus Brown
Theophilus Brown first came to prominence in 1956, when Life magazine published photographs of a series of his football paintings — cubist-influenced modernist compositions that somehow allowed figuration to coexist with the abstract. What may not be known is that these works were preceded by fully abstract experiments he started while living in post-World War II Paris on the GI Bill (Brown fought in the Battle of the Bulge when he was assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps), and in New York City among the burgeoning artist scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
These recent collages, then, are a re-engagement with the formal elements of abstraction that Brown experimented with when he was in the circle of Elaine and Willem de Kooning in the early 1950s. Less concerned with the hard edge and lines of those earlier years, Brown fully embraces greater ambiguity and freedom here, suggesting a surrender to the subconscious, which the Surrealists likewise sought to achieve.
These collages are non-objective color experiments and shape studies. Brown succeeds in presenting a finished canvas that evokes something accidental, yet with purpose — the natural expression of a skilled painter who has the courage to embark on a new path regardless of what those comfortable with his thought-to-be “settled style” might say. Ultimately, Brown’s figurative era will be seen as preparatory for this mature work.