20 years ago, I was the first in-house curator for the Microsoft Corporation, tasked with curating and professionalizing their art collection. Previously, a volunteer group of employees with little art expertise managed the 4,500 works based solely on personal preferences.
My mission there was to identify undervalued artists who were not yet in the spotlight, but whose body of work had already earned them a strong reputation. The acquisitions were also international. My list included Daniel Buren; Joan Mitchell; Julian Opie; Peter Schuyff and Robert Bechtle. One of my early acquisitions, a Roger Brown piece bought for $5,000.00 at a Sothebys auction in Los Angeles, exemplified the investment potential as its value now reaches $300K.
A native of Alabama, Roger Brown was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His move to Chicago led him to became one of the New Imagists, a kind of offshoot of Pop art and Chicago style: very personal, emotional and politically aware, at a time when the social and economic structure of this country were assaulted, examined, and debated. Riots and demonstrations were the order of the day and made their way onto the canvases of Roger Brown and his peers including such artists as Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson, Christina Ramberg and Karl Wirsum.
Brown’s painting style is a unique amalgam of modernity side by side with folk art. His subject matter can be rural—clouds, fields, weather patterns—or it can be urban—pedestrians and apartments—figuratively documenting the days and nights of the people of this rather young Republic. I was immediately drawn to his work because of the simplicity and elegance of his astute social commentary: like with a good stand-up comic, you get the joke quickly and it
In Chicago and in New York he was promoted by dealer Phyllis Kind, a brilliant blonde from the Bronx who represented his work along with Outsider artists. She was described in the New York Times as a combative, visionary art dealer who championed a group of young artists first called the Hairy Who, and later called the Chicago Imagists, as well as major Outsider artists. As the Imagists rejected the ideas behind minimalism and conceptualism of the 60s, they instead turned to a figurative style to create art that was sometimes violent and often satirical as explained on the Smithsonian’s website. Kind helped expand the narrative of 20th-century art, adding Alison Saar, Robert Colescott, William N. Copley, Gillian Jagger and Mark Greenwold to the roster of her ground floor Greene St. gallery space which opened in the 80s and closed in 2009.
In 1984, two decades into his career, Brown worked with Styria Press to publish a facsimile edition of his own sketchbook: 50 works in total, it shows not only the various themes he explored, but also his evolving technique for making a picture. Black and white only, yet texture, density and environment are explored. To identify location or theme, he might use repetition as a means to set the stage or suggested changes of scale, whether he is addressing a landscape or cityscape or a figure. In the pages of the sketchbook, one finds the extremes of his vision and the variants of his imagination: a rocket ship titled Cathedral, or the figure of man casting a spell on nature, a tree.
If the Whitney Museum’s 2022 exhibition, Edward Hopper’s New York, tells us about the skyline and life in the city–people in a Chinese restaurant, a diner, the interior of a theater, and then the New England coast—it is certainly time for a Brown exhibition that brings into focus the architecture of Chicago and its nearby countryside: the rural farm fields, track homes in the suburbs, and the great weather patterns that criss cross the Mid West.
Both artists represent America, but for Hopper, it is a naturalist style drawn from the Ash Can School while Brown is an innovator, improvising colors and forms like Stuart Davis. Two prime examples of Brown are pictures presented by the Aaron Galleries: Renaissance in Reverse from the 80s and Looks Like Rain from the 70s.
The first is a multi-layered urban scene where figures in silhouette populate buildings, and house characters in a play living out lives in the most modern of structures, the skyscraper . Contemporaries of Brown, like the late Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Moskowitz, address similar themes. Thiebaud focuses on San Francisco, Moskowitz on Manhattan, with all three men seemingly smitten by the architecture that surrounds them. (What a great show that might be: Brown, Moskowitz and Thiebaud! )
In the second, distant lightning appears in the sky, a train is coming. The foreground is a map of yellow fields, symmetrical and repetitive and, in the center, our two protagonists awaiting the coming storm. What is most remarkable about Brown as a painter is that, while his topic is modern life, his style looks back to the pre-Renaissance, to paintings in which the world is represented as flattened space and in deeply rich colors, as in works by the artists of the SieneseI school in 14th century Italy. He takes from that somewhat naive style and reinvents it in contemporary terms. Ironically, Brown’s works are contemplative of these early religious pictures, seeing humanity humbled by nature and its own plotting. Maybe the most attractive aspect of his work is its strong humanism buffered by great skill.
A Brown retrospective is long overdue and perhaps the place for it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Having already presented Alice Neel and her world of friends relatives, and associates, it seems that the next survey should focus on a place and its surroundings…what better place than Chicago, introduced with pictures by Roger Brown?