“Remembering African-American Artist Frederick J. Brown, Peripatetic Painter of Bluesy Expressionism,” Art+Auction

by Judd Tully, via blouinartinfo.com

Frederick James Brown's "They had the Right to Sing the Blues," 1995 (Courtesy Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art)

Frederick James Brown’s “They had the Right to Sing the Blues,” 1995
(Courtesy Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art)

Though long absent from the New York art scene, Frederick James Brown, the Georgia-born, Chicago-bred expressionist painter who died on May 5 at age 67 from cancer in Scottsdale, Arizona, carved out a significant niche in the early days of SoHo.

The painter’s giant loft on Wooster Street possessed a grand piano, and the jazz- and blues-loving artist kept up a 24/7 salon for artists and musicians in those bygone days when rent was dirt cheap and condo-owning investment bankers a rarity.

Bearing a university art degree, Brown was largely self-taught, with his work incorporating a heady brew of both high art and more folk- art-tinged culture. He developed a brash kind of German expressionist portraiture, saturated with vivid colors and quick brushstrokes. He was also strongly influenced by New York School of Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. His subjects ranged across an encyclopedic spectrum of music and art titans, from Thelonious Monk and Bessie Smith to Clifton Chenier and de Kooning. In an interview in 1988 with Lowery Sims, then the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s associate curator of 20th century art, Brown described his allegiance to that movement, saying, “To me, Abstract Expressionism was a very beautiful, lyrical language, like spoken Italian. Also, I had always been fascinated with that type of surface, because my mother was a baker, and I used to like to watch her frost cakes and things.”

Though he had an early solo show in New York at the Noah Goldowsky Gallery in 1975, a period when he was still painting in an abstract manner, Brown’s career took off and peaked in the 1980s, when Neo- Expressionism  and  figurative  painting  were  in  full  bloom.  He  had several successful solo exhibitions that decade at Marlborough Gallery, and in 1988 somehow managed to become the only Western artist (apart from Robert Rauschenberg) to have an exhibition in China, debuting there with a 100-painting retrospective in Tiananmen Square, at the National Museum of the Chinese Revolution.

Brown, tall, stocky, and hard to miss in his high-top Afro hairstyle and casual Western dress, greeted me with a dazzling smile when I had the good fortune of bumping into him on the edge of Tiananmen Square that June — a casual encounter of two downtown souls saluting one another as if it were just another day in SoHo.

Ironically, the seminal event of an African-American artist landing, Marco Polo-style, in an exotic country, came exactly one year before the bloody crackdown orchestrated by Chinese authorities violently wiped out youth-driven populist calls for democracy. Not surprisingly, Brown, always  a  seeker of  fresh ideas and melodies, had sensed change in the new China, spending considerable time there, including a brief but fruitful stint teaching at the prestigious Central College of Fine Arts and Crafts. That job set the stage for his unique and historic retrospective.

But his desire and ambition to make such a mark on foreign soil was extremely costly. The self-funded retrospective drove him perilously deep in debt and alienated him from his New York dealer. The real estate boom in SoHo had already driven Brown out of his loft space, and so he resettled with his family in Arizona, where he spent the remainder of his career mostly confined to showing at regional museums.

In June 2005, Brown was interviewed in Omaha by Leo Adam Biga on the occasion of an exhibition dedicated to him at the Joslyn Art Museum. Once again, he talked about the remarkable atmosphere available for artists in New York back in the day:

“you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing…. Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.”

Brown is represented in a number of American museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has five works including “Genesis-Dedicated to Noah Goldowsky” (1978), and a large and religious-themed “Ascension” (1982). The latter was one of the works included in the brash but much-maligned Met exhibition, “The 1980s — A New Generation” curated by William Lieberman in 1988, the museum’s belated attempt to catch up with the decade’s art.

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City has perhaps the largest concentration of Brown works, ranging from the mural- sized “They Had the Right to Sing the Blues” (1995), a soulful ode to female singing legends, to “The History of Art,” a wildly ambitious compilation  of  art styles  filtered through  Brown’s  carousing imagination and comprised of 110 shaped and interlocking paintings from 1994-2000.

The artist’s last major exhibition took place in 2002-2003. Titled “Fred Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues and Other Icons,” it opened at the Kemper and traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“He was a world class artist,” said Lowery Sims, curator at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, “but he did it in the context of outside the mainstream. He was always on his own trajectory. He should be recognized because he was a real force in the art world.”

“I always used to kid him,” recalled David Robinson, a long-time director at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “about the scale of his work: ‘oh, it’s only 15 by 40 feet, Fred, are you sure you don’t want to paint something a little bit bigger?’

“He loved scale,” said Robinson, “and he could paint big.”

Brown is survived by his wife, the artist and modern dancer Megan Brown, his daughter Sebastienne, his son Bentley, and a brother, Anthony Brown.