Roger Brown

Roger Brown (1941-1997) stands as a prominent figure within the Chicago Imagist movement, a group renowned for its bold canvases and sculptural creations that delve into the postwar American experience. Brown’s artistic oeuvre is marked by its personal, provocative, and political nature, often serving as a commentary on contemporary events and attitudes, infused with a strong dose of irony and a wry sense of humor. His work celebrates the vernacular, delving into popular culture’s truths and contradictions while exploring a diverse range of themes, from urban isolation, alienation, and sexual intrigue to natural disasters, human tragedy, and weather patterns.

Born James Roger Brown on December 10, 1941, in Hamilton and Opelika, Alabama, his early life in the South greatly influenced his art. His parents nurtured his artistic talents, and he developed a profound appreciation for the region’s material culture, particularly folk art and handmade objects. During his formative years, he also drew inspiration from comic strips, theater architecture, streamlined Art Deco, and machine-age design.

Brown’s religious upbringing in the independent, fundamentalist Church of Christ left a lasting impact on his perspective. After briefly considering a career as a preacher, he decided to pursue art, eventually relocating to Chicago in 1962. There, he honed his skills at the American Academy of Art and earned degrees at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was drawn to a diverse array of art historical periods and genres, including Surrealism, early Italian Renaissance painting, non-western art, and American artists like Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, and Georgia O’Keeffe. His eclectic tastes extended to collecting, which became a significant source of inspiration for his work.

In the late 1960s, Brown played a pivotal role in groundbreaking exhibitions known collectively as “The Hairy Who,” where he and fellow artists formed the Chicago Imagists. This loosely affiliated group of painters and sculptors shared a penchant for personal expression, often transforming visual imagery from various media, with pop and vernacular culture as their launching pad. Concurrently, he discovered the work of self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, William Dawson, and Lee Godie, deepening his exploration of art beyond the mainstream.

In 1972, Brown gained recognition with his inclusion in Franz Schultz’s book “Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945.” This period also marked the beginning of his collaboration with architect George Veronda, integrating architecture and landscape into his art. He purchased and renovated a Chicago storefront in 1974, serving as his first home, studio, and collection space. Later, he commissioned Veronda to design a home and studio in New Buffalo, Michigan, where he divided his time between Chicago and this lakeside property, amassing a second collection of art and objects.

Brown’s acclaim continued to grow in the 1970s and 80s, with his artistic repertoire expanding to include sculpture, sets for theater and opera, and mosaic murals. He even designed sets for the Chicago Opera Theatre’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979.

In the late 1980s, Brown sought a new life on the west coast, settling in La Conchita, California, and adapting his art and collecting practices to his surroundings. As he lived with AIDS for nearly a decade, his works from 1995 to his passing in 1997 took on an otherworldly quality, hinting at a different dimension. His final project, the restoration of an 1870s stone house in rural Alabama, was posthumously completed and opened as the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in 1999.

Throughout his life, Brown exhibited extensively and was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York from 1970 to 1997. His art graces the collections of prestigious institutions such as The Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many more around the world. Major retrospectives of his work have traveled to various museums, solidifying his legacy as a vital contributor to the world of contemporary art.