Wm. Theophilus Brown
Self Portrait, 1994
An elegant and irreverent painter
Kissed by de Kooning
The charmed life of Theophilus Brown
Bill Brown and his famous friends
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by Matt Gonzalez
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His promise was apparent early. When William Theophilus Brown was 11, his father submitted a portrait his son had drawn to a regional art contest juried by Grant Wood, the iconic Midwestern artist whose American Gothic is one of the nation’s best-known paintings. Brown was selected for a third place award, which Grant Wood himself presented.
“He was amazed to see this kid walking up the aisle,” Brown says, “I remember him leaning and reaching down from the stage, and me reaching up to receive the prize, and we shook hands. It was a really great moment in my life.”
In 1952 he headed for the West Coast and began graduate study in painting at the University of California in Berkeley. He soon met the young painter Paul Wonner, who would become his life partner. “I’d never been to California before,” he says. “I arrived in Berkeley on the train. On the third day I met Paul.”
They fell in with Richard Diebenkorn, whose paintings were already drawing considerable attention. Along with Elmer Bischoff and James Weeks, they began to experiment and extend David Park’s re-introduction of the human figure into their paintings. At a time dominated by abstract painting, Brown and these other artists combined abstract and figurative painting, evolving into what became known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement.
“Getting to know those people had a huge influence on me,” Brown says. “I didn’t get much out of the art department at Berkeley. But Paul and I got a studio downtown in Berkeley. One day there was a knock on the door. ‘I’m freezing my butt off. How’re you doing in here?’ That’s how we met Dick Diebenkorn.”
What developed was a complex and diverse range of artistic practices united by the re-introduction of figurative subject matter — landscape, still life, portraiture and nudes — with Abstract Expressionism’s formal concerns and vigorous handling of paint. Exploring the tension between abstraction and figuration opened a range of new possibilities, apparent in the diversity of these artists and the subjects and techniques they pursued.
In 1956, Brown gained national attention when three of his paintings of football players, with abstracted images of bodies in motion, appeared in a spread in Life magazine. The work caught the attention of Los Angeles gallery owner Felix Landau, who began to exhibit Brown’s work. In 1957 his work was included in the landmark Bay Area Figurative Painting exhibition at the Oakland Museum. He was set on a lifelong path as a serious artist whose paintings are widely admired and collected.
Until his death on February 8, 2012, just a few weeks before his 93rd birthday, Brown’s mind and wit remained razor sharp. He continued to be a fully committed practicing artist involved in a range of artistic activities, including three museum and gallery exhibitions the last year of his life. “I paint three or four hours every day,” he said a few months before his death. “I like to work. I think it’s the secret to staying alive and interesting and as vital as you can be.” He also participated in regular group drawing sessions with a model and sat in with the San Francisco Collage Collective. As he did throughout his life, he played classical piano with considerable skill, often accompanied by a violinist.
Theophilus Brown was an artistic giant, pursuing his work with dedication, focus and inspirational fortitude.
— ANTHONY TORRES