Frederick J. Brown: Challenging the Norms of Portraiture
By Lowery Stokes Sims
Frederick J. Brown’s 1987 series The Actress (A Drawing in Five Parts) and the related painting She Saw Him Crying comprise an exercise in portraiture, serial imagery, action capture, and expressive exploration. The subject is Jillian O’Brien, who worked as a secretary for Brown and his wife Megan Bowman in the 1980s. Of O’Brien, Brown once observed: “I’ve done nine or ten paintings of her and quite a few works on paper . . . . When she cried, she let out a yell that was incredible.”A Brown engages us with that range of emotion in these six paintings.
Brown made portraiture his main and signature subject in the 1980s. Along with Chuck Close (fig. 1), he challenged the protocols of the genre in terms of formality, flattery, and verisimilitude, and can be considered one of the most interesting and provocative practitioners of the twentieth century. But as Close cultivated effects close to photographic—albeit in disconcertingly large scale—even as he mapped his likenesses as abstracted patterns, Brown set a more challenging problem for himself. Although he created his well-known portraits of jazz musicians, singers, and historical figures from photographs, he transformed his sources through his energized painting technique and expressionistic color. This approach put him on a parallel path to that of various painters—such as John Alexander, Jean-Michel Basquiat (fig. 2), A. R. Penck, and Ouattara Watts—who emerged in the 1980s and were dubbed “Neo Expressionists.”
Although Brown created this series of likenesses from life, the challenges were similar to those sourced photographically. But since physiognomic exactitude was not his goal, he had to navigate elements of likeness versus expression, ever risking the displeasure of his subjects. One of his dedicated collectors, dentist Arthur Kahn, once suggested that Brown look at the work of Picasso to find a way to “distort the face and keep it interesting.”B Brown’s wife, the dancer, choreographer, and artist Megan Bowman, has also observed that he particularly strove to “portray people’s spirits or inner souls.” Toward that end, she notes:
Frederick had the confidence to exaggerate, complicate, simplify, change, or “move the picture around” to tell the story he was trying to tell. He [would start] in a traditional, realistic way, and then his imagination kicked in and he followed it. His technique for painting was to cover the canvas quickly and then go back into it. C
Additionally, Brown reminisced that one of his models, who had worked with Andy Warhol, “clued me in on the fact that the distance between the eyes was key—you had to get it right. She talked about how they measured it for the Warhols and adjusted it on a silkscreen overlay.”D
Indeed, the eyes are key elements in the depictions of The Actress (A Drawing in Five Parts), and the distinctive aspect of She Saw Him Crying. This body of work is atypical in Brown’s oeuvre in that it is a series of studies of one subject. The images capture that subject in a variety of expressionistic approaches that use color and line to convey various moods and states of mind. Whether they were painted in close succession or over a period of time seems beside the point. The version in which O’Brien is wearing a red turtleneck (fig. 4) is relatively calm and self-contained in character—an impression conveyed not only in the engaging eyes and oval contour of the head, but also in the pink and yellow tonalities with which Brown constructs the planes of her face.
In the two versions where her top is black (figs. 3 and 5), a mood shift is suggested with daubs of red paint in the area of the eyes and mouth, which convey a more heightened emotional state. This is reinforced by the agitated character of the hair. There is a loss of symmetry in the shape of the heads, and the greater evidence of drawing elements tends to open up the physicality of the figure on the paper. In the portrayal where O’Brien is wearing a red-striped scooped-neck top (fig. 6), a sense of inner turmoil is conveyed by the look of urgency on her face, which shows a more intense modeling with deep ravines along her nose extending to her mouth. All this boils over in the last version (fig. 7), in which she wears a spaghetti-strapped top and confronts the viewer in a full scream. There are furrows on her brow, her eyes are wide, and the character lines on her face are black and brown with red circling her mouth. Interestingly enough, Brown focused on the “shape and configuration of teeth,”E noting that “People often overlook that fact and just do a [generic] rendering of teeth.” The background, which has been shades of turquoise or yellow, here is vivid red, and the “sketchy” character of her hair reinforces the notion of her literally coming unhinged, disembodied in an extreme emotional state.
This brings us to She Saw Him Crying (fig. 8): an apparition that is at once glamorous and fearsome. Here, Brown has intensified the last version of The Actress (fig. 7) in terms of color and physiognomic treatment. She wears a garment with a red and a black spaghetti strap. Her fuller, darker hair is decorated with a yellow flower with a red center. Her open, screaming mouth is more meticulously traced with red lipstick and her teeth punctiliously rendered. The pink aura and red background again complement the mood of the scene. But it is her double set of eyes, each one of a different shape but mostly blue, that stops us in our tracks. They seem almost to form another masklike facade under one set of eyes, but clearly they are meant to be “an extra-sensorial experience,” as Canadian artist Alex Garant noted about her own doubled portraiture (fig. 9).F In their study of the use of double vision and images in art, Robert Pepperell and Anja Ruschkowski examine how this technique can enhance the illusion of three-dimensional space.G And as Garant noted further, this approach allowed her to “play on the physical response . . . when your vision tries to adjust and adapt the image for full comprehension,” while “aiming to truly engage the viewer in the piece.”H
These images allow us a glimpse into the range of approaches Brown brought to his portraiture work over the years. Ever inventive, he did not hesitate to recruit drawing, painting, and even actual photographic elements, along with strong color and expressive brushwork to capture the essence of his subjects. As he noted in 1998: “David Hockney once said that the difference between a photograph and a painting is time. But I think ultimately to become timeless you have to be painted.”I
About the Author
A specialist in contemporary art, craft, and design, Lowery Stokes Sims has served on the education and curatorial staffs of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1972–99), as executive director and president of The Studio Museum in Harlem (2000–2007), and retired as Curator Emerita from the Museum of Art and Design (2007–15).
More recently she has worked as an independent curator and consultant for numerous exhibitions at various institutions, and served as the 2021–22 Kress-Beinecke Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
About the Exhibition
Frederick J. Brown: A Drawing in Five Parts is on view at the Hudson River Museum from December 9, 2022 through April 2, 2023.
Lead sponsorship of the exhibition is provided by DeWayne N. Phillips and Caroline A. Wamsler, PhD.
Exhibitions are made possible by assistance provided by the County of Westchester.
We are deeply grateful to Marilyn Appel for her impactful gift of this series to the Museum’s permanent collection.
Special thanks to Bentley Brown and Terry Joshi.
A. Lowery Stokes Sims, “Interview with Frederick J. Brown, February, 1988,” in The 1980s: A New Generation (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), pp. 4, 5.
B. Frederick J. Brown, interview with Lowery Stokes Sims, Scottsdale, Arizona, July 14, 1998.
C. Megan Bowman, interview with Lowery Stokes Sims, on the road to Sedona, Arizona, July 13, 1998.
D. Frederick J. Brown, interview with Lowery Stokes Sims, Scottsdale, Arizona, July 14, 1998.
F. Kirstie McCrum, “Portraits of Stunning Women in Blurred Vision Are Both Beautiful and Baffling,” Mirror, August 26, 2015, at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/portraits-stunning-women-blurry-vision-6322501.
G. Robert Pepperell and Anja Ruschkowski, “Double Vision as a Pictorial Depth Cue,” Art & Perception (2013), at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267097579_Double_Vision_as_a_Pictorial_Depth_Cue.
H. McCrum, “Portraits of Stunning Women.”
I. Megan Bowman in conversation with the author, April 10, 2016, Carefree, Arizona.