The Keeper: Roger Brown, the Artist as Voracious Collector

Roberta Smith, The New York Times, August 29, 2019
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An idiosyncratic almost-retrospective at the Museum of Arts and Design looks at the Chicago Imagist’s late-career works.


Roger Brown, the Imagist painter and collector extraordinaire, was born in Alabama in 1941 to a religious family that encouraged his art. He remained close to them, returning home in 1997 to die of AIDS at 55.


The artist, however, lived most of his life in and around Chicago, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and consorted with other Imagists (initially known as the Hairy Who), an often ribald group that included Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Ray Yoshida and Christina Ramberg. They emerged in the early 1970s, making irreverent figurative works rooted in Surrealism and popular culture that snobby, ill-informed New Yorkers (which was most of us at that time) called Regionalist.


Brown also lived surrounded by dizzyingly dense arrays of flea market and thrift shop finds, some of which eventually made their way into his artworks. A slide show of the three homes Brown assembled and lived in is the place to start in the idiosyncratic but excellent exhibition "Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lifes" at the Museum of Arts and Design, the first museum show devoted to his work in New York. The slides, projected large, as if you might almost step into them, form a gripping account of one artist’s taste and voracious acquisitiveness as well as the rich veins of Americana that fed his art.


Put another way, Brown assembled the museums of his dreams to live in. In each of his three home-studios — two of which he built — he created a different assortment, cued to its location (Chicago, a beach town just north of Los Angeles and the dunes of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore). There are thrilling sights. For example, in one shot of the interior of the Chicago storefront building that he bought in 1974, you’ll see a comfy seating nook: Its walls are triple-hung mostly — breathtakingly — with drawings by the great Joseph Yoakum, a Chicago self-taught artist that the Imagists helped bring to prominence.


The most sparsely furnished house was in Michigan, which Brown’s partner, the architect George Veronda (1940-1984), designed in the late 1970s. It was an a near-replica of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House in Illinois — at once an outrageous bit of collecting and a testament to Brown’s appreciation of modernism and, perhaps, his conviction that his work was part of it. (Brown left the Chicago building and its contents to the School of the Art Institute; they now form the Roger Brown Study Collection.)


In the last few years of his life, Brown sought to combine his art and his collection in his “virtual still lifes.” Mainly he accessorized his highly stylized landscape paintings with ceramics from his collection, lined up on narrow shelves attached to the bottom edges of his canvases, like actors in front of a painted backdrop. “Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers” (1995), for instance, features a quintessential Roger Brown landscape — seven misty waterfalls painted blue against brown with Minimalist regularity. Down front, six vigorously mismatched pitchers echo this palette while suggesting mouths open to receive libations. Sometimes a single addition was more than enough, like the taxidermied antelope of “Pronghorn Diorama.”


Over the course of this motley, illuminating exhibition, it may occur to you that all of Brown’s works are still lifes — a silent absence, or freezing, of motion — of some sort. This applies to the repeating patterns of the landscapes — fed by Art Deco, the comics, Navajo blankets, Yoakum’s landscapes and quilts that Brown collected, as well as Minimalist abstraction. It’s also true of his urban nocturnes, which feature gray, stripped-down houses, apartment buildings and skyscrapers in whose windows tiny silhouetted figures enact terse domestic dramas against bright yellow light.


The show includes a cache of Brown’s little-known early paintings of movie theater interiors — the source of both the emoting silhouettes and the cantilevered shelf stages. The instinct to combine objects and images is evident in several works from 1975: pieces of midcentury furniture painted with what would become typical Roger Brown scenes — a bed’s footboard-cum-billboard, a chair, an old shoe-store stool — and “Untitled (Crawling, Flagellated Building)” from 1975. This work gives us a kind of architectural Christ figure in painted wood: an anguished skyscraper on its hands and knees before a painting of the soft grays of a cloudy Chicago sky.


Also on view are parts of the collection, including two very different groups of ceramics — earnestly modern postwar vases purchased in California, and exuberant dinner plates, mostly from Mexico — arranged on handsomely handmade, unpainted wood shelves, also Mexican. (They appear in the slides of the beach house designed by Stanley Tigerman that Brown built near Ventura, Calif., in the early 1990s, and reflect the fruits of local shopping as well as wares from trips to Mexico.)


This show, organized by Shannon R. Stratton, a former curator at the museum, is not quite the full-dress New York retrospective that Brown deserves; few of his Chicago cohort have had the honor, nor have similar artists from Northern California, most notably the great “Regionalist” Roy De Forest.


This show needed more examples of Brown’s unaccessorized landscape paintings, which are his best work, and there are two underused walls that could have accommodated them. But the virtual still lifes bring together the through lines of Brown’s aesthetic, in art and life. They also reflect an artist who knew his time was cruelly limited and was trying to reveal more of himself, more of his object-love and more of his debt to the often abandoned corners of American visual culture.

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