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Fresno Art Museum Shows Theophilus Brown: Paintings

FRESNO, CA.- Theophilus Brown is one of the central figures in California painting of the second half of the twentieth century. The highly influential Bay Area figurative painters and sculptors emerged in the mid-fifties and attained national acclaim by the early sixties. Their improvisational compositions and the perceptually based canvases of the East Coast realists marked the regeneration of representational painting at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Greenburgian Formalism, and Pop Art.

Brown first achieved national attention more than a half century ago through a Life magazine article (October 8, 1956) on his “football” paintings, but the visual and thematic character of his work began to crystallize when he moved to Berkeley in 1952 and entered the University of California graduate painting program.

Always a figurative painter, Brown’s esthetic sensibility was formed through his postwar contact with Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, and other artists in Paris; the influence of Willem de Kooning’s mentoring in New York; and his heady rapport with David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner, Richard Diebenkorn, James Weeks, and Nathan Oliveira in Berkeley and San Francisco. Today this close-knit group of painters has attained legendary status in American art.

Over the decades - in Berkeley, Southern California, and San Francisco - Brown has worked from the model in weekly studio sessions. At various times, this drawing group has included Park, Diebenkorn, Wonner, Bischoff, Weeks, the portrait artist Don Bachardy, Gordon Cook, Beth Van Hoesen, Mark Adams, and Wayne Thiebaud. Now in his eighties, Brown still drives to the studio almost daily and continues to paint and draw. He is a voracious reader and plays piano sonatas accompanied by a violinist once a week.

The American playwright William Inge wrote of Brown’s work in 1967, “The paintings of William Theophilus Brown are comfortable to live with. But one must not be deceived that this comfort is of blindness or indifference to the contemporary world. Rather, it is the comfort we feel in the presence of a sagacious friend who knows all the scandals and atrocities of the town’s happenings, but who sees no reason to alarm his friends with shocking gossip and strives above all to retain humanness in all his relationships. And perhaps the harmony of these painting is something that lies more deeply in the universe than its temporal eccentricities and conflicts. Perhaps to appreciate these paintings best, we must learn to accept the reality of harmony and oneness as surely as that of chaos.”

The current exhibition includes an overview of paintings reflecting the major themes that Brown’s oevre has included – some of the first “football” works, quiet beaches with groups of nude bathers, deserted industrial landscapes, portraits of personal friends as well as several self-portraits. These paintings reveal the power of a Surrealistic approach to Bay Area Figuration – an approach more personalthan literary, functioning as fantasy autobiography with just enough of an erotic edge to be disturbing.

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