Joan Brown. Painter, Swimmer, Maverick

Joan Brown (left) and Karen Folger Jacobs, New Year’s Day Alcatraz Swim, San Francisco, 1978.
two simmers smiling after having swam in the bay behind them
Joan Brown (left) and Karen Folger Jacobs, New Year’s Day Alcatraz Swim, San Francisco, 1978. © The Joan Brown Estate.

Joan Brown was a painter and an avid swimmer. She grew up swimming in the San Francisco Bay and was behind a movement that overturned the Dolphin Club’s male-only restrictions in 1976, making it legally mandatory for the swim club to admit female members.1 Brown was a force. She earned early national acclaim with a New York gallery exhibition in 1960; that same year, at twenty-two, she was the youngest artist featured in Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. At the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she received her BA (1959) and MFA (1960), Brown was known for walking the halls covered in paint from head to toe. Emerging from the school’s post-abstract expressionist era, her early work reflected the dueling influences of abstraction and figuration. She painted figuratively with uninhibited gesture on a large scale, explaining in a letter to her dealer George Staempfli, “I have to express myself with large instruments and this calls for large canvases.”2 Brown learned early to value the process of painting and to follow her intuition—“to see, rather than to be technically proficient”3—from her teacher and mentor Elmer Bischoff. He taught her to look at the mundane and find uniqueness in the world around her.

  1. Natasha Boas, “Badass Joan Brown: Smoking and Swimming in San Francisco,” HuffPost, May 25, 2016, available at ↩︎

  2. Joan Brown, in Karen Tsujimoto, “Painting as a Visual Diary: The Art of Joan Brown,” in The Art of Joan Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 29. ↩︎

  3. Joan Brown, interview with Lynn Gumpert, in Early Work: Lynda Benglis, Joan Brown, Luis Jimenez, Gary Stephan, Lawrence Weiner (New York: The New Museum, 1982), 16. ↩︎