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Roger Brown

 (1941 - 1997)
Roger Brown was active/lived in Illinois.  Roger Brown is known for abstract-surreal figure-views, imagist.

Roger Brown

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Alabama, he became one of the most celebrated of a group of Chicago artists called "Imagists," creating edgy, cartoon-like paintings of urban trauma.  His specialty were whimsical cityscapes that often touched upon social issues.

In 1987, a retrospective was held of his work at the Washington D.C. Hirshhorn Museum.  He donated a collection of 30 paintings and his homes in Chicago, La Conchita, California, and New Buffalo, Michigan to his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Even the artist Roger Brown, most closely associated with Chicago art of the 1960s and 1970s, had deep ties to the South.  Brown was born in Hamilton, Alabama, and was raised in Opelika, Alabama.  His traditional upbringing might have developed into a future in ministry or the family business until he discovered the arts and moved to Chicago.

In Chicago, he studied at the American Academy of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving bachelors and master's degrees from the latter. While at the Art Institute, influential instructors such as Ray Yoshida, the introduction to the museum's permanent collection, and the accessibility of other Chicago museums initiated Brown's education.  He also began looking at self-taught artists, allowing his own art to move beyond the mainstream. 

Brown's education fully evolved when he became an art collector himself.  In fact, by the end of his life, Brown's eclectic and enormous personal collection of art and artifacts ranged from outsider and folk art, to countless articles of popular culture.

Chicago Imagism is the stylistic American art movement with which Roger Brown's name has become synonymous.  In his own words, Brown discussed this movement. "Chicago has not exactly taken over as the nation's art capital, but it was the birthplace in the mid 1960's of what I feel has become a significant movement in recent art history.  That movement is concerned with the making of art as an individual and very personal endeavor. …Inspiration is taken from the raw, direct art of the naïve or folk artist whose work is unencumbered with pretentions [sic] to 'high art'… It might be appropriate to describe this new and uniquely American movement as a loose association of individual artists who briefly came together in group shows, exhibiting their autonomy from all previous artistic traditions, and even from each other." (1)  The series of exhibitions occurred at the storefront gallery of the Hyde Park Art Center. (2)  Brown was one of many artists who exhibited together and ultimately were collectively labeled the "Chicago Imagists."(3)

The artist's own statements declared the individuality of each artist, including himself, and his desire to avoid classification by art critics. 

Brown's painting style in unequivocally unique and immediately recognizable as he utilized the world around him as his tableau.  He attacked critical and contemporary issues from political, religious, and artistic arenas.  "My work is really about wherever I am, what I'm involved in, whatever I'm experiencing…It's involved with Chicago, a lot of it's involved with daily news events.  Sometimes it goes back and deals with things from my own personal background, from my own family history."

More specifically, southern ties remained relevant throughout Brown's oeuvre.  He stated, "…what I feel is influential, being a southerner, in my work, is just the tendency toward being interested in narrative…I don't feel narrative is something that has to be left out of painting."(4) 

Brown, in a 1990 letter to the Columbus Museum, stated, "For me art is not about repeating historical mannerisms, it is about inventing a new language of my own which can communicate to people my perception of my own time."(5)

1. Roger Brown, "Rantings and Recollections," in Who Chicago? An exhibition of Contemporary Imagists (Sunderland, England: Ceolfrith Gallery, Sunderland Arts Centre, 1980), 29.

2. Ibid, 30.

3. The other artists most attached to this group includes Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Ray Yoshida, Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi and Gladys Nilsson.

4. Ellen Edwards, "Roger Brown's Places in The Art," Washington Post (12 August 1987), C1, C4, Col.1

5. Letter from Roger Brown to Fred Fussell, November 1990.  Columbus Museum collection files.  In the files is a statement that Brown provided to Fussell for a 1990 exhibition, "Home Again", which included Brown's paintings.  In this statement, Brown reveals that his eerie use of light comes from old memories from Saturday afternoons at the Martin Theatre in Opelika (AL), where the fluorescent lights caused shadows and modulations of dark and where he saw old film noire movies that provided him with anxious themes.

Submitted by the staff, Columbus Museum, Georgia

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Though he gained national acclaim as one of the Chicago Imagists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roger Brown was quick to acknowledge an essential truth about his personal and artistic identity: “I really think that my going in the direction I went comes from being Southern.”

Born and raised in Alabama, Brown spent much of his adult life in more cosmopolitan settings such as Chicago and California, but remained deeply influenced by the family, customs, and character of his native region. Established after his untimely death at the age of fifty-six, the James Roger Brown Memorial Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama, stands as a testimony to the artist’s achievements as a unique narrative creator of both two- and three-dimensional work. His paintings and sculpture are represented in dozens of museums across this country and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art.

Growing up amidst a large extended family with strong fundamentalist beliefs, Brown’s passion for creating and collecting can be traced to his father, a skilled craftsman, and his maternal grandmother. His love for the land was fostered by his paternal grandparents who owned a cotton farm where young Roger spent much time. An early interest in art prompted private lessons that continued for several years. Following his high school graduation in 1960, Brown was briefly enrolled at a Church of Christ college in Nashville, Tennessee. More inspired by painting and drawing classes than religious courses, he dropped out before completing his freshman year. He worked odd jobs to finance night classes at the University of Tennessee and toured the South. Brown then relocated to Chicago, where he attended both the American Academy of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Funded by scholarships and a variety of part-time work, he completed a degree in commercial design in 1968 and later earned an M.F.A.

It was in 1968 that Brown and three other artists were invited by Chicago curator Don Baum to mount a display of their work. That exhibition, The False Image, reflected the group’s “lack of interest in East Coast Minimalism and Color Field abstraction” and introduced a new Pop Art aesthetic. Working primarily in oil, Brown created striking surrealist images—characterized by “bright colors, black outlines, and narrative panels often linked to comic-style art”—that drew on Chicago’s urban rhythms and architecture. His paintings and sculpture (though Brown preferred to identify these works as “three-dimensional paintings”) garnered critical attention and representation from the prestigious Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York and Chicago.

Between 1968 and 1986, Brown traveled extensively, exploring much of the United States by car and visiting Mexico and Europe. These trips provided him with a wealth of subject matter for his increasingly flat, patterned landscapes. Throughout these years, “Alabama tugged on his imagination.” Working variously from his home state, Chicago, Michigan, and California, Brown executed innovative objects that reflected his myriad interests—ranging from politics and popular culture to country music and Christianity—always infused with an “outsider” sensibility. Throughout his successful career, his paintings were in steady demand: for solo and group exhibitions, as stage sets and commissioned murals, and as cover art for national magazines.

Before his untimely death due to complications from AIDS, Brown generously donated his residences and studios—as well as his art, papers, and vast collection of folk art, decorative objects, and diverse visual ephemera—to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The modernist Michigan structure serves as an artists’ retreat, while the Chicago studio is maintained intact as a house museum in homage to Brown’s conviction that “the things in the collection are of universal appeal to all artists and people with a sense of the spiritual and mystical nature that material things can evoke.”

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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About  Roger Brown

Born:  1941 - Hamilton, Alabama
Died:   1997
Known for:  abstract-surreal figure-views, imagist