Born in Greensboro, Georgia, on February 6, 1945, Brown grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. It was in this neighborhood of European immigrants, Hispanics, and African Americans who had migrated from the South that Brown learned to appreciate and respect the differences and similarities among all people.
After finishing Chicago Vocational High School, where he studied architecture, Brown attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, receiving a B.A. in art and psychology.
It was de Kooning. . .
who told him "to remember that art is a very old profession, which originated with the shaman in a cave. Basically it is magic and has healing qualities."
Brown described his "real art education," however, as beginning when he moved to New York City in 1970.2 There he was welcomed by some of the world's best-known musicians and artists. Not only did he study with them, but one, Willem de Kooning, became Brown's "artistic grandfather." It was de Kooning, according to Brown, who told him "to remember that art is a very old profession, which originated with the shaman in a cave. Basically it is magic and has healing qualities."3 Indeed, even today, as if honoring de Kooning's advice, Brown rarely makes sketches before beginning a painting. "Sketches take as long to do as a painting," he explains. "When you are really painting, in the truest sense, it is sort of a shamanistic, magical act."4
In New York Brown also began to work collaboratively with jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, combining visual art and music to create large, bold gestural abstractions.
Stagger Lee is portrayed as a contemporary urban youth with dreadlocks and hightop sneakers.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s Brown turned to figurative themes painted in a manner similar to that of the German Expressionists Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann. Critic Barbara Rose referred to Brown as a "rulebreaker" because of his expressionistic, assertive, antiphotographic style, as well as the subjects he chose to paint -- individuals or types who are considered outlaws or rulebreakers themselves.5
For example, the figures in Stagger Lee -- one of several paintings Brown created based on the theme of the blues song with the same title -- pulsate with energy and excitement, as bright yellows, reds, and greens electrify the canvas surface. Stagger Lee is portrayed as a contemporary urban youth with dreadlocks and hightop sneakers. Instead of shooting Billy -- the act immortalized in song -- Lee is shown with a flock of white birds spurting from the smoking gun. Incorporating television sets, skyscrapers, a crucified Christ, and several empty crosses, Brown, as Regenia Perry writes, "weaves legend and fact and alludes to the complex and perhaps violent nature of American society."6
Brown's narrative is also constructed from American history, legend, and his personal life. The infamous "bad man" Stagger Lee is presented with a group of figures from America's mythic past -- a Pilgrim dressed in black knee breeches and buckled shoes; Squanto, the Native American who served as interpreter and guide at Plymouth Colony, holding a peace pipe; and a figure with outstretched arms, wearing a pocket logo that reads "I Make it Work," representing the steelworkers in Chicago. The steelworker, in turn, refers to the fact that Brown, like his grandfather and stepfather, briefly worked in the steel mills in Chicago.
Musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed lived in Brown's old neighborhood and were family friends.
Music remains an important part of Brown's work and his working environment. In the late 1980s he paid homage to several legendary blues musicians. While traveling in Europe in 1969, Brown met Chicago bluesmen Earl Hooker and Magic Sam at a music festival in Denmark. The musicians explained to Brown that even though they had an appreciative audience in Europe, they feared that after their deaths they would be forgotten. They therefore appealed to Brown to ensure that their legacy would not die; Brown agreed.
It was not until two decades later that Brown felt artistically competent to honor the promise made to his friends. Yet despite his familiarity with the musicians and their music, Brown was compelled to do further research before beginning to paint. He traveled south and visited the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He also met and interviewed musicians and senior members of the community who remembered the early bluesmen.7
Returning to New York, Brown began a series of large-scale portraits inspired by the lives of pivotal blues artists. Using bold, expressive colors, these works are not photographic, but capture the essence of the renowned artists.
It was not until two decades later that Brown felt artistically competent to honor the promise made to his friends.
Portraits continue to be an important focus in Brown's work. Whether he depicts the giants of twentieth-century art such as Picasso and de Kooning, or blues and jazz artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman, Brown has an extraordinary ability to capture the individual through the eloquence of his brush.
These paintings were an attempt to "get a feeling rather than just a likeness."
In "American Kaleidoscope," Brown is represented by four works from this series, depicting individuals to be remembered for their spiritual convictions: Black Elk, I Thought of Crazy Horse, Chief Seattle, and She Knows How.
These works are distinguished by a heroic format, intense color combinations, and impassioned brushstrokes typical of the artist's style.
According to Brown, his portrayal represents Black Elk "with his younger self."13 Indeed, Brown places the elderly shaman on the right. Shown holding a peace pipe, Black Elk is linked arm in arm with a youthful image of himself. Brown was inspired by two archival photographs of Black Elk. One of them depicts Black Elk and his father, Elk, in a similar linked-arm pose. The photograph was taken in Europe, where they were touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
Brown, who traces his ancestry to African, European, Seminole, and Choctaw roots, was inspired after reading numerous accounts of Native American spiritual leaders.
In I Thought of Crazy Horse, Brown captures the commanding presence of the defiant chief of the Oglala Sioux who was a distant cousin of Black Elk.14 Like his cousin, Crazy Horse was also recognized as having visionary gifts. Brown alludes to Crazy Horse's spiritual powers in several ways. The torso, for example, is modeled in thin paint washes, giving the body an ethereal, transparent quality.
Shown holding a peace pipe, Black Elk is linked arm in arm with a youthful image of himself.
Chief Seattle, Brown's depiction of the noted leader who frequently spoke about issues of land and water preservation in the Puget Sound region, is rendered in cool blues and greens. Brown's likeness is an arresting image of the impressive ruler who has been described as more than "six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and a powerful orator."16 Chief Seattle also was converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries, taking the Biblical name Noah.17
Not all of Brown's Native American images are based on historical figures; some have very personal meanings for the artist. She Knows How, for instance, was inspired by memories of Brown's grandmother, who was part Seminole. The artist fondly remembers that his grandmother proudly displayed her dual heritage by wearing her hair in long braids. Brown also recalls how people in the neighborhood recognized her as a visionary.
The double-headed arrows adorning the nose, cheeks, and chin. . .
are symbols of the energy forces that flow from and through Crazy Horse.
Like many contemporary artists, Brown sometimes bases his portrait works on photographs or reproductions. His use of appropriated imagery, however, is different from that of other artists who choose imagery as "nostalgia, irony or socio-political commentary. More importantly, he does not distance himself from his images, but tackles them directly and passionately."18
Constructed from diverse sources, both personal and historical, Brown's images are layered with meaning and references to what one critic describes as "emblems of American life which, improbably, hold us together as a people."19
America has a great, great history, but much of it is unwritten, and whole classes of people are not incorporated. Art should portray a future in which everyone participates -- especially spiritually.
Gwendolyn H. Everett
1. Frederick Brown, interview with author, 12 February 1993.
2. Liz Rolfsmeier, "Spirituality Key to Artist's Work: A New Dimension," Discover, 10 August 1993, 7.
3. Brown, quoted in David Grogan, "To Fred Brown, Blues are more than a Color on His Palette," People, 2 October 1989, 98.
4. Brown, quoted in Rolfsmeier, Discover, 5
5. Lowery Sims, "Frederick Brown: American Archetypes and Heroes," Frederick Brown: Recent Painting 1981-1985, "Heroes and Rulebreakers" (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1985), 2-3.
6. Regenia Perry, Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C. and San Francisco: National Museum of American Art and Pomegranate, 1992), 45.
7. Eve Ferguson, "Art Sings the Blues," Washington Afro-American, 26 October 1991.
8. Brown, quoted in John Howell, "Painting the Blues: Fred Brown's Vivid Panorama of the Black Experience," Elle (August 1990): 27.
9. Sims, Frederick Brown: Recent Painting 1981-1985, 2.
10. Barbara Cortright, "Frederick Brown, Spiritual Ambassador," SouthWest Profile (August-October 1992): 21.
11. Phillip J. Cohen, Magic Man: New Paintings by Frederick Brown (Scottsdale, Ariz.: Gallery 10, 1992), 1.
12. Paul R. Walker, Spiritual Leaders (New York: Facts on File, 1994), 103.
13. Brown, telephone interview with author, 7 September 1995.
14. Bree Burns, Sitting Bull and Other Legendary Native American Chiefs (New York: Crescent Books, 1993), 78. Also Walker, Spiritual Leaders, 96.
15. Brown, telephone interview with author, 7 September 1995.
16. Ralph Andrews, Indian Leaders Who Helped Shape America (Seattle: Superior, 1971), 163
18. Ruth Bass, "Frederick J. Brown," Frederick Brown: Paintings 1986-1987 (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1987), 2.
19. Cohen, Magic Man, 1.
20. Brown, interview with author, 13 November 1995.