Frederick Brown grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His portraits celebrate those who have made important contributions to contemporary culture.
Paintings by African Americans from the collection of the National Museum of American Art: A Book of Postcards (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in cooperation with Pomegranate Artbooks, 1991)
“I think my heritage has a great significance to the images I produce, but you can limit people with a name or a title to only serve one group. When you see my work, you can tell it is done by someone who is Black. But, I want to provide as many beautiful things to the world as I possibly can.” — Frederick Brown, quoted in Eve M. Ferguson, “Art Sings the Blues,” The Washington Afro-American, 26 Oct. 1991.
Frederick Brown’s roots in his working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side contributed to his love of the Blues in the 1950s. Brown’s father was friendly with many well-known Blues musicians, including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed lived in the neighborhood. Brown studied art and psychology at Southern Illinois University, where he earned his B.A. degree in art. He taught for several years in Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, and traveled to Europe in 1969. In 1970 he moved to New York’s SoHo district to become a professional painter, but supported himself by teaching part-time at the Brooklyn Museum, York College, and the School of the Visual Arts.
Brown’s paintings of the early 1970s were large, bold abstractions based on the abstract expressionist tradition of the art department at Southern Illinois University. In 1975 Brown met the noted American painter, Willem de Kooning. De Kooning encouraged Brown and Brown still affectionately refers to de Kooning as his “artistic godfather.” Brown’s large gestural paintings attracted widespread attention and by the mid-1980s were exhibited at the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in New York.
By the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, Brown gradually included figural elements, a change that coincided with his creation of some landscape paintings reminiscent of folk art. An airplane motif also appeared in Brown’s works—a motif that the artist says represents a marking of time.
In the mid-1980s Brown began a series of paintings that immortalized the friends, mentors, and colleagues who had exerted the greatest influence on his life. One of the first paintings in this series was a monumental Last Supper, completed in 1984, which portrays twelve men who had sustained Brown both personally and professionally. He painted several other religious subjects, including John the Baptist, David and Goliath, and The Ascension. In his portraits of this period, Brown attached photographs of his subjects’ faces to the canvas to produce a collage effect. In addition to portraits of single figures, Brown painted large-scale canvases filled with numerous characters both real and fictional, often disparate in their references.
Brown’s background and long-standing interest in the Blues logically led to the next phase of his career. Shortly after his arrival in New York in 1970, he had collaborated with jazz giants Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton on a variety of multimedia projects. As in Chicago, music has always been a part of Brown’s New York environment. For Brown, music and painting are one, and the Blues provides the stimulus and inspiration for painting late at night when he feels at the height of his creative powers. After midnight, that’s when the creative spirits are loose,” Brown says.
Brown’s meeting in 1969 with Chicago Bluesmen Earl Hooker and Magic Sam at a music festival in Denmark led to a suite of works twenty years later. Hooker and Magic Sam told Brown that they were more appreciated in Europe than in America, and Magic Sam predicted that after their deaths they would be quickly forgotten. Ironically, both men died shortly afterwards, and Brown vowed that he would do something to ensure that they would be remembered.
Two decades later, Brown felt ready to honor the pledge he had made in Denmark. He traveled to the Deep South to conduct research for a documentary on Blues singers. Since he had never spent any time in the South, he felt that it was important to visit the setting that gave birth to the Blues. Brown went to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he visited the town’s Delta Blues Museum. He talked with local Blues musicians and elderly black men who regaled him with stories about early Blues artists.
Returning to New York, Brown began a series of portraits of Blues musicians that he feels preserve the spirits of these artists. Like the best painters,” he states, “those musicians had the ability to strike the universal heart chord.”
Brown’s most recent series of paintings, completed in 1991, were conceived when Brown visited his four-year-old daughter in a New York hospital. The hospital’s drab interior motivated him to paint something that would make children laugh. The result is a series of large colorful paintings and original silkscreens of clowns. He hopes to reproduce some of the designs as tapestries, ceramics, or prints for children’s hospitals.
In 1988 Brown had a retrospective exhibition at the National Museum of the Chinese Revolution at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Brown currently lives in New York and also maintains a studio in Arizona.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)