A friendship with Theophilus Brown

September 3, 2011 § 4 Comments

Matt Gonzalez and Theophilus Brown | Photograph by Charles Gonzalez


Much has been written about Theophilus Brown the artist, but little about his personal qualities — his elegance, for instance. Everything he does, he does with style and consideration. At 92, he still wants to be sure he’s dressed appropriately for a social gathering. He listens attentively and looks carefully. He is honest, yet always encouraging, even to artists with little in common. Though well known in art circles, he makes art generously with beginners. He’s not impressed by his own renown as a member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Ask about it, and he’ll tell you he just wants to paint.

I first met Theophilus at the Potrero Hill home of gallery owner Charles Campbell and his wife, the artist Glenna Putt, in the early 2000s. Theophilus’s partner, the artist Paul Wonner, was alive then. Theophilus’s wit and charm and Paul’s wry humor and mischievous smile made for a wonderful afternoon of storytelling and laughter.

Soon after, I visited Theophilus and Paul in the San Francisco Towers, where they moved when they left their longtime home in Noe Valley in 2001. Theophilus had kachina dolls and a few prehistoric atlatls, known as bird stones, as reminders of his days as a serious collector. There were two Hopi dance wands, a Panamanian Cocle bowl, and, of course, paintings on the walls, including a Cezanne-like bathers scene by Wonner. One of his own early paintings of football players — an oil on canvas from 1952 — hangs over his bed. He painted it in New York and exhibited it at the museum in Davenport, Iowa, when he was en route later that year to California. The painting won a prize and his parents were proudly photographed standing beside it in a local newspaper. Theophilus bought the painting from a dealer in Massachusetts after I found it offered for sale online. It was gratifying to play a role in reuniting him with a painting he hadn’t seen in 50 years.

Theophilus started making collages in 2001 when he stumbled on the practice while trying to make use of leftover paint from his peel-away palette. After experimenting with abstract painting, I had started collaging in 2006, so it was natural that we compared notes. In 2007, we started collaging together, either at my apartment on Hayes Street or in his studio on California Street. The sessions began as a way to discipline ourselves, although neither of us lacked motivation, and provided an immediate critique whenever we wanted. Later we collaged with Glenna Putt at her home on Rhode Island Street and with Gustavo Ramos Rivera in his light-filled studio on Folsom Street. Occasionally others join us, but these days it’s usually just the two of us in Theophilus’s studio.

We work separately, but mindful there are other eyes to test things on. We pour single malt Islay Scotch, usually the smokiest we can get — Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin — and we listen to classical radio. If we’re lucky, they play Brahms. Most of our conversations are about aesthetics or personal matters. We never discuss politics, neither of us finding it conducive to artmaking. We usually work for three or four hours, with breaks to look at drawings and collages. By 5 o’clock we pack up and make our way to a favorite restaurant to feast on fresh oysters.

Theophilus Brown and Matt Gonzalez outside Brown's studio | October 2010

Theophilus tells delightful stories during our studio sessions and over meals together. They aren’t meant to convey some profound truth, but simply capture moments from his rich life. For instance, Theophilus tells how he met Pablo Picasso in the late 1940s after World War II, joining Picasso’s entourage during a visit to the Grimaldi Museum in Antibes. As Picasso and Theophilus hung back from the group, Picasso crouched down suddenly and made a square frame with his fingers, through which a woman could be seen knitting across the hallway. He turned to Theophilus and said simply, “Vermeer.”

Theophilus laughs at himself when recalling a visit to Georges Braque’s studio with the French conductor Vladimir Golschmann. To assuage his nervousness, he accepted a cigarette. Before long Braque had to ask him to stop dropping ashes into his tobacco tin, which Theophilus had thought was an ashtray.

Theophilus also tells a story of drawing with Alberto Giacometti at sculptor Mary Callery’s studio in Paris. When Giacometti had finished his drawing, he said his goodbyes and left the drawing on the easel. Theophilus kept it, and later gifted it as a token of thanks to the composer John Cage, who had been cooking him dinner while Theophilus was apartment-sitting in Cage’s building in New York. Later Cage took the unsigned drawing to Europe and obtained Giacometti’s signature, then donated the drawing to his partner Merce Cunningham’s dance company, which sold it to raise money. While living in New York, Theophilus met many artists, including abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko, as well as Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro. He knew Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta and met Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam with Matta on the streets of

A story he tells about a daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau — the earliest photographic image of the great transcendentalist, in fact — connects Theophilus to his family history in New England. Theophilus’s great-grandfather and Thoreau were friends, and the portrait was taken in 1856 in the Brown family home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Along with H.G.O. Blake and Calvin Greene, who commissioned the portrait, his great-grandfather Theo Brown received one of three daguerreotypes made by Benjamin Maxham. It was passed down in the family to Theophilus, who donated it to the Thoreau Society in Concord, Massachusetts.

I have always been struck by Theophilus’s ability to maintain such an active schedule. He appreciates people and has remarkable social graces, but he regrets the demands his social calendar places on his art. Nevertheless, he enjoys the company of his friends and remains a favored dinner companion of all who know him.

Theophilus Brown at his Steinway | Photograph by Anthony Torres

Theophilus appreciates music as much as art. He plays piano beautifully. And in 2005, during a bout of pneumonia that kept him confined in his apartment for a few weeks, he composed five short classical compositions titled Five Easy Pieces. Later my brother, Charles Gonzalez, and Tim Vickers, both musicians trained in sound engineering, recorded Theophilus performing these pieces in his apartment on his 19th century Steinway A grand piano, which he acquired while living in Los Angeles.

In 2009, Theophilus and I traveled to South Texas for an exhibition of his male nude drawings at a gallery in my hometown of McAllen. A mutual friend, Esteban Ortega Brown, had conceived of the show while we were looking at work in Theophilus’s studio. He noted the unusually large number of male nude works from across the decades still in his possession. Theophilus pointed out that he had drawn and painted just as many women, but that galleries always favored the female nudes, claiming they were easier to sell. Esteban thought it would be great to have an exhibition, in effect, curated in reverse by the dealers who had left these works behind. Esteban and his wife Mayra put the show together and curator Anthony Torres wrote an essay that helped put the work in context. The one-man show was favorably reviewed in the local newspaper and became the talk of the town. The opening followed a panel discussion at the University of Texas Pan American.

The reception for Theophilus was noteworthy, especially since that part of the country is still steeped in homophobia. We saw some of it first hand. An attorney who wouldn’t enter the gallery because of the subject matter stood in the front yard sipping wine. He was aware an important artist was in town and didn’t want to miss the event, but he wouldn’t enter the exhibition. I introduced him to Theophilus, who graciously extended his hand and welcomed him. The gay community in South Texas, usually in the shadows, emerged to celebrate the life and work of one of its own. And although an artist needn’t be gay to draw the male nude, the gallery rightfully embraced this truth. It was bold to show work that had been neglected.

Into his 90s, Theophilus continues to push himself as an artist. He goes to the studio six days a week, usually for four hours. He alternates between figurative paintings and drawings and non-objective collages. The collages are reassembled from paintings he makes on his peel-away palette, which he then cuts and reconfigures into abstract compositions, sometimes painting directly into them. The drawings originate from a drawing group he attends every week. Organized by artist Tom Mogensen, the live model holds poses for only 20 minutes. This is in stark contrast to the three-hour poses Theophilus worked from when he drew for many years with Wayne Thiebaud, Gordon Cook, Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen. He doesn’t hesitate to rework these quick drawings once he’s back in his studio.

On occasion, Theophilus questions whether his work holds up. Even after many years of experience as a teacher and painter, he says without hesitation that he is still learning. And that is the reason he continues to create. It remains a challenge to him. It remains interesting.

Matt Gonzalez is a collage artist and a lawyer in San Francisco. This essay is from the new monograph, Theophilus Brown: An Artful Life.

§ 4 Responses to A friendship with Theophilus Brown

  • Daniele Erville says:

    Beautifully written. Thanks for painting a beautiful picture of the life of this artist and your friendship with him. Just at a time when I’m trying to be true to my own art and put the pieces together to make it strong.

  • DeWitt Cheng says:

    Wonderful article. Another amazing artist’s amazing life. Thanks!

  • Karen Imperial says:

    This was lovely to read. Thank you for sharing your relationship with this wonderful artist and man.

  • Cassie says:

    Nice to know you can be ancient and still have people interested and involved with you for the person you are…

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