A walkthrough with the artist

October 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Theophilus Brown is one of the great figures in 20th century California art and a pioneering member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. At 92, he is still in his studio every day. In this video he leads a tour of “An Artful Life,” his recent exhibition at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, offering insights into his working methods and telling stories about how some of the paintings and drawings were created.

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.
« Read the rest of this entry »

‘It was pretty heady’

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

What those hands have done: artists Manuel Neri, Theophilus Brown and Nathan Oliveira

San Francisco, August 2, 2011

Interviewer: Paul Karlstrom, formerly West Coast Regional Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art

WTB: I was born in Moline, Illinois, on April 7, 1919. My father, who was an eastern boy born in Massachusetts, was forced against his will to accept a job at John Deere Plows for an invention he had made. And he met my mother there, and we had a nice, big-enough house on the top of the hill where we could watch riverboats on the Mississippi go back and forth.

My father had 160 patents to his name. And one day, when I was about six or seven years old, my father and I were waiting for my mother, who was visiting someone in a hospital. And to kill time, he pulled out a blank notebook and showed me how to draw the houses across the street. I was fascinated. So the next day or two he gave me a blank drawing book which I kept for about five years, working on it continually — not necessarily every day, but I finally filled it up when I was about 11 years old.

When I was 11, I made a drawing of my father asleep, a profile in his reclining chair he used to sit in after dinner. He liked it, and so he framed it and entered it into a juried show for adults only. The juror, the sole juror, was Grant Wood. And to my amazement, I got third prize. And so sitting in the Davenport Art Museum the night, where the awards were given, everyone was quite surprised when they saw this little kid get up and go to the podium and reach up and get his prize and shake hands with Grant Wood — a big moment in my life.
« Read the rest of this entry »

‘One of California’s most eminent artists’

April 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wayne Thiebaud and Theophilus Brown in Sacramento | April 2011

In today’s Sacramento Bee, Victoria Dalkey writes of Theophilus Brown:

Brown’s drawings of male nudes, in particular, are direct and solidly observed without flash or flair. There is nothing ingratiating about these studies, though a couple are androgynously sensual. There is also a female nude, presented in a more complex composition in which she sits in front of a window with a light-seeking plant to her right. It’s a complicated, hard-won drawing that exemplifies the seriousness of his approach.

Another element, an emotive use of color, comes into his paintings. A male figure sits in a chair facing the viewer, his stolidity compromised by the strong color of his blue shirt and the red wall behind him. Similarly alive with color, warm reds and shades of blue from teal to aquamarine, is a straight-on self-portrait, barefooted, cross-legged in a studio interior.

Other works get into the realm of the archetypal. A woman and a child on the beach remind one of Matisse’s 1909 “Nude by the Sea” and his 1907 “Le Luxe II.” Here, the bright sea and dark sky take on the force of symbols, the figures timeless evocations of the human in an idyllic landscape.

Another scene of nudes near water makes one think of the bathers of Cézanne. These homely, raw figures rise up from a rocky shore like primal beings placed in a timeless scenario.

Read more

The charmed life of Theophilus Brown

April 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Theophilus Brown with self portraits in 1969.


The charmed life of Theophilus Brown — it could have been the title to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Our protagonist is a dashing young artist with immense talent and little direction. After enduring the horrors of World War II, including the soul sucking Battle of the Bulge, he hopscotches around the world, making the acquaintance of such cultural heavyweights as Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. He has a boyfriend on the Left Bank, and friends in high social places from New York to The Hague. The editor of ArtNews is a former classmate who introduces Brown to the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem and Elaine de Kooning.

The parties are extravagant, the destinations exotic and the people famously beautiful, but there is something missing. A young Theophilus finds himself orbiting greatness without really touching it. A critical decision to head west to California and an encounter with a down to earth, no nonsense young man from Arizona changes everything. It is not love at first sight. The two young men are very different. One is gregarious and flamboyant; the other is quiet and reserved. But maybe opposites do attract. Perhaps it is fate. Theirs would be a love story spanning more than a half-century, and providing the foundation for two impressive artistic careers. Unlike the doomed characters of a Fitzgerald story, our hero escapes the pitfalls of privilege to live what can only be called a charmed life.

Read more

Bill Brown and his famous friends

February 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

A catalog of the exhibition is available.

One of the pioneers of Bay Area Figurative painting, artist Theophilus “Bill” Brown, 90, certainly qualifies as a local treasure. Still painting and drawing today, his work is celebrated in “Theophilus Brown Nudes: Five Decades of Drawing and Painting the Figure,” showing at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco through March 13.

After stays in Paris, where he met Braque, Picasso and Giacometti and studied with Leger, and New York, where he befriended the de Koonings, Brown moved to the Bay Area in 1952 to study painting at UC Berkeley. On his third day in California, he met a fellow painter, Paul Wonner, who would become his life partner. Along with Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and David Park, Brown and Wonner embraced the then-radical return of the human figure to the modern painting, what would become known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In Brown’s case, that returning to painting’s roots included extensive studies of the male nude. Brown still lives and works in San Francisco today.

During his one-man show’s run this month, Brown visited the gallery with Don Bachardy, the late Christopher Isherwood’s partner, and painter and official portraitist of Gov. Jerry Brown. Bill Brown is an old friend of Bachardy and Isherwood, and Bachardy came up from LA to see the show. Brown reminisced about old times with them, including a memorable dinner at their house. Before dinner, Isherwood had excused himself and left, and after a little while he returned — with Marlene Dietrich in tow. Of course they also talked about Tom Ford’s new film, A Single Man, from Isherwood’s novel. Both gave thumbs up.

Living history was flowering on Pine Street that day.


For his 90th, a Scotch tasting

February 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Photograph of William Theophilus Brown at 90 by Anthony Torres

Theophilus “Bill” Brown has not been a reclusive artist. He knew Picasso in Paris, was friends with John Cage and the de Koonings in New York and, after moving to Berkeley in 1952 to study painting at UC Berkeley, joined a group of emerging artists — including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, James Weeks and Nathan Oliveira — who would be known as the Bay Area Figurative movement.

Brown, 90, is far from retired. He paints three to four hours a day and participates in weekly drawing sessions. Until March 13, he is the subject of a one-man show, “Theophilus Brown Nudes — Five Decades of Drawing and Painting the Figure,” at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

Brown will be feted at a single-malt Scotch tasting on Saturday evening, February 20, at the gallery. The choice of Scotch “is a testament to his strong spirit,” said Thomas Reynolds. “He’s a Scotch drinker, so why fool around with cheap white wine? Plus, Bill attributes his long life to two things: good art and good Scotch.”


Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Brown, Wm. Theophilus category at Art Matters.