Artists Retrospective Reviews

The American Futurist Nightmare: How Roger Brown Scared and Confounded Critics in the ’70s

Roger Brown, Landscape with Dollar Sign, 1991, oil on canvas. COURTESY DC MOORE GALLERY, NEW YORK

Roger Brown, Landscape with Dollar Sign, 1991, oil on canvas.


Roger Brown has long been considered an important figure in the Chicago art scene, but it wasn’t until the past few years—nearly two decades after his death, at age 56, of AIDS–related causes—that his work became well-known in New York. Like his Chicago Imagist colleagues, Brown has gotten a reappraisal as an underrated artist whose work was more politically poignant than had once been realized on the East Coast. This summer, two shows—one at DC Moore Gallery, the other at Maccarone—highlight the Chicagoan’s dark side. At DC Moore, “Political Paintings” explores Brown’s disturbing figural paintings that tackle class inequalities. Meanwhile, at Maccarone, a show of “Virtual Still Life” paintings, made in California during the mid-’90s, react to the idea that the virtual could be just as true as reality. In honor of these two shows, here is a collection of ARTnews reviews that track Brown’s rise to fame in Chicago, and perhaps even point to an edge that always existed within Brown’s work. The reviews, all of which were published during the mid- to late ’70s, are published in full unless otherwise noted.—Alex Greenberger

Roger Brown, Illusion, 1985, oil on canvas. COURTESY DC MOORE GALLERY, NEW YORK

Roger Brown, Illusion, 1985, oil on canvas.


“Chicago’s: Women’s Art: Beyond chauvinism” (excerpt)
By Frank Schulze
March 1975

Another of the Imagists, Roger Brown, is by nature a more introverted, expressive temperament. He invents fantastic landscapes and fills them with mysterious people and inscrutable architecture. The colors are flat and dry, the forms almost compulsive in definition, the overall effect frequently transfixing. He showed new paintings at the Phyllis Kind Gallery at the same time [Ed] Paschke’s work hung downstairs. If the latter is not the best example to cite of the gracefulness gradually coming over the Imagists, Brown may be. With him, the change is evident in a steady distillation of ideas and in an increasing enrichment of formal means, drawing and color alike.

“Roger Brown”
By Peter Frank
October 1975

Roger Brown (Phyllis Kind at 139 Spring Inc.): Brown’s paintings and painted constructions evoke a wealth of situations and states of mind. Essentially a landscapist, Brown delights in creating and recreating places that seem both familiar and absurd, beautiful and terrifying, comically mundane and movingly ethereal.

Brown’s style relates to that of the Chicago “imagist” artists—notably the painters in the old Hairy Who group—in its comic book rendering and gaudily high-toned color. But artists like Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg and Barbara Rossi concentrate on the figure, which they draw as bulbous, sinewy organisms. Brown stylizes his landscapes in geometric, even symmetric, formats.

The symmetric patterning is the significant factor in the success of Brown’s pictorial thinking. But it does not obscure his subjective response to the landscapes he burlesques so rigorously. Brown’s are quintessentially American landscapes: office buildings, Levittown tract houses, gas tanks, highway artifacts and fields full of faceless cows, all painted as staggered, interlocking shapes or in regular vertical or horizontal rows. The surreality of such neatly organized vistas, where every hill, house and horse is interchangeable with every other, is enhanced by the garish coloration. This gaudiness is itself magnified by the eerie halos with which Brown encircles almost everything, settling rivulets of intense light into and around trees, canyons and roads while the sky glowers in deep shades of blue or brown.

Throughout these scenes little figures, almost always in silhouette, act out droll vignettes on hillsides and in windows. These lilliputians seem neither totally comfortable in, nor totally alienated from, their formalized, strangely lit surroundings. The figures play the same role as do the people one meets in one’s dreams, those wraiths who go about their routines and just smile or nod uncomprehendingly at the dreamer’s foreboding protestations. In fact, they are these people, living passively in the midst of an overwhelming ominousness even more dramatic than that in Magritte’s paintings.

Brown’s recent constructions, in which real furniture—a chair, a child’s slide, an Art Deco bedstead—is incorporated in extremely clever ways, suggest this portentous dream quality in a less nightmarish manner, turning these threatening landscapes into dollhouse panoramas. For this reason, the constructions are both especially endearing and especially unnerving: they are like scenes from dreams come to life, at once insisting that they are only dreams and hinting that dreams can become a reality.

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #17: Cups with Handles and Desert Landscape, 1995, oil on canvas and mixed media. WILLIAM H. BENGSTON/COURTESY SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO AND THE ESTATE OF ROGER BROWN

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #17: Cups with Handles and Desert Landscape, 1995, oil on canvas and mixed media.


“Chicago: Fair Game” (excerpt)
By Alan G. Artner
Summer 1977

Roger Brown was represented in the Art Institute exhibition [“76th Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity”], and had a one-man shown at the Phyllis Kind Gallery as well. The artist proved a winner in both. Not only did receive a top prize from the Institute of a canny takeoff on James Ensor’s The Entry of Christ into Brussels, but the 14 other paintings in his solo show indicated a new level of refinement.

Together, these works constituted what might be called Brown’s “apocalyptic” series. Everywhere, land and cityscapes were given over to fire and ice, storms or religious phenomena. His lighting effects, always spooky, positively blazed, and silhouetted figures took on an added poignancy under the threat of doom.

Brown is called an Imagist, yet it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on his subject matter. A delight in ever more complex pattern-making also played a part. At their most decorative—and there were a couple which were little more—these paintings might have been cut from fanciful wallpaper. But at their best, they fulfilled Brown’s admirers’ most exaggerated claims.

“Roger Brown”
By Gerrit Henry
December 1977

Roger Brown (Phyllis Kind): Brown showed paintings and floor pieces, the majority of which seemed to be based on the Deco decor for the “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935. Sinking City, for instance, was a large canvas showing ’30s-style figures silhouetted in the yellow windows of big rectangular buildings that were, apparently, sinking into the streets, with other figures outside scurrying for safety. Two floor pieces further exploited the combination comic book-Golden Age of Hollywood “look”: one, Twin Towers, with two man-sized buildings checkerboarded with yellow windows and tiny silhouettes, the other a pyramidal construction in gray with a frieze of black-silhouetted figures running diagonally up its height.

Brown’s other works included Thunderhead, a severely geometricized rendering of blue-gray storm clouds rolling in over a serially-repeated farmland motif consisting of trucks, crops and wire fences. Whether set in the city or the country, Brown’s paintings and constructions are, for all their sophisticated funkiness, more than a little disquieting. In them, the American futurist dream of the ’30s and ’40s has become the surrealist nightmare of the ’70s.

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