We at MOCRA were saddened to receive word that painter Frederick J. Brown passed away on May 5, 2012. The MOCRA staff extend our condolences to Fred’s wife Megan and his children Sebastienne and Bentley.
Born in 1945, Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In fact, the connection between music and painting was a constant in Brown’s life and art. He called music “the catalyst for much of what I do” and frequently worked on a portrait while listening to the subject’s music. In a 2005 interview (cited in this remembrance by Judd Tully), Brown spoke about the vibrant New York cultural scene in the 1970s:
. . . you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. . . . Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.
Brown’s paintings show the influence of the German Expressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, especially that of his mentor and friend, Willem de Kooning. He exhibited widely throughout the United States and abroad, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the White House. Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has extensive holdings of Brown’s work, including the ambitious The History of Art (1994–2000). The 110 interlocking paintings, surveying centuries of artistic styles filtered through Brown’s own unique vision, are permanently installed in the museum’s Café Sebastienne (named after Brown’s daughter). In 1988, Brown had the largest retrospective given a Western artist by the People’s Republic of China, and he was the first Western artist ever to have an exhibition at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (now part of the National Museum of China) in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.
I first encountered Brown’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the summer of 1985. There in the Met’s contemporary galleries was Brown’s large figurative expressionistic painting of the Ascension of Christ. Compositionally influenced by Raphael’s well-known Transfiguration of Christ, this 9-foot-tall painting commanded the entire gallery in the Metropolitan with its bold colors and confident brushwork.
Its vitality energized one of Christianity’s most frequently depicted subjects, with the top frame barely able to contain the rising Christ figure who bears the physical signs of his crucifixion. And I couldn’t ignore the bewildered man at the bottom of the canvas who stared out at me trying to understand what he is witnessing. With his eye contact he drew me as a viewer into this powerful event.
Since I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation research at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on the topic of the renewed interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary American art, I knew that I had to meet this artist. Nearly a year passed before I was able to get together with Fred in his New York studio in SoHo. Surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion with recordings of the jazz music he so loved playing in the background at full volume, Fred was totally at home in this element. He was surrounded by his depictions of great jazz musicians and visual artists, a large painting of John Henry and a compelling portrait of Sitting Bull, a small but powerful painting of a young Maori warrior, images of the overlooked members of our society, and portrayals of Jesus, David and Goliath, and Moses. (Several of Fred’s paintings can be viewed on his website.) All of them harnessed the energy that he found in bringing together the visual and aural arts, as well as the sacred and profane. Perhaps I should retract the word “profane” because all of his subjects were sacred to him, and every painting revealed the respect that Brown had for his subjects.
Fred and his work became an important part of my dissertation, and in 1989 I also had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his works in the gallery areas of the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union. Upon completing my Ph.D. work in 1990, I began teaching art history at Saint Louis University. The opportunity arose to realize my desire to create the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art—what was to become MOCRA—and I knew that I wanted Fred to be a part of that museum. Owing to our lean budget, I had in mind simply borrowing works, but Fred offered to paint a multi-paneled work that would become a permanent part of MOCRA’s collection.
Through the generosity of his patrons Crosby Kemper III and UMB Bank, Fred realized that promise in 1995 in the form of The Life of Christ Altarpiece, a work that synthesizes theological, painterly, and cultural concerns. The central triptych, depicting the Baptism of Christ, the Descent from the Cross, and the Resurrection, is flanked by two pendant canvases depicting the Madonna and Child and the Descent into Hell. This major work has been shown frequently at MOCRA ever since, both as an ensemble and as individual panels. We are honored to have this important work in the MOCRA collection. We are pleased to present it from now through August 26, 2012, in memory of a gifted artist and a thoughtful and compassionate human being.
— Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., Director