FictionFinder: A conversation with Frederick Brown's family
Frederick J. Brown (February 1945 – May 2012), was a NYC based visual artist, noted for his extensive portrait series of jazz and blues musicians.
Megan Brown: I remember ‘In Search of Jimi’s Space’ was hanging on one of the main walls. This powerful Abstract Expressionist painting was a tribute to the musician Jimi Hendrix. Later I remember the Jazz musicians coming by and saying “I can hear that” when they looked at the painting. I remember thinking, musicians translate everything into sound, even paintings.
His work has been a part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, as well as the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. His paintings are now in museums, private collections and the Frederick J. Brown Trust.
He split his time in New York and Arizona, which I would say, is the most inspiring journey for any artist. While I plan to explore the deserts of Arizona sometime this year to further my research, the Brown family have generously invited me to live at their home, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.
It’s an honor to interview Frederick Brown’s wife, Megan and their children, Bentley and Sebastienne. The family is currently living in a casita in Sky Ranch, a small community in the town of Carefree with small airplane enthusiasts centered around a partial gravel runway. They are in the process of moving to a house nearby, made of concrete block, on the mountain in Cave Creek which will provide a beautiful backdrop for the artwork.
This post does not cover all the images shared by the Brown family, if there’s any other information or pictures of the artwork you’d like to see, please reach out firstname.lastname@example.org
New home in Carefree, Arizona
[FICTIONMAPPER] Thank you very much, the Brown family, for this interview, I would like to start with you by telling us more about yourself and your beautiful home.
[BB] My name is Bentley Brown, I’m an art historian, curator, and artist. I live full-time in the Bronx, NY. I’m currently doing my Ph.D. at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts where I study the role of Black artists in SoHo, New York’s creative movement of the 1970s and am interested in the intercultural, multidisciplinary spaces these artists, including my dad Frederick J. Brown were active in. I am also working on a film about this topic with my childhood friend, photographer, and filmmaker Sean Gilchrist.
Prior to my work at NYU, I lived in London and was a graduate researcher at University College London where I explored about contemporary photography in apartheid states in Africa, in particular, South Africa and Mozambique.
As an artist, I primarily work with acrylic on canvas, but I experiment a lot of different paint types and other mediums -- including collage. Conceptually, I’m interested in cosmology, ontology, storytelling, African-American history and the culture of diaspora, Southwestern Native American culture, as well as the relationship between color and nature.
Phoenix…. where do I start… When I tell my friends in New York that the bars in Cave Creek are called saloons, where they line dance, wear cowboy hats and boots, and also have bull riding every Friday at the Buffalo Chip, they flip out -- it’s like unfathomable to them, but to me, it’s home.
But beyond my town, I love Phoenix because it has a spiritual element that I can’t really explain but it comes from the landscape and permeates the culture of the people. The desert is really the most peaceful landscape and there’s an element of that comes from how you can really see how it is shaped over time, and there’s something mystic about that. As a city, Phoenix has so many different scenes, from Downtown which has an urban city feel to Scottsdale that’s like Western chic to Tempe which is a city college town. Together, with the other towns that makeup Phoenix, we have a real diversity of scenes. We are also known for our fun pool parties.
[MB] Interestingly Frederick and I both came from the Chicago area; I came from Lake Forest, a suburb on the north side and Frederick from the Southside.
Frederick and I met in 1975 in Soho when the art community in Soho was just beginning. My background and training was in dance and art. We met at Steve Rosenberg’s loft where I was rehearsing. Frederick was a friend of Steve’s and Steve invited him to come by. After the rehearsal I walked over to Frederick’s studio to see his artwork. I was blown away by the space and the work.
Since Soho was a melting pot for artists, it was natural for artists to work together even if they came from different disciplines. Jean-Claude Samuel, an artist, Architect and designer, designed the loft at 120 Wooster Street in Soho to showcase the artwork. That protocol carried through in all our homes including AZ.
[SB] Thank you for reaching out to interview. We are so glad to be included. I grew up in Carefree, Arizona which is just North of Scottsdale it is centered around a giant bolder pile that can be seen from most angles of the city and Black Mountain as a backdrop to the town. We moved here from SoHo, NY when I was three because I was struggling with asthma in New York.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Sebastienne, could you share some moments while growing up that influenced you to pursue architecture?
[SB] My father is the one who encouraged me to go to architecture school. I think it was partially because that is what he did in high school and partially because he could see I enjoyed making things. My grandfather encouraged me as well. We used to go out in the desert and we would build treehouses, he had a wood shop in the back of the house he had built, and we would make everything there and take it to each treehouse site and draw out the plans in the gravel. Many of the materials we used were desert plants. Saguaro skeletons and Ocotillos that had fallen over and dried out; we would use those for roofing and window shades. When I wasn’t outdoors with my grandfather, I was in my father’s studio painting and making sculptures out of cardboard. I think this combination is what made interested in making, building and designing which led to a path in architecture. Additionally, the loft that my parents had in SoHo, the house that my grandparents lived in when I was young, designed by Bob Bacon who is a prominent designer in the Carefree area, and the homes we lived in in Arizona were all very architecturally conscious. They all were journeys in light and space and I think that had a large impact on my appreciation for thoughtful architecture.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What was his best advice to you?
[BB] So it’s hard to pick just one thing. First, he taught me that it’s about giving your best at everything you do and letting that take you. Second, was to focus on the details. That certainly has carried into my work as an art historian, curator, and artist. The details are easy to miss, but they are the most important. It’s that little stroke that makes a painting, it’s turning over every rock in a historical record to make sure you have the truth, the facts, and to make sure everyone gets their due, and it's also how you engage audiences, how do you reach them, it’s considering every inch of a space when hanging works of art, and it’s attempting to be prepared for anything that could go wrong and searching for all possible solutions. Those are the details and they make all the difference! Lastly, he taught me to shoot for the stars, for the highest possible level in whatever you do. But I’d say more than anything my dad taught me how to dream, how to achieve your dreams, and how to live them out. Sometimes that meant pushing yourself past what you thought was your limit, other times that meant just staring at the stars in the backyard next to the grill just being in that moment, and often it meant watching him paint from midnight till 4 am.
[MB] I think Frederick’s best advice was his example; his dedication to what he was doing and his belief in his ideas and vision. Part of that vision was spiritual because he understood the power of art and how it could help and inspire people.
[SB] His best advice to me was to aim for things that inspire you rather than things that just make you happy because inspiration has lasting fulfillment where than happiness has an endpoint.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Could you tell us something about his favorite painting and the inspiration/story behind it?
[MB] Several paintings were Frederick’s favorite paintings and they often represented a breakthrough in his thinking or a powerful emotion.
Joshie’s Dream was another...very emotional for Frederick as it was done after his cousin Joshie passed away. It was done in a Figurative style expressing a feeling of Heaven in the form of a beautiful landscape with a perspective from above.
Another interesting piece that he liked was “Bleecker Street,” which truly expression the “spirit of the time,” and was very creative. It shows literally how he could open his imagination.
Painting: Bleecker street
He was particularly fond of his series of Jazz and Blues portraits which represent his appreciation of their music and their stature.
One of the first paintings of his to be placed in a major museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC was his religious painting ‘The Ascension of Christ’. It was being shown at Marlborough Gallery when Mr. Lieberman from the Met walked into Marlborough. He had been instructed to look at another artist’s work; however, he stopped in his tracks when he saw the large figurative painting with a bright blue background and Christ ascending. He bought it for the Met on the spot.
[SB] I feel my father’s favorite painting is Alberta West. It is a portrait of his grandmother. This portrait was always hung in the house. My father’s relationship with his grandmother was very central to his life. I strongly feel that of the entire collection of work that painting was certainly extraordinarily valuable to him.
[BB] One of his favorites was John Henry (1979). The subject is the folktale of “John Henry”. As the story goes, John Henry was a formally enslaved person who was larger than life and had superhuman strength and was working on a railroad, building the lines, in West Virginia. The company had promised all the workers land and payment following the completion of the railroad. But then the company started testing a steam-powered drill that could both fasten the bolts of the railroad and tunnel through mountains effectively putting Henry and the other workers out of a job and leaving them without their promised payment. So, Henry places a wager saying that if he can beat the machine in a race to finish the railway line then the workers would have to be paid. Henry wins the grueling race and all the workers are paid and they get their promised land, but in the process, Henry dies from exhaustion. Henry becomes a martyr for the working man, the proletariat. For my dad this story was important because it reflected the environment he came from. He grew up in Southside Chicago, an area called South Chicago right next to the steel mills and his stepfather worked in the steel mill. My dad at one point also worked in the steel mill as a safety inspector. He took great pride in the fact that he came from a working-class steel town. Also, many of the Blues musicians how he revered worked in the steel mills during the day and played the Blues in places like my grandfather (my dad’s father’s) juke joint all night long. So, the steel mills were economic lifelines to these culturally vibrant and uniquely diverse communities. And around the time my father painted John Henry the steel mills had left the Southside and with it left the economic lifeline which in turn created a solution for urban decay to take place and with it issues of disinvestment, crime, poverty, racial segregation, all perpetuated in the spirit of cheaper manufacturing and “post industrialization” and really so that a small group of people can profit. I know that I really hurt my dad to see this happen to his community, so I think he painted John Henry because those most affected, the working class and especially the Black working city need heroes, people to look up to that are of the community. I think also it was important that this piece made it into the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art because it shows that “John Henry” it’s just an African-American folktale or Black hero, it is an American story and he was an American hero. But for me growing up I loved this painting because John Henry was a hero that looked like me, that I could relate to. I remember my dad used to tell me the story all the time as a bedtime story and it made me proud and instilled pride in myself as an African-American man, and that was important growing up in Phoenix where there wasn’t a large Black population, and on TV or in movies there were a ton of readily available Black role models to look up to in mainstream culture. So, my dad’s painting became that for me. It was a place where I could readily see Black role models and learn that history in a way that school or the outside world, couldn’t and didn’t for me. So, John Henry was my hero.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What was his background as an artist?
[BB] As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, my dad grew up in the Southside of Chicago near the Steel Mills and that working-class steelworker’s grit was certainly embedded in his practice and view of how one should approach art as an almost skilled artisan craft (not to be confused which craft art). During the time my dad was working in SoHo post-studio art practices like minimalism, conceptualism, and warehouse-production-like Pop Art (think Andy Warhol’s studio The Factory which had its longest tenure at 33 Union Square) was extremely popular and was the hot thing in the art scene. These movements sought to remove the artist’s hand from the creation process and/or privilege the concept as the driving force of a work of art. For my dad, these approaches took art away from being a skilled craft because, as he wrote on the John Henry piece, he believed in “a days work for a day's pay”. In other words, he believed full-heartedly in the process of art-making as a labor of love and process, similar to a steelworker, where your craft, your hand produces an object. So that approach of art as a skilled craft was very important to him and placed him in the lineage of the first and second-generation abstract expressionists. In this regard, associating art with skilled craft my grandmother (Image: FJB and his mother in loft) and great-uncle were huge influences. My grandma, we called her Grandma Nene, worked as a baker at a Venetian pastry shop and his great-uncle had a body and paint shop for luxury cars and he specialized in Rolls Royce. My dad always used to tell me stories about the pastries my grandma Nene would make, he especially liked the eclairs and lobster tails. But he also would tell me that he always kept my Grandma Nene’s frosting in mind when he would mix paint because he said the consistency of the paint should be smooth and thick like frosting. And then when he would tell me about his great-uncle’s body shop, he would say that that’s where he had his first introduction to color and the precision that was needed to paint. This was before body shops had spray guns, so the paint had to be mixed to the proper color tone and applied by hand! So, these everyday places of work became sites of early artistic training for my dad (Image: FJB painting houses as an adolescent), this includes the home. My grandma Nene was often working to support the family, so my great-grandmother Alberta West (image: Portrait of Alberta West) played a huge role in raising my dad, and I think that the work my great-grandmother put into creating a household, cooking, cleaning, designing the home had a great impact on my father and his respect for the matriarchal household he grew up. Also, my great-grandmother’s kitchen was where my dad had his first studio. (Image: Picture of great-grandmother’s kitchen/Portrait of great-grandmother’s kitchen)
Southside Chicago was also an important influence for him because it shaped his love for music. I mean Chicago when he was growing up in the 50s, was a music epicenter especially for the blues and gospel music, but also for jazz, RnB, Soul, you name it! See Chicago was a meeting point for train lines that traveled throughout the country. During the 1st and 2nd great migrations, African-Americans came from the South escaping racial violence, looking for economic opportunity and they brought with them their culture, which of course included music. My dad was actually born in Greensboro, Georgia, that was where his family on his mom’s side was from and they would have all of the children in Georgia at the family home and go back to Chicago. My great-great or great-great-great (not sure which) grandfather was a Pullman Porter so he could bring the family back and forth easily. I think that history of migration is also important, as it is for many African-Americans and is an important subject for African-American artists (and artists throughout the diaspora for that matter) because their work becomes a historical record of the family archive and the archive of movement when too often little information exists. So that’s why storytelling was so important to my father, it was a way to keep the family and community history alive, like a griot. But to return to the point of music, my grandfather owned a shoeshine stand and juke joint and he was friends with many of the big-time blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, and Etta James to name a few because they would get their shoes shined at his stand and play at his juke joint. My father’s stepfather was also connected to the Blues musicians because they worked together at the steel mill, people like Billie Dixon and Junior Wells. These Bluesmen and women were role models in the neighborhood, they were cool, but to a lot of people outside of the South and Chicago, with a few exceptions, they were unknown except in Europe and Japan. In 1969, I think, my dad was in Copenhagen, sort of bouncing around Europe and he went to a concert of two musicians Earl Hooker and Magic Sam and he went backstage with them, I think my grandfather had some connection with them. But essentially, they told him that once they die no one would remember them. So, my dad held on to that, and wanted to place these individuals in the historical record as important figures of American culture and history, not just blues or jazz musicians (Image: FJB and Bobby Blue Bland). So that’s what spawned the jazz and blues series. My dad also grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he always used to say they had an incredible choir. Funny enough that is also where he got his first art gig making the pamphlets for the service. Chicago also had an incredible crop of musical talent coming from the high schools, in particular, Dusable High School had a jazz band instructor named Captain Walter Dyett who produced literally generations of jazz talent. Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman, Leroy Jenkins, Jerome Cooper, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Cohn, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, the list goes on and on and on. Many of these musicians were integral in the avant-garde jazz scene that was in tandem with the visual and performance art scenes in SoHo. In fact, one of his best friends growing up was the saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton (image: Anthony Braxton) but he went to the same high school as my dad, Chicago Vocational School, but the point is Chicago was an early nexus for the jazz avant-garde, and really what was some of the most innovative of music to date. So this close proximity to the music gave him an acute ear for it and an understanding of ways in which to express it visually. The cross-pollination of disciplines was prevalent in the SoHo and my dad was a key figure in creating a physical space to allow for that to happen.
So aesthetically, or in terms of formal approach, my dad saw himself as an architect. That was what he initially wanted to be. He entered the architecture program at the University of Illinois, but certain racial barriers stopped him from being able to complete the program. So, after a year in Junior College where he was taking art history classes and working in the steel mill, he transferred to Southern Illinois University which at the time boasted an really impressive faculty and experimental art program. My dad studied under the famed architect, inventor and theorist Buckminster Fuller at a time when he was a prominent voice within the counterculture movement. His painting teacher, Larry Bernstein studied under the famed art educator and abstract artist Josef Albers who was very influential in emphasizing ideas of color and form. He also studied under a professor named Jeff Hoare who was a visiting professor from the Royal Academy in London, who added a kind of globalist perspective and apparently, he was also very experimental in his approach. There were also a lot of visiting artist guest lecturing, for example Allan Kaprow who invented “the happening”. So, it was this mixed bag of formalist training, experimental approaches, a globalist worldview, visiting artists from the budding New York scene, and theorists at the center of the counterculture movement. My dad also met two of his best friends there: Tony Ramos who was a pioneering experimental video artist and basically filmed my dad’s entire career (Image: Tony Ramos); and Martis Davis who helped my dad manage his career (Image: Martis Davis). They were his right-hand men.
So, after my dad graduated from SIU he moved back to Chicago and started working in advertising at the Chicago Tribune to support himself and that's where he really honed his skills as a salesman, because he was as much as a salesman as he was an artist. And that’s in large part why he was so successful beyond his artistic talent, because he could sell himself, and he had a way of becoming everyone's friend no matter what walk of life you were from. He was also the first African-American to hold that position. So after a year at the Chicago Tribune, this is around 1969, my dad decided that he wanted to pursue art full-time and so he went to Europe to travel and study the major works of Western art in Europe so he sold his possessions and left to meet up with his former professor Jeff Hoare in London. From London he went to Rome, Paris, Copenhagen (where he was with the blues musicians (image of FJB in Rome). In Paris he ran into his jazz friends from Chicago who by this point were active in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) people like Joseph Jarmon, Anthony Braxton, Jerome Cooper and Leroy Jenkins. They all left Chicago around the same time as my dad because there was a bigger audience for avant-garde jazz in Paris and to escape the racial prejudice. These guys had also become close with James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney during their time in Paris because the African-American ex-pat community there was tight-knit and Baldwin and Delaney had lived in Paris for a long time. Paris had been for a long time the place to be for what I like to think of as the education for the avant-garde for musicians, artists, etc. Many artists came to study in Paris on the GI Bill, people like Ed Clark (who my dad later became very close with) and many others. But I say all that to say that my dad found himself in the milieu of the lineage of Paris as a training ground for the avant-garde and I think it solidified in him the desire to be an artist, it made concrete his globalist worldview.
So after his time in Europe my dad returned to Chicago to pursue painting full-time, there he ran into his jazz musician friends again who told him that New York City and in particular SoHo was becoming the center of a cultural renaissance and one of the focal points within that movement was the loft of Ornette Coleman on 131 Prince Street called Artist House (which Ornette purchased from George Machunis co-founder of Fluxus along with others including Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono was also part of Fluxus; Machunis was seen as a father of SoHo because he created many of these artist co-operative live/work spaces out of lofts so he is credited with in a way popularizing loft living; I should also mention that the regional headquarters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was also in that building so it just goes to show you how all of these movements were in close proximity). Coleman was a huge star in the music world at that time because he basically invented a new sub-genre within jazz called free-jazz which was important because it was like taking the restraints off the musicians and allowing for complete collective improvisation. So in the loft setting collective improvisation became a really influential idea because it allowed artists of all different mediums and disciplines to work together and think about abstract as stretching the possibilities of space represented both in the loft spaces themselves which where former manufacturing space converted into artist studios/exhibition spaces and musicians rehearsal/performance spaces, and in the artistic practice itself, anything was possible, and I think that was creatives sort of channeling the ethos the collective social and political movements of the 60s into the space of art making. But also, this idea of improvisation is important; it's about mastery, mastering your craft to the point where experimentation can be successfully carried out on a whim. This was so important to my dad. So, he moved to SoHo and lived at Ornette’s loft where he met some of the biggest names in jazz Dewey Redman, Chet Baker, Alice Coltrane and more as well as other cultural figures like Tennesse Williams, Andy Warhol. So it was this combination of new ways of approaches art that bridged gaps between music performance and visual art, in addition to Ornette’s loft being a popular social hang out that my dad really benefited from because he was from the beginning thrust into the center of the scene in SoHo.
Then my dad moved to the Bowery where he became connected with more of the visual artists in the scene and particularly Black artists that were trying to break into the “mainstream” along with their white contemporaries including Daniel LaRue Johnson, his wife Virginia Jaramillo who was part of the Latinx community of artist working in Manhattan at that time, British-Guyanese artist Frank Bowling, Joe Overstreet, Gerald Jackson, Al Loving, Emilio Cruz, Peter Bradley and many others. Keith Noland also lived in the Bowery and he and my dad became close through Danny Johnson who like Noland was a hard-edge color field artist. Danny Johnson really guided my dad through his early years in SoHo introducing him to other artists, showing him the ropes, and they were like brothers. And Danny had all this knowledge because he came to SoHo early on in like 1965. Frank Bowling was another early and life-long friend of my dad’s. Frank and my dad worked together on techniques of creating platforms to experiment with drip painting and staining. Through Frank Bowling, my dad also met Swiss artist Gregoire Muller and Latvian artist Edvins Strautmanis. Frank and Gregoire were working as critics for Artnews and Frank in 1971 wrote this piece called “It’s not Enough to Say Black is Beautiful” about the direction and work of Black artists at that time, but I believe that title is really telling of their position at that time many Black artist were creating work that came out to Black liberator politics, for example the Black Art Movement founded by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, but many other Black artist like Frank and my father wanted to be free of labels and wanted to just have the freedom to create and be considered with their peer white, Black and otherwise. In short, they wanted to make it. It’s great to see that people like Frank, Al Loving, and Ed Clark are finally getting recognition thanks in part to the Soul of a Nation Exhibition curated by Zoe Whitley, but I hope one day these artist and all those who haven’t gotten the proper recognition can have that without an asterisk. We still have a long way to go but the gears are starting to turn.
During my dad’s time in the Bowery he also became close with poet, activist, journalist, co-founder of the Young Lords and The Last Poets, Felipe Luciano (Image: Felipe Luciano). Apparently the story goes that Felipe had performed a poem on Ellis Haizlip’s SOUL! And my dad called Felipe and told him that “He was good but he could be better” and told Felipe to come by the Bowery Felipe was like “Who the hell is this guy” but he came by my dad’s loft but the free-jazz trio The Revolutionary Ensemble (Image: Revolutionary Ensemble) (Leroy Jenkins, Jerome Cooper, and Sirone) were rehearsing and Felipe wrote a poem called “Fingers Movin’” and according to Felipe it was beginning of a life-long almost brotherhood with my dad and Felipe really became not just a political revolutionary but an artist by spending time with my dad and in the milieu of SoHo.
Another important aspect of SoHo that I think really shaped my dad’s artistic practice was the accessibility to older/established artists that existed. My dad was very close with Romare Bearden who taught him a lot about not only his artistic practice but also how to be successful as a Black artist. Bearden worked through this question throughout his career with The Spiral Group, the Black Artist in American Symposium during the Met’s controversial Harlem on My Mind Exhibit, and The Cinque Gallery that supported emerging Black Artists and that actually were they met, the dad showed there in 1971 he first came to New York. But also Bearden had been in the downtown scene for years, he usually associated with the Harlem renaissance and the uptown scene, but he was a part of the early Greenwich Village Ab Ex days, involved with meetings at Studio 35 and was a regular at the Cedar Bar were all of the artists hung out. So, Bearden imparted all of that knowledge on my dad and he even stayed with Bearden in St. Martins for a period (Image: Romare Bearden and FJB in St. Martin). Ed Clark was also a close mentor of my father’s and came to my father’s loft quite a bit. Willem De Kooning was another mentor of my dad’s, they met through his first gallery representative Noah Goldowsky. De Kooning and my dad talked a lot about the spiritual components of art. My dad said that De Kooning told him that art making is a religious experience, it ties into ideas of the sublime. Noah Goldowsky also introduced my dad to Richard Bellamy who was sort of the guy behind the scenes finding and supporting the avant-garde artists that eventually become faces of contemporary art. Him and my dad became quite close. But Noah Goldowsky really helped my dad in getting his career off the ground and when he passed away my dad made a painting in memory of him called Genesis (1978) and that was the first painting of his that was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum. That painting is also important because it was one of his earliest figurative expressionist paintings which was a big deal at the time because it was a serious departure from Clement Greenberg's ideas of formalism, and the whole post-studio practices. I’ll come back to that in a second. But my point is that SoHo was a sort of democratizing space that allowed for exchanges between young and old, white and Black, musicians and artists, even abstract painters and minimalist sculptors. All these groups met either in lofts or over drinks at the Cedar Bar or Broome Street Bar and talked it out. Nothing like that exists anymore.
Speaking of the social environment, I don’t think we can talk about my dad’s background as an artist without talking about his loft on 120 Wooster Street (Image: 120 Wooster St/Image: FJB Painting in 120 Wooster Street). He moved there in 1974 and it became a happening place, a creative and social center in SoHo. Socially my dad through a lot of soirees there, he always loved to entertain people (image: party at 120 Wooster street). According to one of my dad’s close friends, art dealer Steve Rosenburg, they used to call it “Club Low Flame” because the lights tended to be off because as an artist bills were difficult to pay. It reminds me of the rent parties they used to have in Harlem in the 20s. A band called Sex and Drugs used to play at my dad’s loft often (image: Sex and Drugs band). My dad managed the band which consisted of photographers Ralph Gibson and Larry Clark, sculptors Frosty Myers and Mark Di Suvero, and saxophonist and painter Claude Lawrence. My dad apparently also laid out lead vocals from time to time, I can only imagine. But what I’ve found most striking about the events my dad would host was the real diversity of people who would attend from artists to musicians to politicians to political revolutionaries to gallery owners and collectors to cultural icons like John Lenon and Yoko Ono. I mean I think it shows you not only that my dad’s loft was really popular as a social hangout, but that it broke down a lot of barriers between people during a time in the 1970s that was extremely divisive. My dad had a way of bringing people together, there’s a story that Steve always tells about my dad introducing Bill Clinton to Ornette and apparently Clinton freaked out because he’s a huge fan of Ornette’s (image: Ornette and Bill Clinton). But bringing people together with a common goal of working towards loving and respecting one another and learning from one another was something that my dad did not only in his social life but absolutely in his artistic practice.
So, I also want to touch on the fact that 120 Wooster Street was not only a social center but a creative community in many ways. The people that were really a part of the community included: on the visual arts side Tony Ramos, Danny Johnson, Virginia Jaramillo, my mom, Frank Bowling, Gregoire Muller, Edvins Strautmanis, and Al Loving; on the poetry side it was Felipe Luciano and Malcolm Mooney (Image: FJB and Malcolm Mooney) who is also an artist and musicians (he was actually the lead singer of Can in the late 1960s); on the music side it was Anthony Braxton, Claude Lawrence (Image: Claude Lawrence, and Gregoire Muller), Ornette Coleman, James Jordan (Ornette’s Cousin), Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarmon, and the Members of the Revolutionary Ensemble; and on the design/architecture side Jean-Claude Samuel who actually designed the entire 120 Wooster Street loft. There were also people that were not creatives that were a constant and influential presence in my dad’s loft. As I mentioned before Steve Rosenburg who lived across the street; Mike Brown who was a lawyer and his wife Buffy Brown who was modern dancer in college with my mom; Martis Davis who was a friend of my dad’s from college and grew up with Malcolm Mooney (image: Martis Davis); Anthony Moore who was a dad’s college roommate; and Raymond Scott who is an account and was very close friend of my dad’s; even though they weren’t artists they added a perspective that was important and welcomed. All of these individuals became part of a creative entity led by my dad that had a vision of working towards exploring that idea of the possibilities of space, improvisation, etc. and really doing something that was different, global and elevated the quality of art that was being produced. At times they collaborated on projects, most of the time they held court and talked about aesthetics, how to achieve mainstream success, and fine tuning their collective vision. But with all movements in art these relationships and conversations are extremely important as artists, explore, experiment, and master and in one way or another they make their way to the canvas.
Frederick Brown painting in 120 Wooster street
So I guess that brings me to probably what is at the root of your question, that is the styles of painting that my dad worked in. He started his career working in abstract expressionism. He looked up to a lot of the abstract expressionists and I think he was always interested in the cosmological and spiritual, and the feeling of things and I think abstraction lent itself to those ideas. Also, my dad’s love for music always made its way onto the canvas so I think abstraction was a natural precursor to his jazz and blues series because he was in a lot of ways sketching out the feeling, the spirit of the music he was listening to. The art historian Kellie Jones uses this term “maximalism” (as opposed to minimalism) to describe how abstraction was this space where depth in the canvas, sculptural techniques, shaped canvas, connections with music and storytelling were all enacted within abstraction. My dad was very much invested in this approach and I think it shows throughout his career, and at the base again was this idea of the possibilities of space. He built this visual language over time, starting with smaller intricate watercolors in the late 1960s, and then moving to larger drip/stain/sculptural painted canvases in the early 1970s (FJB in Front of Dreams of a Coal Man 1971). Then in the mid-1970s he made a huge shift. At the time Clement Greenburg called for the painting to be a reflection of itself, in other words, a painting was to be just a 2-D surface emphasizing the purity of form and color, that’s it. But I think for many practicing artists a painting was much more than that. I know it certainly was for my dad. So, around 1974, 75, my dad and Gregoire Muller worked together to develop a new approach to abstraction that they called figurative expressionism (Image: FJB and Gregoire Muller). It combined elements of abstraction, expressionism, and figuration to bring the figure into abstraction, while also allowing for narrative spaces to be created in abstraction. I think figurative expressionism was a natural step from gestural abstractionists like De Kooning who always hinted at the possibility of the figure And so my dad created a piece in 1979 called Formalism: A Message to Mr. Greenburg was a statement piece introducing this new approach to abstraction and it's incredibly imaginative, it has incredible depth, and it doesn’t sacrifice the potency of color. Throughout my dad’s career mastering color was at the center of his practice, I mean there is no better word that sublime to describe his use of color. But so figurative expressionism was like the precursor to neo-expressionism and my dad and Gregoire were really at the forefront of this movement, which hasn’t really gotten its due yet in art history.
Then my dad made a major shift once again for figurative/neo-expressionism to portraiture in the early 1980s/late 1970s. Anthony Braxton really pushed him in that direction and my dad saw him as like a creative equal not to mention one of his best friends. So, for my dad the challenge was to master portraiture like Rembrandt had. And I think that he had always had to find a way to honor the people that had impacted his life and those that he felt should be in the canon of American history, and portraiture was a way for him to do that. One of his first major portraits was called a Portrait of a Bluesman (Image: Portrait of a Bluesman), it's an incredibly somber piece, it really captures the feeling of the blues. What makes it so powerful is how he combines the use of color that comes from abstraction, the highlighting of emotive expression from expressionism, and this approach to perspective that he carried with him from his architecture days. All of this came together to create these snapshots of the spirit of the subject that is really piercing and lingers with the viewer. But I think at the core of the project of portraiture for my dad was placing the individuals he painted in the historical record. I think his painting The Last Supper (1983) (Image: The Last Supper) is a poignant example of that. He traveled throughout Europe to study every European rendition of “The Last Supper” and made the painting the scale of DiVinci’s. In the portrait are individuals that were influential to him and most of whom he had a brotherhood with, they were men he respected. Most of the figures are Black as well which is, I think jarring when you are used to Eurocentric depictions of “The Last Supper”. At the center, Jesus is represented by Gylan Kain a powerful who was a co-founder of the Last Poets with Felipe Luciano (Image: Gylan Kain Posing for The Last Supper). Kain and my dad were close because they were both on the same wavelength of aesthetics. Then Felipe is placed behind Kain. Behind Felipe is James Jordan, Richard Bellamy, Reverend Sloane Coffin, my grandfather on my mom’s side, and photographer Leroy Woodson. On the opposite side of Kain my dad placed Mike Brown, collector Dr. Leon Banks, lawyer for the White House David Henderson who suggested that my dad should do a version of “The Last Supper”, Anthony Braxton, and Jean-Claude Samuel. One detail that I always thought was interesting is that Judas’s back is on the table, but he doesn’t represent anyone in particular. But together the painting was like a portrait of SoHo. The painting also challenges you too because my dad also plays a Jesus-role along with Kain because he is the one bringing these individuals around the table, a table which also symbolizes art history, discourse, however you want to think of it. He’s placing these individuals and himself at the table of discussion, of the avant-garde. After the Last Supper my dad dove deeply into the jazz and blues series. He drove through the Delta with Tony Ramos collecting oral histories about the blues and then brought those blues men and women, some lesser known to life. It is a remarkable series not just because he completed over 200 paintings as part of it but also because it completely shifts our understanding of American culture and music, blues, jazz, and African-American culture (which is inherently intercultural) becomes the starting point, and that is powerful.
At this point in his career my dad was also doing quite well as a part of Marlborough Gallery, which at the time was one the major galleries in NYC and still is. In the mid-1980s my dad also began teaching in Beijing. He was invited to teach at the Central Academy of Arts by Taiwanese Photo-realist artist CJ Yao who he met in SoHo in the 1970s, which goes back to what I was saying about SoHo being a very international place, a place of multi if you will. Then in 1988 my dad was invited to exhibit his work at the Museum of the People’s Revolution (now the National Museum of China) in Tiananmen Square making him the first Western artist to exhibit works of art in that space, the second American artist to exhibit works of art in China after Robert Rosenburg, and the first artist of African descent to do so (Image: FJB in Beijing). It is kind of unimaginable, 100 works of art by an African-American artist in 1988. Unbelievable. And people were really affected recently. I've spoken with a few Chinese artists who were there and for them this idea of memory, memory embedded in the work, was something that they really gravitated towards and applied to their own work. It was an amazing moment of cultural exchange and it spawned a whole expressionist movement in Beijing in the early 90s as China was in the midst of a lot of social and economic change. The entire exhibition was all filmed by Tony Ramos and he made it into a film called Mao [Zedong] Meets Muddy [Waters]. And in the film, he positions it like a happening, which it really was! A historical happening! So, this way of thinking big, thinking globally was my dad’s bread and butter, it is what he lived for! He was always working on a seemingly larger than life project and always found a way to make it happen. Certainly, another one of those moments was the creation of my dad’s Assumption of Mary (1992) (Image: Assumption of Mary) that is in the collection of Xavier University in New Orleans. At the time it was the largest religious painting on a single canvas, 3 stories tall! The composition comes from Titian’s 1515-1518 rendition, but what my dad did was place a chorus of figures that were related to the history of New Orleans. It is a truly awe-inspiring piece to be in front of.
I think the last moment that I’d like to share in thinking about my dad’s background and career as an artist was his History of Art (Image: History of Art) installation at the Kemper Museum’s Cafe Sebastienne which is named after my sister. It’s 110 interlocking paintings that explore the history of art as my dad saw it. From cave painting to cubism to works of arts by the Kinshasa Bwami Society to impressionism to Navajo Sand Painting to Abstract Expressionism to Bill Traylor and on and on. He also included musicians like Billy Holiday and Muddy Waters within the “History of Art” which I think is an important statement in and of itself. But one of the most striking paintings in the installation is a portrait of Juan de Pareja which is done in this likeness of Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Juan de Pareja (1606). However, my dad chose to title the painting In the Style of Juan de Pareja (Image: In the Style of Juan de Pareja). This is an incredible statement and speaks to the mission of the installation to rethink the history of art. For those that don’t know Juan de Pareja was an Afro-Spanish enslaved person who came under the ownership of Velázquez who eventually freed him. He worked as Velázquez’s assistant and was an incredible painter in his own right. But his story is often lost to history greatly overshadowed by Velázquez, but I think my dad’s painting challenges us to rethink that relationship and the status of Pareja in art history as an enslaved assistant, when he was a master painter himself. For me this series is a culmination of my dad’s 40 plus year career, it is him seeing his journey, the lineage of creatives that he comes out of, and doing the work to place himself within a global, intercultural, history of art.
Sorry for the very long answer to your question but it really is this entire journey that made him the artist that he was, an artist without limits. I hope that one day soon my dad is recognized for the incredible career he had. He was a pioneer that was ahead of his time for sure. I think now we are seeing an embrace of many of the abstractionists that he worked alongside and adored who were ignored for so many years because of quite frankly the color of their skin. That brings so much joy to me and I know it would to him as well. At the same time, we are also seeing an embrace of portraiture by Black artists like Kerry James Marshall, Jordan Casteel, Amy Sherald, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Noah Davis. It is amazing to think my dad saw this movement towards portraiture very early on, and I hope that he can be seen as the master painter and visionary that he was.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What was it like, to split time between NYC and Arizona? What was so special to him about both these places?
[BB] So by the time I was born my family was pretty much permanently in Phoenix and my dad only went back to New York for openings and to check-in from time to time. I would go with him sometimes and we always stayed at the Wales Hotel on the Upper Eastside. The city was like a movie to me! Remember, I’m coming from what was then a rural cowboy town in Phoenix, so I was enchanted, and I knew I wanted to live there someday. I remember going to incredible gallery and museum openings and going to hear jazz, and seeing my dad be honored it was magical! But my sister could speak more to living in New York, because I never lived in New York as a child. But for my dad I think he craved the culture of the city; he was a city person through and through and he fed off it. I think it hurt him a lot when he left New York. My dad’s was one of the last hold-outs in SoHo at a time when SoHo was ground-zero for gentrification. The city and developers were actively working together to kick artists and musicians out of the lofts and raise rents. And they did one by one. So, my dad had been under intense pressure by the landlord to move out. At the same time my sister had severe asthma, and nothing was more important to my dad than family, so he did everything in his power to make sure my sister grew up be healthy and happy, which meant that he had to move my mom and my sister to Phoenix where the climate was dry and my grandparents on my mom’s side were there so that was another motivating factor. So eventually, he couldn’t continue to go back and forth so he had to give up the loft on 120 Wooster Street which I know broke his heart but worked unbelievably hard to create the best life possible for our family in Phoenix. It certainly was an adjustment for him. I remember him always complaining about various aspects of desert/non-city life. But in terms of his work I think the move to Phoenix was important for him, it gave him a new perspective just because of the aesthetics of the desert landscape and the energy here that is deeply rooted in the culture of the indigenous people. That spirit never leaves a place you know.
Towards the end of my dad’s career he shifted once again to a new stylistic approach that he called natural abstraction where he used natural elements like, leaves, wood, charcoal, rocks, etc. and created collage/assemblage pieces that reflected (but not explicitly) the desert landscape. It took me a long time to understand what he was doing, but I realized that it was a similar move to someone like Georgia O’Keefe. He was bringing color, abstraction, form back to the roots of where these ideas come from, the natural environment. I think the desert helped him to realize as it did for O’Keefe and many others, that the natural world is the greatest color palette.
He was in his heart of hearts a New Yorker from Chicago, who grew to love the desert.
[MB] It was difficult for Frederick to go back and forth between NYC and Arizona, but Arizona brought out a new style of painting for him called Natural Abstraction in which he used elements from the desert in his paintings. In a collage like fashion he would fasten things he gathered from the desert landscape. I always felt it brought out the Native American background that he also had in his history. Some of his last pieces of artwork were done in this style which is very poetic...it goes back to the Earth.
[SB] They are two different worlds. My dad grew up in the South Side of Chicago and didn’t have much experience with the desert prior to our family spending time there. He painted a mural in the bedroom in the loft about what he thought the desert would look like. I think for him the wildlife and plant life of the desert was the most fascinating. I believe this had a large influence on me. He turned the landscape into a storytelling playground. He would tell me Black mountain was a Native American chief asleep on his back; and that the saguaros were the sprits of the Native Americans who had passed away. On his runs he used to “pet” the plants. He had a relationship with the desert that was very Native American. One day there was a large brush fire and it stopped just short of my grandparent’s house. It burned for acres. The desert looked like a moonscape and my father and I mourned all the plants that we used to pet each day as we ran or walked by. On the other hand, he was extremely social and loved the energy of New York and meeting and spending time with people so all those synergies of New York he loved and thrived in. He also preferred being by a body of water where the air was not so dry. In New York, we could barely make it down a street without my father running into friends of his. Each visit to a store or museum, or collector’s apartment was like visiting another person’s world with care and kindness, there were no quick visits.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Are all the paintings in Arizona currently? Any plans for opening a gallery there or something?
[BB] Currently, most of the work is housed in Arizona. We would like to create a space in the near future where the collection can be exhibited and open to the public in a way that captures my dad’s architectural vision of art making! I would also like to see this facility host educational programs for our K-8 schools, high schools and universities here in the Valley and throughout Arizona. I think it’s important for children, teens, and young adults to be exposed to my father’s work in a way that helps enrich their curriculums by exposing them to artmaking and art education from an early age. I also hope that we could be a resource in helping high school and university students explore careers in the arts. Lastly, one of my visions for this facility is the development of an artist/creative-in-residence program. I think the combination of a desert setting, spatial inspiring residence and studio space, and accessibility to my father’s artwork would be very inspiring for a new generation of artists. Together, I hope the facility could be a globally minded space of dialogue and creative explorative, as 120 Wooster Street once was!
Painting: In Search of Jimi's Space