From the Archives: An Interview with Roger Brown

Installation view of "3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980" at Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. Photo Arthur Evans.


This fall, several institutions are turning their attention to the distinctive art that emerged from the Chicago scene in the 1960s and ’70s. “Hairy Who? 1966–1969” at the Art Institute of Chicago looks at the work of Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum, who banded together as recent graduates to show playful, transgressive, boldly graphic work. At the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, “3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980” focuses on three-dimensional objects—sculptures, assemblages, and articles of clothing—produced by the Hairy Who and other members of their milieu. There’s also an exhibition of drawings by Rocca at Matthew Marks in New York, on view through October 27.

 Russell Bowman interviewed Roger Brown in our January/February 1978 issue. Brown is often grouped with the Imagists—a number of his works are included in the show at the Tang—though he adamantly resists the label in his conversation in his Bowman, insisting on the differences and specificities of the work of individual artists. Yet he also believes in the power of a local sensibility, saying that while New York art extends European traditions, Chicago is an utterly American city, where a vital and hearty visual environment offers fertile soil for a truly American art. The interview is presented in full below. —Eds


Following something of a tradition in Chicago, Roger Brown began his career as a member of an exhibition group. Called the False Image, the group was composed of Brown, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, and Eleanor Dube. It was one of the first of several Chicago groups to follow the Hairy Who with shows at the Southside’s storefront Hyde Park Art Center. The Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and James Falconer) exhibited their irreverently punning, raucous fantasy paintings done in a style reminiscent of ’30s comics, naïve, and primitive art in three shows from 1966 to 1968. In 1968 and 1969 the False Image showed work which shared the Who’s interest in commonplace sources, naive stylization, and personal fantasy but was less strident, more poetic and evocative. Though the False Image was short-lived as a group, the efforts of its members along with those of the Hairy Who and others, resulted during the late ’60s and early ’70s in a distinctive and significant “Chicago style.”

Brown’s first exhibited paintings, the small theater interiors of 1968, introduced many elements still evident in his work today: subjects drawn from the everyday environment, simplified and stylized form, silhouetted figures, indirect lighting, and a disturbing, even threatening narrative content. These works were followed in 1969 by exterior views, usually of streets, that contained ambiguous perspectives and ominous shadows, as if de Chirico were painting Hopper’s subjects. The early ’70s saw Brown expand his street scenes into land- and cityscapes. Like late medieval paintings, these landscapes employed “ground plan” space that retained a strong two-dimensional reference, color that eliminated atmosphere, and a sharp narrative focus. Often the narrative was tinged with a combination of danger, eroticism, and humor.

In 1972 Brown produced his “Disaster Series” paintings that transformed horrific events described in newspaper headlines into clearly readable, almost iconic, visual form. The “Disasters” often included representations of buildings set against flat backgrounds; these led Brown to make constructions of buildings painted in much the same manner. These objects, in turn, led to more involved painted constructions concerned with the transformation of common objects.

Brown’s painting gradually developed away from the simplified formats of the “Disasters” toward a sharply increased spatial complexity. About 1973 the tension between two and three dimensions was heightened by patterning, at first composed of repeated, overlapping forms. For example, simple rounded shapes were frequently used for hills; their overlapping clearly suggested recession and yet the patterning returned the viewer to the painting surface. The space of these paintings was paradoxically highly readable and unsettlingly illogical, resulting in a strange hallucinatory effect. Irrational lighting—backlighting objects and placing their shadows in contradictory directions—reinforced this effect. Despite increasing compositional and spatial involvement, his narratives maintained their clarity, partly through his figures’ histrionic gestures. These gestures also worked as a compositional device to direct attention from one part of the canvas to another.

By 1975 Brown seemed to adopt a more playful attitude toward his manipulations of painting conventions. His patterning evolved to include the grid, that symbol of ’60s art. He often played flat, gridlike landscape arrangements against tonal gradations that suggested atmospheric perspective. Even with the elimination of overtly sinister narrative elements, the addition of atmosphere and soft light, and the evidence of a sense of play, these works remain disquieting. During the past two years, Brown has painted vertiginous aerial views unparalleled in his earlier work for their formal intricacy and sense of impending danger.

The following interview is an edited version of two conversations, taped November 19 and 23, 1976.

RUSSELL BOWMAN  Most of the so-called Chicago Imagists have cited their interest in naive art. How and when did you become interested in naive work?

ROGER BROWN  Well, it was before the first False Image show in the fall of 1968 that we first saw Joseph E. Yoakum’s work. I think it was in the summer of 1968 that Yoakum had a show at the Sherbeyn Gallery on North Clark Street. That was really my introduction to naive art. I had always been interested in Rousseau, but this was personally experiencing a naive artist and realizing that this is a guy who’s alive and living in the city and not someone who’s already accepted historically. It was really wonderfully strong work like Rousseau’s. But I know how much it affected my work. I was already doing the theater pieces.

BOWMAN  You’ve also mentioned Chinese and medieval painting in relation to your work. Were you looking at those things at about the same time you were looking at Yoakum?

BROWN  Yes. I had been looking at Japanese prints a lot and at some Chinese things and medieval painting, and I got interested in the kinds of space in whose works.

BOWMAN  What about the influence of the comics and advertising? Do these interests relate to Pop art?

BROWN I think it’s a different sensitivity in Chicago than in New York. Here one sees those images as art in themselves, not as something to be blown up to make art, but as something to parallel in your own work. Those things are already art: so if you can make art as good, you’re really lucky. That’s why the toys and labels and things like that were of interest to the artists working here in a very different way than in New York.

BOWMAN  The first works that you claim as your own are the theater pieces. Where does that imagery come from?

BROWN From my own personal experiences and things from childhood. Movies and theaters—the experience of going into a dark movie house with the glowing screen. In my home town we had a nice old theater, a ’20s or ’30s building with some really beautiful Art Deco lights. That kind of memory began to enter into the paintings. I remember going to the Board of Trade building here in Chicago and looking at the capitals of the columns. They’re stone but made like drapery.

I began to take those simple kinds of forms and use them over and over again. I think that’s what led to the idea that you take one form like that and let it represent something—use a certain form in every building that represents an older building, for instance, and other forms that represent a newer building.

BOWMAN  They become almost symbols, then, which you can repeat again and again. So a lot of the symbols, or if you want to call them motifs, that you use even now—the silhouetted figures, the backlighting, or the vaguely Art Deco architecture—date from the theater pictures.

BROWN  Yes. One of the things I have always thought is important is simplification. There has to be complexity in a painting, but to make things instantly readable is very important. I’m much more tolerant of different ways of looking at painting now than I used to be. But, then, I’m more experienced now; the more you see, the more you can understand and read paintings. But people who are just beginning to look at paintings can have problems with complexity. That’s why I’m very interested in simplifying and making a painting easy to read. Reducing a certain form so that you can repeat it over and over again, and then continually adding new forms and getting more complex as you go along is what I am trying to do.

The idea, though, of the symbol . . . . I was interested in the Roger Shattuck book, The Banquet Years, because he talked about how Rousseau would use a little man not as a symbol, but as an emblem. It was interesting to me because it was not symbolic of something else, not standing for something else; it was the thing used as itself.

BOWMAN  What came after the theater paintings?

BROWN  Well, I just got tired of doing interiors. In the first little outdoor paintings I remember thinking about it like building inside space—a kind of floor plan and back wall. It began to work slowly, and that gave me a little courage, and I did another one, and then I began to suggest a little mountain or something in the background landscape. I guess I had seen Yoakum’s work, too, and I really got much more interested in the possibility of working in landscapes. There began to be hills and rows of houses, and it began to take on more of a suburban look. I started putting in houses and drive-ins and things. All kinds of things from my own experience.

BOWMAN  You said you wanted to put things down as clearly as possible and so you simplified them, but what else was going on as you expanded the number of motifs you put into a picture?

BROWN I think I wanted to paint as objectively as possible. That sounds very strange because my painting is subjective, but l mean that I didn’t want to contrive anything, I just wanted to put things there. If it makes some kind of statement or says something because all these things have been put together and they can’t help but say something, that’s fine. To me, that’s objective. If you’re subjective, you’re trying to put things together in some way that has a certain meaning. That’s not art. I think art is as accidental as it is thought out.

BOWMAN  If you take the treatment of space in your pictures, it seems to suggest recession into depth yet keeps coming back to the surface. Now, was that conscious or accidental?

BROWN  Well, that’s conscious and it goes back to my classes at the School of the Art Institute with Ray Yoshida and Betsy Rupprecht, too. Betsy taught us a certain way of building space in a painting or drawing that has to do with isometric perspective. In isometric perspective the lines of a building say, recede into depth but they remain parallel; they don’t converge as in Renaissance perspective. It’s an exciting thing as a student to realize there’s another way of looking at perspective than the typical Renaissance way. I mean, so far as one-point perspective goes there’s not much you can do with it. But if you can make it up, it’s a lot nicer. What you really do with isometric perspective is make it up. But, finally this isometric perspective really became very restrictive for me because everything goes off at a certain angle, right? So I just decided I’d reverse all that. I’d do it this direction a little bit

and that direction a little bit. And it worked. I decided if the Cubists could put into their painting simultaneous views of an object, why not put in many different views one at a time? It’s funny, I’ve often wondered if I have a tendency to some brain dysfunction like dyslexia. I have trouble telling left from right. Anyway, the space in my paintings moves in one direction, then in the other. My modeling is reversed, too. I light things from the back, emphasize their shape, so they’re more two dimensional. Even my figures are often silhouettes rather than full bodies.

BOWMAN  What led to your use of repetitive patterning?

BROWN  If there was a specific thing that made me more interested in two dimensional patterns, it was contemporary architecture—you know, like the patterns in glass curtain walls of Miesian buildings. These are patterns that reflect or, in fact, are a part of the building’s structure. That’s the way I wanted it to work in my paintings. Also, I became aware of the patterns of farmlands, especially from the air.

BOWMAN  How does this spatial manipulation relate to your painted constructions? You began those about the same time, I believe.

BROWN  When I did the “Skyscraper” and “Disaster” series in the summer of 1972, I remember thinking that these paintings centered on large single buildings were more three-dimensional than any of my other work.

BOWMAN  So why not just make a building.

BROWN  Right.

BOWMAN  Do you consider them sculpture or painting?

BROWN  I consider them three-dimensional paintings. They really aren’t sculptural.

BOWMAN  You paint on this structure you make?

BROWN  Yes. They’re objects, not really sculpture.

BOWMAN  What about your transformed objects, the ones where a children’s slide becomes a highway or an iron becomes a police car?

BROWN  In the spring of 1974 I used to go the Salvation Army store a lot—I still do—looking for different kinds of things I’d bring home. I consider some of those things art. Well, I went to the Salvation Army store once, and there was all this real junky furniture, lots of old kitchen chairs and stuff, and I got really interested in the shapes and how they suggested other forms. They looked a lot like figures and had faces and were very human. Just by looking at them you almost transformed them. I wanted to push that a little further, make it work, so that a chair would take on an almost human form. I did a chair like a child’s stool, and painted a scene on it, a lake, and helped it become more like a face. I helped the transformation along—to help other people to see what I saw. Some of the later constructions were object-to-object transformations like the irons into cars.

BOWMAN  A recent development in your work is atmospheric perspective. You make a painting that reads flat, but it also has atmospheric perspective which indicates depth. I remember one long, horizontal canvas which shows a continuous scene, but one side is in atmospheric perspective and the other isn’t. How did that whole idea come up?

BROWN  The first painting I did like that was called Misty Morning, and it came, like a lot of my ideas, from driving around. Especially when I go to visit my folks in Alabama, I go through a lot of different kinds of landscape. I guess the idea for Misty Morning came from driving through the hills of northern Alabama where it’s awfully misty in the early morning or late evening and you see the hills get lighter and lighter. So I thought, I’ve been doing them all the same color and same value as they go back; why can’t I lighten them a little and see what happens?

BOWMAN  What about the aerial views that you are doing right now? I’ve noticed in looking at those aerial view paintings that there seems to be a dimension I’ve not seen in painting before, this “looking down.” It creates a very curious feeling.

BROWN I think it occurs in Persian and Indian miniatures. They have a ground plane that goes all the way up the picture, and towers and buildings come off that in such a way that they appear to be in front of it. I don’t think much painting has dealt with that drastic a spatial tension—at least not large painting; Persian or Indian pictures are small.

BOWMAN  So it’s an attempt to represent simultaneously things from straight on, the traditional Western viewpoint, and from above through a ground plan, which is more typical of naive or oriental art. But that’s all consciously manipulated—it’s hard to put that together with your idea of a painting being accidental or uncontrived.

BROWN  Well, other things come into it too—the amount of light and dark I use, the color, the modeling or the or the light. I make a sketch, and I work out the composition before I start on a painting, but there are things that change when I blow it up from a three-inch sketch to a six-foot painting. There are things I do as I’m drawing it out—whatever comes into my head at the moment of putting this here or that there. Those kinds of things, I think, are accidental things. Also, when I say “contrived” I’m talking about doing obviously surreal things. Painting must always be believable. It must look as if could be that way in reality. There should be no fantastic things happening—nothing weird.

BOWMAN  No burning giraffes?

BROWN  Right, things like that. Sometimes there are fantastic things in my paintings, but only once in a great while. I recently did a painting called An Actual Dream of the Second Coming which is a religious fantasy. It was a dream that I had. But at least it has precedent in religious painting. That helps to make it believable.

BOWMAN  That’s interesting because your paintings do have the effect on one of having seen them before—or having been there before.

BROWN  That’s good. Maybe that’s because I deal with things that are from my memory, and my memory is probably much like everyone else’s. I mean, we experience the same things in our society. All I try to do is deal with those common everyday things we all know. Obviously they’re changed by my own way of presenting them, but otherwise it all comes out of everyone’s experience.

BOWMAN  The subject of fantasy suggests the question of your relationship to the other Chicago Imagists. Imagist work is usually seen as being based on personal fantasy and therefore related to Surrealism. You’ve said you don’t like the Imagist label. Why not? How do you see your work as being different?

BROWN  It’s easy for people to use labels when it’s something that they can’t deal with. Because they can’t spend enough time thinking about it or looking at it, they say, “Oh, that’s Imagist.” Or a critic will make up a term like that because he’s not capable of dealing with individual differences. He creates a word “Imagist” and lumps everything together. I think there are very real differences among every one of the so-called Imagists, who got this label because a book was written a few years ago about Chicago people from 1945 to the present.1 It was Franz Schulze’s book, and it was nice of him to include a lot of the younger Chicago artists, but it’s too bad that it was passed off as an entity—Imagism. I think most of the artists are about very different kinds of things.

BOWMAN  Do you see a lot of the earlier Chicago generation from the ’50s as fantasy painters, more like the Surrealists, and yourself and some of the younger artists are less that way?

BROWN  There’s a difference between the younger generation of so-called Imagists and the older ones, in that the older ones are more related to a kind of European feeling or sensibility, and our interest is much more purely American. I recently had a talk with one of the older so-called Imagists. We were talking about his feeling about Paris, the cafes and drinking coffee and talking to people and how nice it was to be in a situation like that. He didn’t get that feeling here. It was obvious that he got a great deal from Paris and didn’t get anything from Chicago. At least, he didn’t seem to feel his source as an artist was here in the city. That’s just the opposite of my feeling. The idea of being involved in a kind of cafe society where you sit around and share your ideas with a lot of art types is a lot of bunk. I don’t think that has anything to do with making art. It’s fine if you enjoy that, but it’s a totally different way of looking at what you’re doing as an artist. He’s one of the earlier generation and I’m the later. I really think those people are very involved in the European feeling about making paintings, and I know I’m not.

BOWMAN  That was all about the artist apart from society, which seems exactly the opposite of what you want to do. You want to make paintings that are clear—not just for an art public, but for everyone. You mentioned Chicago being rich in source material. What precisely do you mean?

BROWN  Well, it’s not just the things you can see in Chicago’s neighborhoods—odd window displays and things like that. For me, Chicago epitomizes the American experience in that it is constantly changing—vital. In Chicago, even our architectural masterpieces are sacrificed; old buildings are torn down to make way for the new. In Europe, artists are surrounded by past architecture and art. All this must be inhibiting. In America—in Chicago—we are living in a constantly growing and changing environment, one that is to a large extent devoid of masterpieces of older art. In a strange way this is good, because not having the great works of European art as constant reference points gives us opportunity to make fresh art—art that derives from our own experience.

To me, European art is so refined that there’s nothing left that’s raw or honest. Everything is just right. When you do that, there’s no life left. When Europe was young, it produced those wonderful medieval paintings, but when it got old, it produced watered-down crap. There were many people in this country involved with that aesthetic. The older Imagists were, and to a degree I think the Abstract Expressionists were too. They talk about Abstract Expressionism being the first American art. I think it was the last European art. Just like New York is a very important European city, while Chicago is a very American city.

BOWMAN  Why do you think Abstract Expressionism is European? Supposedly its rawness and boldness were opposed to the refinement of European art.

BROWN  Abstract Expressionism grows out of Expressionism and Surrealism. As Motherwell said in his lecture here some time ago,2 the whole idea came from automatism and right out of Dada and Surrealism. There’s a look to it, a kind of precious look. It’s hard to describe, I think the first American painters were people like Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, people like that—and Edward Hopper. Abstract Expressionism bypassed these artists and grew directly out of European art of the early twentieth century—and simply refined it to another degree.

BOWMAN  The artists you mentioned above grew out of what—their own American experience?

BROWN  Yes, very definitely. They’re almost purely American. I’m sure there are things in their work that are related to things done in Europe, but I think they were much more on their own, working and thinking about things that concerned them personally.

BOWMAN  What about the art movements of the ’60s that followed Abstract Expressionism? Do you think they were consciously manipulative of the European tradition of modernism?

BROWN  I think all of those artists based in New York have a hard time not being European. That’s why I think people not working in New York, like some of those that I mentioned, or people on the West Coast or in Chicago have a better chance of being American artists than those people in New York. Pop art was drawn from American imagery, but the sensibility that comes from Europe was still there.

BOWMAN  Well, all this would make some call you a regionalist, because you seem to be rejecting the modernist tradition.

BROWN  I think that I was lucky to have been ignorant of the so-called mainstream until I was midstream in my own development. I was never drawn to some center where I could make my own version of the current mode, and I think that idea of making art is the fault of those who talk and write about art. For me it would never be desirable to be main­stream in the sense that I would adhere to some dogma handed down through the art press. Ultimately, the most important thing is to make good art rather than being concerned with being mainstream or regionalist.