Roger Brown, 1973. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
Roger Brown received a fairly strict religious education and upbringing in his home state of Alabama. As a young man he initially wanted to be a minister, but abandoned the idea after taking a life-drawing course at the University of Nashville. In 1962, he moved to Chicago to study art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where he completed his bachelor’s (1968) and master’s (1970) degrees. Brown participated in the seminal False Image exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968 and 1969 with fellow SAIC students Eleanor Dube, Philip Hanson, and Christina Ramberg.
Brown rejected the modernist principle of “art for art’s sake,” instead drawing material inspiration from trips taken to the Field Museum of Natural History with Whitney Halstead’s art history class, from public and private collections of primitive and folk art, and from comic strip imagery. He began to depict Chicago’s urban settings with a series of movie house interiors and street scenes, employing isometric perspective. This technique, wherein the sight lines of a picture plane are parallel rather than convergent, contributed to flat, legible imagery in Brown’s work, similar to characteristics in the works of Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Yoakum, a highly regarded, self-taught artist from Chicago’s South Side. The mysterious backlighting of Brown’s city scenes produced a theatrical effect reminiscent of works by René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico that Brown would have encountered in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1972, Brown met his life partner, architect George Veronda, who inspired Brown’s interest in modernist architecture. Brown later identified Veronda as a major influence in his maturation as an artist. After working on a set design project, Brown’s painted compositions jumped from canvas to three-dimensional forms. Underlying the accessibility of his visual language and narrative depictions, Brown’s works communicate the conceptual complexities of contemporary life. In the 1980s, his work became increasingly political in its content, often incorporating topical news events in addition to visions of natural disasters and human trauma.
Like several of his fellow Imagists, Brown enjoyed scouring Chicago’s flea markets on Maxwell Street for intriguing objects. Over the course of his life, he amassed a considerable collection of outsider and folk art, in addition to works by friends and contemporaries. In the year prior to his death in 1997, Brown donated a great portion of his collection, as well as his homes in Chicago and New Buffalo, MI, to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, the Roger Brown Study Collection functions as an educational tool and gallery space open to the public in his former home and studio on Halsted Street in Chicago.
Chair de Triomphe (1977)
Oil on clothes iron and wooden chair
While Roger Brown often depicted architectural structures such as theatrical stages and skyscrapers in his paintings, it wasn’t until he met his partner, the architect George Veronda, in 1972, that he began producing sculptural works. According to Brown, “the first group of sculptures was inspired by the feeling that the paintings themselves had a three-dimensional quality, so they very easily could be taken as models for three-dimensional works. That’s basically what I did with the early pieces. I got more interested later in transforming furniture, with the chairs and stools that were half building and half landscape.”
In 1974, Brown toured Europe with fellow Chicago Imagists Phil Hanson, Christina Ramberg, and Barbara Rossi; the trip included a stop in Paris for Brown’s solo show at Galerie Darthea Speyer. It was imperative to Brown that painting “come directly from life’s experiences and one’s personal responses.” In Chair de Triomphe, he painted a tall chair to resemble the monumental Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Tiny caricatures stand in for the sculptural reliefs and cool, flat areas of blue and gray outlined in black delineate various architectural elements.
Resting on the chair is a vintage Westinghouse clothes iron painted to look like a bus. Adorning the sides are Brown’s telltale yellow windows with black silhouettes of the passengers; among these are his mother, with her 1940s pompadour hairstyle, and his father, pointing, waving, and taking in the sights. Brown frequently purchased these irons from flea markets and painted them, with the goal of reconfiguring the discarded object by transforming it into something otherworldly and amusing. Through these and other sculptural objects, Brown encouraged the act of looking playfully at the world around us—re-igniting our childhood imaginations, where anything was possible and the utilitarian became the extraordinary.