Museums / Process

Green Bowl

greenbowl-headerI was first attracted to Joan Brown’s painting Green Bowl (1964) twenty seven years ago when I first saw it in the book, Bay Area Figurative Art.

I had just started to paint seriously and was struck by Brown’s thick, sculptural handling of the paint; the impasto seemed to push the painting into three dimensions.  I was intrigued by her subtle and deft use of grey and brown tones. I was fascinated by the shades of yellow-green that were both garish and correct, the simple composition, the use of light and shadow, and the way she drew the bowl.

Two months ago I spontaneously came upon this painting at SF MOMA.  The museum has about twenty pieces of Brown’s work.


SF MOMA reopened last May and it is spectacular — a topic for another article. It does not disappoint. In her architectural review of the museum for the New York Times Roberta Smith compares the museum to its New York counterpart. She says, “The West Coast Modern is not only bigger than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is poised — with concerted diversifying — to do for the late 20th and 21st centuries what its East Coast cousin did for the art of the late 19th and early 20th.” This native San Franciscan read this with considerable surprise!

You can see that this is a simple painting of a bowl, just a bowl.

A unique choice, I think, to paint a bowl — no fruit in this bowl, no more dishes on the table, no flowers to create a vertical line. I have only ever seen maybe one other small painting of a solitary bowl since then.

ALL of the paint on this piece is thick. The paint is so modeled and sculptural that it looks like used brown clay, yes, troweled green-gray clay, or possibly wet cement. One can almost imagine picking it up. I admire the subtle differences in tone between grey, brown and green — I envision her diving right into this limited palette, showing off.

But, here is what I did not know about that painting. I did not know that it was cropped out of a larger painting, to become a new painting. So as it turns out Brown did not compose this work with a solitary table, and that singular bowl in mind. She recognized after the fact how re-framing the piece, alone, could work.

Since then I’ve continued to explore the idea of fragmenting a painting to create a new work; something that is whole unto itself. I thought about what Annette Messager said of her work, “In this process I was trying to point out what already exists, to put it in a form and to sometimes reformulate it.”

I love the process of noticing or attending to something that has-been overlooked. This dish had, I imagine, been sidelined in the larger painting.  Brown was now giving it her full attention— so we could do the same.

by Beth Cody


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