This is an expanded version of an essay that first appeared in the catalogue published by George Adams Gallery,in conjunction with their exhibition: Joan Brown “Drawn from Life” (October 8 – December 19, 2020).
Throughout the summer of 1976, five Bay Area artists met every Sunday to draw. Among them were Joan Brown, her former husband Manuel Neri, Ira Yeager, Robert Colescott, and Michael Barnes. Their model for these weekly sessions was a young woman, who had been posing for Neri for 4 years, Mary Julia Klimenko. An examination of this series of drawings in Brown’s oeuvre is overdue; it seems that returning to a subject matter involving a particular model over 60 times is worthy of acknowledgment, particularly given the circumstances and individuals involved.
At this point in her career, Brown was already a much-exhibited artist. Her shift from abstracted figuration to a flatter, often autobiographical, style was nearly complete. By the summer of 1976, her third marriage, to the artist Gordon Cook, was ending in divorce. It is in this context that she joined a new drawing group and created a large series of works on paper that capture the emotional energy of the gatherings and reveal Brown’s process as an artist. This cohesive body of work is the most fully realized sequence of Brown’s uniquely arresting capacity to tease and charm, confess and challenge, both her inner and outer worlds.
At the center of these paintings is the subject “Mary Julia,” the model who went on to work with Neri for over four decades following a brief meeting at a party in 1972. During a July 7, 2019, interview from her home in Vallejo, California, Mary Julia recalls wandering into the kitchen where she encountered two men near a fish tank containing a piranha. One of the men was Neri, who asked if she’d like to put her hand in. She declined. The next day the hostess called her to say that the man she’d spoken to was an artist and he wanted her to pose for him. Nervous but excited, Mary Julia told her husband. He forbade her to go, but she went anyway.
By 1976, Mary Julia had been posing exclusively with Neri for a few years. When he asked if she would also pose for a group of his friends, she initially declined. “I’d never taken off my clothes for anyone else, so I said ‘no.’ Yet when he casually suggested he’d find someone else. I said: ‘What?! No way, I’ll do it.” Thus began the intense all-day drawing parties, nearly all of which took place in the large, well-lighted living room at Neri’s Benicia studio. Mary Julia recalls the group also assembled once at Brown’s studio on Cameo Way in the Diamond Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, once at Colescott’s Oakland studio, and another time at Barnes’ home in Port Costa. The latter occasion being particularly memorable as Barnes’s partner Adolphus also modeled, endeavoring to borrow Mary Julia’s silk stockings.
Mary Julia, now a poet and practicing psychotherapist laughs as she recalls how the competitive push and pull between Brown and Neri manifested over how she would be posed. “There was a real rivalry between those two. I don’t think the other artists cared either way, but Joan always wanted me in costume with my hair up and Manuel always wanted me nude with my hair down.” Mary Julia would switch in and out of ten different costumes back and forth, with everyone downing wine in between. She would arrive with a carload of fully-planned outfits from her own collection of vintage finds. “Mary Julia #14” seems a mirthful recognition of the ping-pong match, capturing the model in between in this state of constantly dressing and undressing at the artists’ behest.
Brown would sketch from life, then take the drawings to her studio to further develop them, integrating real anecdotes and imagined settings and situations. The tracing of these creative decisions and inventive transformations is visible in many of the pieces from the series. There is an honesty and humility to these casually-left lines, which invite the viewer to feel part of the composition’s development. This intimacy is further extended through the direct gaze that Brown gives her “Mary Julia.” The establishment of eye contact with the viewer is reminiscent of Brown’s own in her self-portraits; the settings in and around San Francisco Bay also echo Brown’s self-portraiture, suggesting an interchangeability between Neri’s ex-wife (Brown) and his current muse and lover (Mary Julia). Brown noted that her paintings of women often resembled herself: “Self portraits, whether they were conscious or unconscious; they were still self portraits…” Brown used the process of introspection not only as a “vehicle for me to express my own experiences, physically, mentally, emotionally” but as a way of creating a visual language that transcended the autobiographical to reveal shared truths: “I’m concerned that the images aren’t egocentric but also universal.”
Mary Julia speaks to Brown’s capacity to capture deep-seated emotion in seemingly light-hearted snapshots:
With all the cityscapes and slit-skirts, Joan wanted to depict a glamorous, sophisticated woman. But what was so beautiful about it, and what’s so beautiful about Joan’s artistic ability, was how she could capture vulnerability every time. She could have me in a city suit looking forward, yet if you really look, you’d see that it would take the wave of a hand to have me running in the other direction. What Joan always sees in me is her own vulnerability. All the feistiness of Joan was about the thing that she never really let anyone see, which was how vulnerable she was. I think most artists are actually always talking about themselves, and the model is just a vehicle for them to speak about what’s going on in their own psyches.
This was an emotionally tumultuous time for Brown and the work hints at some friendly competition between former spouses Brown and Neri. But, as if to diffuse efforts to over-interpret, Brown adds Nabokovian flourishes of misdirection here and there, always countering the ominous with the humorous. Consider the dramatic context of “Mary Julia y Manuel,” the only painting in the series, which places the model in a frontal view with her extended finger pointing to the artist’s signature at the lower left of the canvas. Notably Neri is absent from the painting, except for the title rendered in large script at the bottom foreground. Brown is likely poking a bit of fun at Neri’s romantic involvement with his model.
It is well-documented — and intentional on Brown’s part — that this large painting on canvas is in reference to Goya’s dual portraits of his suspected lover, the Duchess of Alba. In his paintings, Goya positions his muse as a commanding presence with the finger of her hand pointing towards his signature. In imitation, Brown places Mary Julia as the strongest element in an iconic landscape of natural and man-made wonders with her extended arm pointing to the painting’s title. Whose muse is Mary Julia now? It is intriguing that Brown assigns such significance to a model that Neri had only known for a few years, by notably painting their names together so prominently. In May of 1976, Neri presented an exhibition of eight plaster figures, The Remaking of Mary Julia: Sculpture in Progress, at 80 Langton Street, in San Francisco. Both gestures stand out. Mary Julia would in fact remain in Neri’s life for many years, collaborating with him not only as a model, but in publishing several meticulously-rendered art books that feature her verse and his artistry in equal measure.
Brown returns to the theme and “Mary Julia y Manuel” designation with another work (#20), in which the title is painted on Mary Julia’s shadow. In fact “Mary Julia” appears in large letters as part of several paintings from this series. Continuing from the Goya, in Mary Julia #7 an empty wine glass points to the ground at the end of Mary Julia’s extended arm. Rather than posing her wearing an exotic cheongsam or pretty frock, this time Mary Julia is placed before an indistinct and even slightly apocalyptic exterior view, sporting a modest bob, eyeglasses, and a somewhat dowdy mismatch of pale fishnet stockings and a loose floral top. The model looks pregnant in this painting, particularly the way she holds her middle. This decidedly domesticated depiction suggests Brown both reflecting on the trajectory of her own past relationships and perhaps projecting onto Mary Julia and Manuel’s.
This series is full of role-play. One can’t help but consider Brown’s paintings in the context of contemporary artist Cindy Sherman, who began her extensive exploration of female identity through wardrobe and tableau in the mid-70s. Sherman began shooting her Bus Riders and Untitled Film Stills series in 1976 and 1977, respectively. Brown’s paintings often have a cinema star or movie poster quality to them. There is also the echo of Brown’s practice as a child, and later as a teenager, of making costumes for paper dolls and sketch starlets in fantastical settings, as a means of escape. In adulthood, she enjoyed dressing herself up, particularly for a night out on the town.
Brown may have employed the imagery of pin-up dolls, but these portraits show not only the vulnerability that Mary Julia herself noted, but the balancing of traditional feminine gender representation with an equally strong stance of independence. Many more San Francisco sea and cityscapes from the series show a woman very much in command of her surroundings. The San Francisco Bay represented physical challenge and peril, as well as triumph for Joan Brown. The artist was one of a few women who successfully sued San Francisco’s male-only South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club for the right to join their organizations and compete in their races. After winning this battle, Brown almost drowned during an annual swim event in 1975, from Alcatraz Island to shore, processing the harrowing experience in a series of Alcatraz Swim paintings (1975-1976). In Mary Julia #15, Brown positions her model in the foreground with Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, and the now-still water receding at a safe distance.
In other works from the series, it is the revelry of these Sunday drawing parties that takes center stage, especially on the occasions in which Brown brought friend David Peugh along. “We all drank a lot of wine,” recalls Mary Julia. Several paintings featuring out-sized champagne bottles bear witness to this general revelry and remind us that, backward-glancing fame aside, this was a group of friends getting together to make art and have a good time. Shortly before these summer drawing sessions began, Brown had returned from a trip to Italy, producing a series of paintings with similar hints of exuberance and melancholy. Last Days of Summer, 1976, pictures Brown herself in a playful embrace with Michelangelo’s David on whose foot she treads, also accompanied by a large-as-life champagne bottle. In both this painting and Mary Julia and David #9, the women seem to be begging off on more bubbles for the time being.
Speaking from his Napa Valley studio, Ira Yeager paints a vivid picture of the general revelry and strong personalities involved. A close friend of Joan Brown, Yeager knew and admired Neri and was an active participant in these sessions. His drawings of Mary Julia are largely from times in which she was undressed, as was Neri’s preference. Of the costumes, Yeager laughs at the memory of a session, in which an anteater finds itself posed with Mary Julia in various positions. “My father collected stuffed animals and Manuel loved them, so I would bring them to him. Manuel had them scattered all over.” This clears up the mystery as to whether the anteater in question was a fantastical figment that Brown added or an actual animal that had undergone taxidermy. It was the latter.
One question that remains is the appearance of the model “Nick” in the works known as the related “Mary Julia and Nick” series. Mary Julia doesn’t recall an individual called Nick joining these sessions. Though he knew Joan’s friend and frequent male model David well, Yeager doesn’t remember either Nick or David participating. “I don’t remember anyone other than Mary Julia posing for us.” Though Yeager notes that a lot of whiskey was flowing: “Jack Daniels, as I recall.”
Mary Julia has insightful and often funny stories to tell about each of these painted reimaginings and the dynamics behind them. Her two favorites, Mary Julia #32 and Mary Julia #33, are a pair depicting the model in her mother’s wedding dress and her father’s army uniform. According to Mary Julia, all the other costumes that she put together for these sessions were her own with the exception of these. Mary Julia’s mother had kept the relics folded together in her cedar chest since her wedding day to a man she met at age 14, when he camped on her family’s dairy farm before shipping off to fight in WWII. A member of the Fighting 211th Division of the U.S. Army, Mary Julia’s father saw the second invasion of Normandy and three years of battle before returning to California to find and marry the girl he’d not forgotten.
As Mary Julia tells it, “My mother would never ever let me open her cedar chest. I wanted in the worst way to wear her dress and his uniform, and Joan really wanted to paint them…I begged my mother and the gods seemed to intervene.” These were the only drawings made in the decommissioned church that served as Neri’s studio, rather than his living room, to accommodate the train on the dress. Mary Julia recounts that “Manuel would have nothing to do with watching Joan draw when I was in costume, but this time he came in and hovered around the whole time.” Pentimenti is apparent in both works, a characteristic common to nearly all of Brown’s drawings and many of her paintings, as she liked to work quickly. In the bridal painting, the stained glass windows of Neri’s studio on the right side cover the pencil markings of a man’s legs. The groom’s tableau shows paint over faint tracings of those same arched windows. On either side of Mary Julia in her father’s army uniform are a Neri-like plaster sculpture in a firm-footed stance and an easel bearing a charcoal sketch of the groom and bride in silhouette. The background of the charcoal sketch is unpainted so that the raw paper, which Brown had been using throughout this series, shows through. William Benton, who exhibited work from this series in his Clark-Benton Gallery in Santa Fe in [year], recounts a conversation with Brown in which she described finding the stock she used for the series as: “a large stack of twenty-four by thirty-six paper abandoned on a loading dock in the Mission District of San Francisco.”
Brown’s other, more famous painting of a bride in a wedding dress is the earlier 1969 self-portrait in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum. The cat-headed bride is centered in a frilly paper doll gown. At her feet on a leash is a thus-far docile rat surrounded by a field of poppies. A rat is a play-thing for cats, though Brown apparently had a fear of them and used rodents as a “ominous, dark, frightening image.” The “sky” is populated by a colorful multitude of fish; the eyes behind the artist’s cat mask or alter-ego seem to bait the viewer to consider Christian symbology (the savior), Jungian analysis (the unconscious), and the culinary taste of felines (a favored delicacy). Power, surrender, humor — Joan Brown, containing and sharing her multitudes.
Mary Julia and Brown became friends through this work together. Brown invited Mary Julia to join her for a southern California exhibition, which included works from their collaboration, half-way through the summer. As Mary Julia recalls, “Manuel hadn’t been invited by Joan, but hopped on a plane and showed up anyhow.”
The group disbanded when their teaching duties resumed in the Fall. Brown, Barnes, and Colescott each gave Mary Julia one piece as a memento of their collaboration. The work of Joan’s that Mary Julia selected to keep (#25) is the only one of her in bare feet. She is also pigeon-toed. It’s a shy pose, which Mary Julia explains felt most like her underneath. She still owns the simple muumuu that she’s shown wearing. In Colescott’s gift, he captured a moment with Mary Julia sitting on the arm of a chair occupied by Neri. Brown drew the same scene and developed the drawing further back in her studio. It’s the only work in the series in which Neri appears.
Brown died in 1990, in a construction accident in India. After this tragic event, a gift that Mary Julia had given Brown was returned to her. The frame contains two photos and a poem that Mary Julia wrote to her friend Joan Brown. With her permission, here is Mary Julia’s poem:
by my house
let me tell you
about the bay by my house
faithful companion to the sailboats
proudly gathering summer wind
in their best white sunday suits,
and of the gentle whales
down under the bridge
hidden by the dense green water,
shadows of ancient secrets,
sometimes i wait for them
in a special rock with a large hole in it
evidence that it was loved to death by the sea
hundreds of years ago.
may 27, 1976