Joan Brown exhibition at SFMOMA

Born in San Francisco in 1938, artist Joan Brown created colorful, expansive paintings and lively sculptures inspired by her life experiences in the city—where she lived and worked for much of her life—as well as her influential international travels. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents “Joan Brown,” the most in-depth Joan Brown exhibition in over two decades.

“We are thrilled to present ‘Joan Brown,’ a reassessment of the unabashedly personal, defiantly independent and enduringly relevant career of one of San Francisco’s most important local heroes,” Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, said.

On view at SFMOMA from November 19, 2022 through March 12, 2023 and bringing together approximately 80 works in a variety of media, the Joan Brown exhibition charts the breadth and depth of the artist’s career, once dismissed by critics as unserious but rooted in impassioned curiosity and research. Deeply embedded in the Bay Area art scene, Brown drew inspiration from many sources to create a charmingly offbeat body of work that embraces autobiography, fantasy and whimsy as well as weightier metaphysical themes.

Brown earned a BFA and MFA from the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)—later the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—where she met a key mentor, artist Elmer Bischoff, and began gaining recognition for her paintings. By age 22, Brown had achieved remarkable critical and commercial success. She was included in SFMOMA’s annuals in both 1957 and 1958 and was the youngest artist exhibited as part of Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

By 1964, her works had been featured on the cover of Artforum and were in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, among others. Brown was the first in her cohort to achieve prominence outside San Francisco, but her fiery disinclination for the commercial side of the art world soon emerged, and it cemented into a lifelong antipathy that would prove decisive at key moments in her career.


Spanning her days as a student at CSFA in the 1950s to her untimely death in 1990, the Joan Brown exhibition showcases the artist’s many artistic styles. Over the course of her productive 35-year career, she created abstract expressionist canvases; figurative paintings portraying dogs, cats, swims, cityscapes, and her son Noel; self-portraits; and works inspired by her spiritual explorations in the 1980s. Her references ranged from Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya and Matisse to Egyptian art, Chinese art, Mesoamerican visual culture, Hinduism, her swimming coach, and Theosophy. Brown pursued each of these myriad interests with single-minded dedication, typically researching them for years, with a curiosity that intensified over time, as her practice became suffused with spiritual purpose.

Commonly characterized as the only female in the second generation of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Brown was in reality an artist and person who defied easy classification. As she said herself, “I’m not any one thing: I’m not just a teacher, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just a painter, I’m all of these things, plus.”

As Brown shifted across many roles and artistic styles and traveled around the globe, her commitment to the Bay remained constant. She developed a longstanding relationship with SFMOMA, which hosted her first major solo exhibition in 1971 and went on to acquire 25 of her works. Brown’s 1989 marriage to Michael S. Hebel was held at SFMOMA in a Hindu ceremony under Alexander Calder mobiles.

Works including The Dancers in a City #2 and Gordon, Joan and Rufus in Front of S.F. Opera House make San Francisco’s influence on Brown’s artistic practice clear. The inspiration gleaned from Brown’s travels is evident in works such as The Golden Age: The Jaguar and The Tapir and Cat and Rat Obelisk among others, while The Long JourneyA New Age: The Bolti Fish, and Summer Solstice reveal Brown’s interest in spirituality and self-understanding.

A long-time swimming enthusiast, Brown trained with International Hall of Fame swimming coach Charlie Sava—who appears in several of her portrait paintings—and she enjoyed frequent open-water swims in the Bay. She, along with five other women, successfully sued the Dolphin Club, the Ariel Club, and the South End Rowing Club (SERC) to admit women, after which she became an active member with SERC. In 1975, Brown nearly drowned during a women’s Alcatraz swim in the San Francisco Bay, which became the subject of a series of introspective self-portraits. In works such as After the Alcatraz Swim #3, the freighter ship that contributed to her near-death experience can be seen in the pattern of her dress.

Brown’s subjects feel at once familiar—animals, objects, swims in the Bay—and novel, incorporating an ever-expanding symbology that reached its zenith in the 1980s as she pursued a more spiritual, philosophical path. By the time she died in South India in 1990, she had produced more than 400 paintings and 50 sculptures. This Joan Brown exhibition celebrates the full scope of the artist’s vibrant and wide-ranging career and illuminates how uniquely compelling Brown’s artistic practice is—now more than ever.


Organized to coincide with SFMOMA’s major Joan Brown exhibition, “Joan Brown + Friends” is a collection-based installation that focuses on an interconnected network of artists working in the Bay Area from around the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond. Using Joan Brown as a locus and also linked by their shared teachers, studios, homes and arts institutions, the artists whose works are included reflect many of the currents and conversations driving the enigmatic practices of Bay Area artists during this period. 

“Joan Brown + Friends” opened on November 4, 2022, and is located on SFMOMA’s Floor 2.


Annual membership begins at $120, and members enjoy free admission and priority ticketing for special exhibitions with advanced reservations, as well as complimentary guest passes (varies by membership level). Adult general admission to SFMOMA is $25; admission for seniors 65 years and older is $22; and admission for visitors ages 19 through 24 is $19. General Admission and special exhibitions for all visitors 18 years and younger is free.

For local Bay Area residents, SFMOMA’s First Thursdays offer free admission from 1–8 p.m. On Free Family Days, general admission to the museum is free for up to four adults accompanying one child or teen (18 and younger). For information about other free and discounted admission programs, please visit

Museum hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Fridays through Tuesdays and 1–8 p.m. on Thursdays (closed Wednesdays). Current visitor information can be found at

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the United States and a thriving cultural center for the Bay Area. Our remarkable collection of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design and media arts is housed in a LEED Gold-certified building designed by the global architects Snøhetta and Mario Botta. In addition to our seven gallery floors, SFMOMA offers 45,000 square feet of free, art-filled public space open to all.

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