Frederick J. Brown at The Studio Museum in Harlem

Frederick J. Brown, Stagger Lee (1983), oil on canvas, 90″ x 140″; courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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By now, we’re all used to the merchandising of museum exhibitions. We tolerate the gift shops, the scarves, the handbags, coasters, key chains and melting clocks that actually work (in honor of Salvador Dali, of course). It’s cheesy–it degrades the museum-going experience–but we tell ourselves that it’s a way to generate funds for the greater cause of art.

The other day, I found myself wishing that the Studio Museum in Harlem’s gift shop sold a CD of musical accompaniment for Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues and Other Icons . Mr. Brown’s paintings depict, among other notables, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Koko Taylor and the incomparable Otis Spann, whose piano graced some of Muddy Waters’ finest recordings. A soundtrack for the show might have been popular and profitable, though it wouldn’t have done much for the paintings. Never less than heartfelt, Mr. Brown’s valentines to jazz and the blues are also, sadly, clumsy in their drawing and cursory in their execution, almost shockingly superficial. If there were music, one wouldn’t mind so much that the paintings aren’t very good.

Mr. Brown has been compared to Expressionists of all stripes, from German to Abstract to Neo-. This is, to an extent, justified. A glance at the work’s bold and often jarring colors, forthright surfaces and distorted figures, and you can tell that Mr. Brown has spent time looking at the work of Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as well folk art, African masks and the paintings of Willem de Kooning (who is the subject of an engaging and goofy homage). Yet Expressionism, for Mr. Brown, isn’t about caustic emotions or ugly truths; it’s about style and choice. There isn’t an iota of angst in these pictures. In fact, you get the idea from the Studio Museum show that Mr. Brown is an ingratiating and cheerful guy. He plays fast and loose with color, gesture and anatomy because he’s happily able to do so. Can he be self-indulgent? Yes: As a paint handler, Mr. Brown is convinced of his Midas touch. He’s not as stern with himself as he should be.

This is not the case with the New York City paintings: Bleecker Street (1981), with its grimacing quintet of gender-benders, and the monumental Stagger Lee (1984). An African-American archetype whose roots most likely originate in Memphis, Stagger Lee is the hero of an allegory about lawlessness as a kind of freedom-hence the picture’s looming array of cocksure and totemic figures. Yet it is this city that pervades Stagger Lee , through its rattling rhythms, compacted space and abrupt juxtapositions of pattern, color and value. As aggressively intimate and dizzyingly various as a ride on the No. 7 train, it’s probably Mr. Brown’s masterpiece. However much he may love the blues, it’s the city that makes this painter sing.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 11, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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