By: Sidney Lawrence
Reviewed by: Beth H. Wilder
The University of Alabama Press, 2007
“I really think that my going in the direction I went comes from being southern.” So opens a new book on the life and work of nationally celebrated artist Roger Brown by the noted art critic Sidney Lawrence. Brown, an Alabama native, was one of the key innovators of the Chicago Imagist movement during the 1960s and 1970s, creating paintings and three-dimensional pieces that moved past the New York Pop Art style and fused influences from folk art, surrealism, comic strips, and advertisements. Brown is credited with moving contemporary American art into a new phase in which story-telling and a celebration of the vernacular become legitimate means of expression. The New York Times called Brown the “leading painter of the Chicago Imagist style” and praised his art as “formally dazzling, instantly legible, and psychologically charged.”
A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Brown is eternally linked with his fellow Chicago Imagist artists. Though he spent most of his life living and working in his studios in Chicago, Michigan, and California, his heart always remained at home in Alabama where he returned often to visit his close-knit family and where he came home to die in 1997.
Lawrence’s book is the first to examine Brown’s early southern life and the influence it later had on his nationally acclaimed art. From his birth in Hamilton to his formative years in Opelika, Lawrence chronicles the ups and downs of a creative young boy growing up in a town that offered no formal art classes but plenty of old time religion. Church was “sort of pounded into your head,” said Brown years later about the thrice-weekly church services, twice-weekly Bible study classes, and the two-week Christian camp he attended as part of his Church of Christ upbringing.
Those same influences would later find their way into much of his art that questioned religious piety, moral obligation and family ties. Also evident in his work is Brown’s love for the Alabama countryside and many of the self-taught folk artists he encountered in his childhood.
Lawrence’s biography of a small-town boy turned big-time artist is thoughtful and well-written, though a little slim on first-hand accounts from the artist’s friends and relatives. But it is, after all, an art book and the real story lies in the spectacular photographs, both of the artist’s early childhood and his work. A great book for an art enthusiast, it is also a good read for anyone interested in famous Alabamians.
Beth Wilder is a freelance writer living and working in Birmingham.