Joan Brown was still a teenager when she first showed her work at the “6” Gallery. Even at the time, though, she was regarded as something of a star, along with Mike Nathan, another teenage artist. At this point, her work was not technically developed. She finished high school in 1955, and had studied with Frank Lobdell and Elmer Bischoff by the time she appeared in a two-person show at the “6” in 1957.
Brown was deeply involved with the Beat scene, and she lived at the time with her first husband in a house on Fillmore Street with Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo, poet Michael McClure, and other Beat figures. Much of her work from this period is self-exploratory and reflects the artist’s early interest in Willem de Kooning, often balancing flat, thickly painted, figurative renderings, with blocky, expressionistic compositions. Later, Brown would take a more far-reaching role among the second generation of Bay Area figurative painters. For Brown, art was a means of self-revelation and self-investigation, a fact made abundantly clear by the autobiographical nature of her work. Brown greatly admired her teacher, Elmer Bischoff, and his style of Bay Area figuration. But she was also attracted to the freedom found in abstraction as expressed by de Kooning, Picasso, and Matisse.
Finding her own way, she used images of family, animals, water, romantic relationships, and self-portraits to explore the complexities of human nature, often hiding her rigorous self-reflection beneath a facade of painterly spontaneity.