Celebrating Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown

Wonner Brown

Since 2019, Heather James has joined The Crocker Museum of Sacramento in celebrating the lives and careers of seminal Bay Area Figurative artists Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown. Their work is currently on view at the Laguna Art Museum in the comprehensive joint retrospective, Breaking the Rules, which showcases seventy-five paintings, watercolors, and drawings, offering an in-depth study of these two trailblazing artists.

Life Partners

Wonner and Brown, life partners, share a remarkable legacy, the product of a fifty-year infatuation with drawing and painting the figure. It was a rapture of sorts, initiated by David Park’s daring, non-conforming revolt against Abstract Expressionism in 1949. Their studio on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley was an early gathering place for artists Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Park. They engaged live models and shared ideas about applying a gestural painting style to the human figure, five artists on equal footing, developing figurative expressionism, a unique contribution to the story of post-war art in America.

These artists’ formal and stylistic concerns evolved, yet neither Wonner nor Brown wavered from an optimistic belief in our inherent goodness and the bonds we share as friends and lovers. Wonner produced charming portraits of people in communion during the sunnier moments of life and developed an affinity for painting still lifes in a surreal hyperrealist style of disparately arranged elements inspired by Baroque-era Dutch and Flemish paintings. Meanwhile, Brown purged all human presence with industrial settings painted in the manner of de Chirico, whose dreamscapes evinced a restrained clarity he admired. Later, he turned to pure abstraction, producing chromatically rich, non-objective collages, often electric in color.

Crocker Art Museum Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott Shields stated of their collaboration with Heather James, “We thought it was the perfect combination to partner with Heather James. You have a broad footprint and were excited about showing the artwork. We’re excited about this as well. The goal, then, is for Heather James to promote the work and sell the pieces, and then the Crocker will put it into an endowment, spin-off interest, which, in theory, will last forever. Each year, we should have funds to support either an emerging artist in terms of an exhibition, publication, lecture series, and acquisition or a gay or lesbian artist. It’s a win-win for everybody. It helps support artists. It helps support the Crocker.”

Heather James is uniquely positioned to develop a fuller appreciation of these two essential artists. Our gallery represents the estate and collection of artworks.

Photograph of Paul Wonner Painting
Photograph of Paul Wonner Painting
Photograph of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown
Photograph of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown

Wonner & Brown 

Additional Reading