This exhibition marks the start of the partnership of Heather James Fine Art with the Crocker Museum as representatives of the estate of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown. An artist couple, Wonner and Brown were aligned with the Bay Area Figurative movement emerging in the 1950s. Although Wonner was born in Tuscon, Arizona and Brown in Moline, Illinois, they met at the University of California, Berkeley in 1952 where they were both pursuing postgraduate degrees. And, it was here in Berkeley that both artists also met and befriended leading Bay Area Figurative artists including David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff. Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff would come together for drawing sessions most often in Wonner and Brown’s studio as it was the largest.
The Bay Area Figurative Movement was a loose collection of artists that broke away from the dominant and overly-influential style of abstract expressionism. These artists returned the focus back on figurative and representational art. They used their own start as Abstract Expressionists to inform their figuration. In this way, these artists pushed considerations of what is modern away from abstraction once more onto the body and figuration. Their influence trickled down into the Funk Art movement, the San Francisco Beat Movement, and the particular spin on Pop art by West Coast artists like Wayne Thiebaud. Once considered traditional, figurative painting became shocking in a sea of abstraction and the richly painted works of Wonner, Brown, and their friends helped shift the course of 20th-century American art.
Over their long career, Wonner and Brown developed their own separate artistic style with its own visual vocabulary. Nevertheless, in bringing works in conversation with each other in the exhibition, the viewer is able to see how they approached similar subjects and themes from their own viewpoint. One prominent subject with a long art historical reach is bathers and swimmers. Wonner draws from art history in referencing and modeling his work after Paul Cezanne’s paintings on bathers; Wonner’s figures become a mass of dynamic and intermingling figures. People in nature would appear prominently in Wonner’s career. In the hands of Brown, bathers and swimmers transform into totemic sculptures; in his individuation of figures and their overall frieze-like nature, Brown’s bathers speak more to classicism and neo-classical artists. Brown even lends an air of mysticism to them. What is shared, though, between Wonner and Brown is the use of vibrant and rich colors that saturate the visual plane and captures the vitality of the West Coast of the United States.
Emphasized in the exhibition is their use of models. Models played a central role in their process and ran throughout their career from the beginning when they worked alongside other Bay Area Figurative artists right to the end. The figures, dominant, thoughtful and sensual, provide insight into their artistic vision. This foregrounding of the human body, often male, serves as a curative to Clement Greenberg’s conception of modern art and modernity. Examining the figurative and representational art of Wonner and Brown opens up art history beyond a progression of uncontextualized, non-objective art. In the striking works of Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, lies a modernity rooted in integration – the balance between abstraction and figuration, a grappling with art history against a search for an individual voice. This exhibition of bright and energetic works covering four decades captures the range of their modern spirit and the deep bond between them.
The Crocker has established the Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown Endowment Fund which will support museum projects relating to emerging artists and LGBTQI artists in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Heather James is proud to support the endowment fund in representing the estate of Wonner and Brown.