Modern & Contemporary Art

The Comic Strip Surrealism of Roger Brown

Roger Brown (1941-1997), The Advance of Civilization, 1995. Est. $30,000-50,000. Lot 84. Auction Oct 27.

NEW YORK, NY -- In the mid-20th century, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago became the nexus of a strange and magnificent decades-long phenomenon. A loose-knit group of artists, most of whom had been under the tutelage of SAIC teacher Ray Yoshida, built a lexicon of imagery that was strange, absurd, bright, fun and, most notably, unlike anything that was happening anywhere else in the art world at the time. This meeting of the minds began with the late '50s "Monster Roster" – including artists such as Leon Golub, Nancy Spero and HC Westermann – and connected to the late '60s group The Hairy Who and artists Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum and others. By the late 1960s, this evolving group was dubbed the Chicago Imagists. It continued as a somewhat diffuse movement of artists continuing the program of exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, led by Christina Ramberg, Ed Paschke and Roger Brown.

What linked this disparate group of young artists was, in a sense, their freedom from the expectations of New York's weighty, all-engrossing art history. Largely uninterested in the prevailing Abstract Expressionism of New York City, the Chicago Imagists mainly focused on representational art. With Ray Yoshida's guidance, the Imagists discovered Outsider Artists like Joseph Yoakum and Henry Darger and went on flea market excursions hunting for esoteric objects to inspire (or include within) their work. They embraced comics, cartoons and pop culture – not to mention prototypical American Realist painters such as Hopper, Wood and Benton. As New York City (and to an extent Los Angeles) embraced Pop Art, the Imagists remained an anachronism. Instead of appropriating preexisting images like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Brown and the Imagists created new works that tended to be nostalgic, works that reference pop culture yet exist in their own universe.

The Advance of Civilization from 1995 is an important work created during the last years of Roger Brown's life. A tragic victim of the AIDS epidemic, Brown spent much of his final years creating incessantly – never losing the cynical, humorous edge to his work. Part film noir, part chrome luncheonette, Roger Brown's best works make us nostalgic for American culture, filtering historical anecdotes and morality tales through a sort of comic strip Surrealism. The Advance of Civilization is testament to that prevailing cynical wit; the work was the highlight of Brown's 1995 exhibition at longtime New York gallerist Phyllis Kind, who used the painting as the frontispiece of the exhibition postcard. Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of Brown’s exhibition on May 5, 1995 singled out The Advance of Civilization, calling it “a latter-day altarpiece… divided into tiers that begin with cave painting and progress towards the letters O and J.” With this work, Brown employs a method oft-used throughout his career: backlighting his paintings so that its light emanates from the background, a trick he learned from studying the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. A result of this method is that Brown's figures become silhouetted "everyman" characters. These figures are not individuals with their own narratives but two-dimensional placeholders within the larger story, like anonymous pawns on a chessboard. In many of Brown's works the viewer peers at these undefined figures through cut-aways or staged scenes, like studying the cross-section of an ant farm. The individual ants are unimportant as their value resides in their totality. Like the ants, we observe Brown's figures at their task, going about their day.

The Advance of Civilization is the evolution of communication, media and technology. Speaking through cave paintings, moving to the Acropolis, then to the Middle Ages, on through the 19th century and further to the US Capitol building, we reach a pinnacle at the crest of the 20th century with the grand scientific accomplishments of air and space travel. And yet at that peak we find ourselves in the dawn of what would become a never-ending 24 hour news cycle. The initials "OJ" stand above a framed crest depicting the history of human accomplishment. We understand this as a reference to Orenthal James Simpson: Hall of Fame football star, TV, film and Hertz rental car commercial actor and, at the time of the creation and exhibition of The Advance of Civilization, the focus of the most highly-viewed murder trial in American history. There is no portrait, nor does the artist think we need one. In 1995, it would be impossible not to know of OJ Simpson, not to know of the minutiae surrounding his life. OJ need only be represented by his initials, in which his persona and the persona that we and the media have constructed exists. OJ Simpson and the “Trial of the Century” was the key that unlocked the endless stream of content we now find ourselves buried in. Now it’s ubiquitous – our expectation is that there is always breaking news and we must perpetually keep informed, no matter how salacious, how gossipy, how granular and esoteric, no matter how unhealthy it is for us to bury ourselves in a doom scroll of never-ending socio-political punditry. 

In Brown's work, OJ sits atop our collective history, outside the crest, as if the "Trial of the Century" is more than the sum of all we accomplished before it. Or perhaps OJ resides outside The Advance of Civilization because we have reached our zenith? Does all the time and effort our media exhausted on the “Trial of the Century” represent a sort of “sad trombone,” a moment like Charlton Heston’s discovery that “we blew it all up” at the end of the Planet of the Apes? Here, Brown is – sarcastically, cynically, with tongue firmly in cheek – begging us to be provoked. But is he wrong? Given the current sociopolitical fabric of our world, Roger Brown has proven to be a soothsayer and The Advance of Civilization a prescient vision of what may be to come.

Post-War & Contemporary Art

Auction Wednesday, October 27, 2021 at 11am
Exhibition Oct 23 - 25

Featured in the October 27 auction is Roger Brown’s The Advance of Civilization from 1995.

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