Though Wonner and Brown were important contributors to the development of Bay Area Figuration, neither have had their work exhibited as often or as prominently as other masters of the style, nor have they received the same level of commercial appreciation. This is due to several factors, including their focus on male-to-male interactions and male nudes, misinterpretations of their important and early position within Bay Area Figuration, and the fact that they spent most of their working years in California rather than New York.
Breaking the Rules reexamines Wonner and Brown’s work in our own era of greater inclusivity, from their contributions to Bay Area Figuration to their artistic accomplishments later in their careers, and it celebrates their divergent backgrounds and unapologetic voices as artists who were both queer and Californian.
This exhibition was organized by the Crocker Art Museum and supported by Anonymous, John S. Knudsen Trust and Simon Chiu.
Although today Wonner and Brown are thought of as California artists, neither was a native of the state. Wonner was born in Tucson, Arizona, and came to the San Francisco Bay Area to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Army in Texas, he spent time in New York working as a graphic designer while continuing his training at The Art Students League and Subjects of the Artist School. Brown, who hailed from Moline, Illinois, graduated with a degree in music from Yale in 1941. After serving in the army, he studied art in New York and Paris. The pair met at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952 while earning their master’s degrees in art. They fell in love and stayed together for nearly 56 years.
Both Wonner and Brown were important contributors to the development of Bay Area Figuration, a rebellion against the widespread pursuit of Abstract Expressionism. Over time, both artists’ works became less gestural and more overtly representational and, in Wonner’s case, increasingly detailed and precise. Brown became best known for his psychologically evocative landscapes with classic bathers, as well as for his lonely urban scenes. Wonner also painted figures but received greatest acclaim for his “baroque” still lifes laden with everyday objects, animals, and flowers.
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