Review by Matthias Reichelt
Published in: Herbert Brown, Subway Posters Repainted, Catalog, Janos Gat Gallery 1998
The oeuvre of Herbert Brown includes a wide spectrum of artworks from distinct creative periods. A student of Max Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum School of Fine Arts, Brown started with expressionist-figurative painting before moving on to the abstract. After years in the NO!art movement, he continued with works that were semi-conceptual; his recent direction is Constructivism de-constructed.
In the late Fifties—as in the present—those on the cutting edge gathered in the East Village. The artists that came together in the cooperative galleries along 10th Street were not yet known for their works but felt limited by an art-scene which narrowed itself first to Abstract Expressionism and later to Pop Art, and which refused to confront the conservative political tendencies of the time.
The March Gallery on 10th Street, and later the Gertrude Stein Gallery on the Upper East Side, were meeting points for the group of about twenty artists who were to become the NO!art movement. For five years these artists—Herbert Brown among them—presented their works individually and in group shows. Like the Beats of literature, who appeared just a short time before them, they did not want to ignore any of the existing social conditions.
Art should not have any subject other than life, which, with all its beauty, contradiction and violence, requires full disclosure of all underlying, hidden structures. Economy, power, sexuality; all of these are levels that Man has concrete relationships and must deal with.
Herbert Brown used images from the advertising industry that were originally intended to convince the public of a product's quality and stimulate its purchase. He changed the posters and billboards in devious ways, putting forth his view on structures and relationships, which, though meant to be hidden, are clear to everybody. The poster, headlined Joe O'Brien turns people on, which shows Joe kissing a woman through the dividing glass of a telephone booth, was re-adapted, presenting the couple's lower bodies in a state of sexual arousal. In a time when the sexual revolution still had not taken place, these paintings were a grave provocation. But that was exactly what the work was meant to do: everybody—every man and woman—already knows the mechanism of fight-and-flight between the genders; the conversing and role playing towards ongoing stimulation, instead of moving on to foreplay with the hope of eventual gratification.
Herbert Brown made use of the everyday/commonplace to achieve his wild expressive paintings. Many gallery-graffiti-artists of the Eighties could have benefited from Brown's direct, authentic, quick-over-painting; in his work there is the sound of fast bebop-beats, played in a slum bar with no lights on, and the omnipresent rumble of subways.*
A peculiar tension is created by the raw execution of the final strokes of paint, which allows the viewer to see into the layers underneath. Advertisement on the one hand—individual contribution on the other. Publicity versus intimacy, mass print versus the original hand.