“I am a visual anthropologist.” At age 62, Frederick J. Brown can make this claim stick.

His work ranges from intimate portraits of his friend Ornette Coleman, the eyes gleaming with Mephistophelean energies, to the sweeping Café Sebastienne, which he designed and painted for the Kemper Museum to recapitulate the history of Western Art.


Brown was the first American artist to exhibit in Beijing in 1987. His work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and the Kemper Museum; his collectors include Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Brown grew up in Chicago, where his father brought home blues stars like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. Whenever Brown paints, his studio is awash with music. This helps propel him, shaman-like, into the zone where the spirits of his subjects speak, take shape in color and light and shadow and dance onto the canvas in vivid, unexpected, provocative renditions.


In their muscular brushwork, bold Afro-Caribbean colors, and mythological resonance, his expressive figural paintings refract two mentors: Willem De Kooning and Romare Bearden. These, along with Goya, Velasquez, Giotto, and Duccio, help shape Brown’s ongoing focus.


Brown’s respect for his subjects runs deep: “These people made America’s only real art form. They didn’t have subsidies or grants. They didn’t have respect as people and as artists. I want to put the romance back into how they are seen. These complex people created complex art. They’re not just beaten and hounded, like they’re usually shown.”


Seeing the powerful impact of Brown’s portraits, CASCADIA FINE ART INC. commissioned him to do this suite of six prints, which he calls “Portraits in Excellence”.


“The medium and the scale change things like details and colors,” Brown notes. “Getting the color right was very difficult: my concept is very complex, and printmaker, Gene Licht used layers and layers of ink to register what I do with paint.” Brown paid repeated visits to Licht’s studio for painstaking corrections. “It was an incredible team effort with mutual respect,” Brown avers


The results are stunning, for Brown ensnares spirits in his portraits. The “windows of the soul” haunt viewers, open into depths, follow as they move. Each work distills Brown’s multifaceted study of its subject—what he calls “putting my microscope on someone; the rhythm of the individual always has to be there in my work.”


In jazz, the crowning achievement is finding a unique voice on your instrument, learning from the masters but learning to tell your own musical story. Brown’s work flows from that.


The horn that gave LOUIS ARMSTRONG immortality rests against his cheek like a lover’s. (Yellow, for Brown, is the color of the spirit realm.) The sharp-dressed Satchmo views the viewer with self-assertiveness, pride, the blues, and anger that his trumpet transmutes into timeless joy.


The crooning romance of JOHNNY HODGES’ alto sax helped define Duke Ellington’s sound. Yearning yet smoothly self-assured, Hodges’ solos are seemingly simple yet rich like this depiction.


Sporting hepcat threads, young tenor saxist DEXTER GORDON grins while listening to jam sessions. The thick-lined silhouette is projected into his future: he absorbed bebop and Lester Young to create an influential style.


SARAH VAUGHAN is suffused with yellow right to her flaming earrings. The awesome range of her precise, stentorian voice is rendered in her different-sized eyes: imperious, vulnerable, self-absorbed, shrewdly observant.


The victim of a recent stroke, OSCAR PETERSON is pictured as two: the fiercely competitive young Tatumesque pianist whose eyes are focused inward; and the older man in forced repose, looking back and at the audience.


JOHN COLTRANE’s face is like a thermograph of his soul. For him, jazz was a spiritual mission, a seeking after both transcendent and all-too-human truths. His long, ferocious solos record his search and epiphanies.


Brown, like an alchemist, has extracted their essences.


~ Gene Santoro


MUSEUM ART COLLECTIONS: Browns' works are exhibited in the Kemper Museum, Museum of Contemporary and Religious Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Studio Museum, Harlem, NY; Smithsonian, National Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC and even the White House. In 1988 Brown made history and became the first Western artist to have a solo show at the National Museum of the Chinese Revolution in Beijing. He is an artist in residence at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art., NY; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Kunstverein, Hamburg; Gemeente Museum, Arnhem; Palazzo Reale, Milan, Los Angeles County Museum, LA; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada. Blake is an Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London.



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