Though he gained national acclaim as one of the Chicago Imagists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roger Brown was quick to acknowledge an essential truth about his personal and artistic identity: “I really think that my going in the direction I went comes from being Southern.” Born and raised in Alabama, Brown spent much of his adult life in more cosmopolitan settings such as Chicago and California, but remained deeply influenced by the family, customs, and character of his native region. Established after his untimely death at the age of fifty-six, the James Roger Brown Memorial Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama, stands as a testimony to the artist’s achievements as a unique narrative creator of both two- and three-dimensional work. His paintings and sculpture are represented in dozens of museums across this country and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art.
Growing up amidst a large extended family with strong fundamentalist beliefs, Brown’s passion for creating and collecting can be traced to his father, a skilled craftsman, and his maternal grandmother. His love for the land was fostered by his paternal grandparents who owned a cotton farm where young Roger spent much time. An early interest in art prompted private lessons that continued for several years. Following his high school graduation in 1960, Brown was briefly enrolled at a Church of Christ college in Nashville, Tennessee. More inspired by painting and drawing classes than religious courses, he dropped out before completing his freshman year. He worked odd jobs to finance night classes at the University of Tennessee and toured the South. Brown then relocated to Chicago, where he attended both the American Academy of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Funded by scholarships and a variety of part-time work, he completed a degree in commercial design in 1968 and later earned an M.F.A.
It was in 1968 that Brown and three other artists were invited by Chicago curator Don Baum to mount a display of their work. That exhibition, The False Image, reflected the group’s “lack of interest in East Coast Minimalism and Color Field abstraction” and introduced a new Pop Art aesthetic. Working primarily in oil, Brown created striking surrealist images—characterized by “bright colors, black outlines, and narrative panels often linked to comic-style art”—that drew on Chicago’s urban rhythms and architecture. His paintings and sculpture (though Brown preferred to identify these works as “three-dimensional paintings”) garnered critical attention and representation from the prestigious Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York and Chicago.
Between 1968 and 1986, Brown traveled extensively, exploring much of the United States by car and visiting Mexico and Europe. These trips provided him with a wealth of subject matter for his increasingly flat, patterned landscapes. Throughout these years, “Alabama tugged on his imagination.” Working variously from his home state, Chicago, Michigan, and California, Brown executed innovative objects that reflected his myriad interests—ranging from politics and popular culture to country music and Christianity—always infused with an “outsider” sensibility. Throughout his successful career, his paintings were in steady demand: for solo and group exhibitions, as stage sets and commissioned murals, and as cover art for national magazines.
Before his untimely death due to complications from AIDS, Brown generously donated his residences and studios—as well as his art, papers, and vast collection of folk art, decorative objects, and diverse visual ephemera—to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The modernist Michigan structure serves as an artists’ retreat, while the Chicago studio is maintained intact as a house museum in homage to Brown’s conviction that “the things in the collection are of universal appeal to all artists and people with a sense of the spiritual and mystical nature that material things can evoke.”