Artist couple Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown were ahead of their time in many ways, and yet neither have had their work exhibited as often or as prominently as some of their contemporaries, most notably Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, 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 and misinterpretations of their important and early position within Bay Area Figuration. On a national level, it also had to do with the fact that they spent most of their working years in California rather than New York.

Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, currently on view at the Crocker, 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. It celebrates their divergent backgrounds and unapologetic voices as artists who were both queer and Californian.

Scott A. Shields, PhD, who curated the exhibition, shares a little more about how these two artists pushed boundaries in their art.

Contributing to the Development of Bay Area Figuration

Paul Wonner (American, 1920–2008), North Sea Coast, circa 1954. Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 in. Private Collection.

In December 1989, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950–1965. The exhibition gave pride of place to David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn, with their art accounting for almost half the pieces on view. The show also included works by Joan Brown, Theophilus Brown, Bruce McGaw, Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliveira, James Weeks, and Paul Wonner.

In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Park, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Weeks were identified as first-generation Bay Area Figurative painters. Wonner and Brown, along with Oliveira, were identified as members of the group’s “bridge generation,” a designation that has unjustifiably defined Wonner and Brown ever since.

The Bay Area Figuratives earned the name because they were based in the San Francisco Bay Area and because they reengaged with the visible world, applying the gestural style of action painting to landscapes, still lifes, and figures. David Park, heretofore an Abstract Expressionist, was the first to break from nonobjective painting, doing so at the dawn of the 1950s and going so far as to take his earlier paintings to the dump. Bischoff began to introduce representational elements in his own work in late 1952, and Diebenkorn’s shift took place over many months starting three years later.

Both Brown and Wonner should have been included in this group of first-generation Figurative painters. Brown started making paintings of athletes in action in late 1951/early 1952, prior to even meeting Park and before Bischoff and Diebenkorn’s conversions to representational painting. Wonner was painting recognizable landscapes and paintings with figures by 1955, before Diebenkorn began his foray into recognizable subject matter later that year.

In 1992, Wonner had an opportunity to set the record straight—at least from his perspective—and took it, sharing his version of the narrative with Karen Haber of American Artist who wrote: “Wonner was a seminal member of the Bay Area Figurative Group. . . . Among his fellow rebels were friends and colleagues David Park, James Weeks, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Theophilus Brown. In time, the group grew to include Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliveira, and Bruce McGaw.”

Pool Inspiration for David Hockney

William Theophilus Brown (American, 1919–2012), Swimming Pool, 1963. Oil on canvas, 46 x 48 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Hamilton-Wells Collection, 72.42.

In 1961, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown moved to Santa Monica, California. Two years later, they relocated to Malibu. In both locations, the artists lived near the beach, and they both featured their new environs in their art. As Brown explained, “We experienced living outdoors rather than inside like artists in New York.” Both Brown and Wonner painted swimming-pool scenes in the early 1960s, before English artist David Hockney famously took up the subject in 1964. Hockney had made his first trip to California in late 1963. He was introduced to Wonner and Brown through their mutual friends, the novelist Christopher Isherwood and his artist partner Don Bachardy, and it was perhaps also then that Hockney first saw Wonner and Brown’s paintings.

Reinventing the Still Life

Paul Wonner (American, 1920–2008), Still Life with Flowers and a Note to KMK, 1992. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 in. Collection of Kevin and Sherry Kearney.

In 1974, Wonner and Brown moved back to the Bay Area, purchasing a Victorian home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley two years later. They chose their house for its many windows and natural light, as well as for its large basement, which initially both artists used as a studio. For Wonner, a new larger studio and permanent residence enabled him to return to large canvases, which he began to fill with baroque profusions of household objects, flowers, and even animals. These paintings brought him renewed acclaim.

Wonner explained that his new work grew out of his admiration for seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings, though his objects, compositions, and approach were always decidedly contemporary. Wonner relished the freedom the new compositions offered; the paintings allowed him to invent interior and exterior spaces and to select objects because he liked them or because they meant something to him. He confessed, “When I realized what I could get away with, I got wilder and wilder. Sometimes the combinations were almost surreal.”

Architectural critic Allan Temko wrote about the paintings and described them as Wonner’s “very own.” What he meant is that Wonner had invented something altogether new. New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer also took note of the originality of Wonner’s direction: “The conventions governing the division of space in his still life are basically the conventions of abstract art (hard‐edge division), yet he has so persuasively insinuated his repertory of beautifully observed objects into this abstract space that he succeeds in converting it into another kind of pictorial experience. Without entirely breaking with the modernist past, he has found a fresh function for some of its practices.”

Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown

All of these “firsts,” from early examples of Bay Area Figuration, to swimming-pool scenes, to Wonner’s Baroque still lifes, can be found in the exhibition, on view now through August 27. This show is the most comprehensive exhibition of Wonner and Brown’s work ever mounted, and it offers an in-depth study of the paintings and partnership of this trailblazing couple.

Header Image Credit: William Theophilus Brown (American, 1919–2012), Standing Bathers, 1993. Acrylic on paper, 23 x 28 1/2 in. Crocker Art Museum, Estate of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown, 2019.22.7.