Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Robert Delford Brown, 1930-2009: "Who knows"

Painter and philosopher (and all-around wild man who "bought good taste to butchery" in his art) Robert Delford Brown apparently drowned on March 24 at the age of 78 while working on a project. He was also the head of his own religion, had organized happenings during the 1960s, and created his own school of philosophy. Here is his obituary published April 5 in The New York Times and written by Bruce Weber.

Robert Delford Brown, a painter, sculptor, performance artist and avant-garde philosopher whose exuberantly provocative works challenged orthodoxies of both the art world and the world at large, usually with a big wink, was found dead on March 24 in the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C.

The death has been ruled accidental, Deputy Sheriff Charles Smith of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s office in North Carolina said. The cause appeared to be drowning. Mr. Brown was last seen on March 20, said his stepdaughter, Carol Cone. Mr. Brown, who had had hip surgery and walked with a cane, was known to have been scouting locations for an art project in the river involving a number of rafts, and he is thought to have fallen in.

A colleague of artists like Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik, Mr. Brown was a central figure in the anarchic New York art scene of the early 1960s, a participant in — and instigator of — events-as-art known as “happenings.” He saw the potential for aesthetic pronouncement in virtually everything. His m├ętier was willful preposterousness, and his work contained both anger and insouciance.

He was 78 and lived in Wilmington, where he had moved two or three years ago to prepare for a 2008 exhibition of his work at the Cameron Art Museum there.


His raw materials included buildings, pornographic photos and even meat carcasses.He often performed in the persona of a religious leader, but dressed in a clown suit with a red nose and antennas hung with ripe bananas. In the end his message to the world was that both spirited individualism and unimpeded creativity must triumph.

One happening, a 1964 performance of a musical theater piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen called “Originale,” included, according to Time magazine, “two white hens, a chimpanzee, six fish floating in two bowls suspended from the ceiling, a shapely model stripping to her black lace panties and bra, and a young man who squirted himself all over with shaving lather and then jumped into a tub of water.”

Mr. Brown, then known as a painter, played “The Painter.” He appeared showering colored powder on the floor while perched on a ladder and clad in a costume of his own creation, a suit appropriate for coping with hazardous materials with what seemed to be a giant vacuum cleaner tube attached like a monstrous phallus. He was inventing a creation myth, he said later, and indeed, his appearance in “Originale” led him to create his own religion, The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc. The church was jokey, but not a joke. It had a deity, called Who, to answer the mysterious questions of the universe. (What does the future hold? Who knows.) It had a philosophy, known as Pharblongence, an Anglicized skewing of the Yiddish word farblonjet, meaning “confused.” And it had a creation story, “about a civilization that has played a violent game of baseball” since its first invention, the stick, wrote Mark Bloch, in a biography of Mr. Brown, “Meat, Maps, and Militant Metaphysics,” published by the Cameron Museum.

And in 1967 the church got a home, a former New York City branch library building at 251 West 13th Street in Greenwich Village, built in 1887 and designed by the Beaux-Arts architect Richard Morris Hunt. Mr. Brown hired the Modernist architect Paul Rudolph to redesign the entrance and the interior, creating a purposeful clash between the old and the new that Mr. Brown called “The Great Building Crack-Up.” He lived in the building until 1997, staging art exhibitions and happenings there and preaching the gospel of Pharblongence. “This is a Dada improvisation, an architectural improvisation, a Dada gesture,” Mr. Brown told Mr. Bloch. He called the building “an architectural doodle.”

Robert Delford Brown Jr. was born in the tiny community of Portland, Colo., on Oct. 25, 1930. His family moved to Long Beach, Calif., when he was an adolescent, and he attended Long Beach State University and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. A Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist as a painter, he moved in 1959 to New York City, where he found himself among artists calling themselves Neo-Dadaists, devoted to action-based pieces.

"Everything is art, everyone is an artist; there is no 'not art'” was among his credos. In his later years he spent much of his energy making collages and organizing the kind of public art event he had helped bring to prominence almost half a century ago. His last work, earlier this year, was “Kazooathon,” a performance piece in which kazoo-playing participants marched through downtown Wilmington.

But he considered the church his most enduring creation, and its birth was perhaps the most memorable happening of his career. In October 1964, Mr. Brown opened “Meat Show,” an installation of thousands of pounds of raw meat, hanging carcasses of beef, lamb and pork, in a huge refrigerator unit separated into chambers by lingerie fabric. Attendees arrived in limousines in the meat market district of Manhattan — hardly the fashionable neighborhood it has become — and wore their overcoats to view the exhibition, which was kept at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Brown called the installation “the grand opening service” of his new church, and the opening was covered by newspapers around the world. The Sunday Telegraph of London called it “the world’s most perishable art show.”

Mr. Brown joyously agreed, in a statement to The Sun Herald of Sydney, Australia.

“Most of this meat will go bad in a few days, which makes the whole exhibition more exciting,” he said.


(Photo of the artist, Verona, Italy 1992, by Francesco Conz. Images from the Robert Delford Brown website: http://robertdelfordbrown.com/Art/Art.htm)

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