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Vivian Browne in her studio, 1971. Seven Deadly Sins in the background. Photo by Jeanie Brown, Courtesy Adobe Krow Archives.


“In the final analysis, my paintings are about me, my dreams, my world, my way of transforming what I see and think and feel into form with color and texture arranged to suit my sense of proper balance and arrangement,” wrote Vivian Browne (1929-1993). “This sense of rightness is neither Black nor White, yet it is both, for I am a Black woman painting with an esthetic language learned from white man [sic].”1 Browne’s pursuit of authentic selfexpression propelled her as an artist, activist, and teacher. Amid debates over the existence and character of a Black art, between the power and efficacy of representation versus abstraction, all the while entrenched in the fight for the equality of African Americans and women, Browne’s fidelity to the translation of her truth into paint yielded a body of work and a lifetime of activism that is only just beginning to receive its due recognition. Browne was born in Laurel, Florida, and was raised in South Jamaica, Queens. At home, her mother’s talent for clothing design and construction, along with her father’s interest in oil painting and woodcarving sparked creativity in Browne and her three sisters. Though she recalled herself as a subpar student, Browne relished school for the opportunity it provided to indulge her intellectual curiosity, and she was 1. Vivian Browne, “Artist’s Statement,’ undated. RYAN LEE Gallery, New York and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles.

an avid reader.2 Her awareness of racism came at an early age, and, as Leo Hamalian wrote in 1985, she determined that “she would fight for her people’s rights through the most effective means available to her.”3 It was as a student at Hunter College in New York City, where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, that she discovered that painting would be the most powerful tool she had to combat racial injustice.4 A 1964 Huntington Hartford Fellowship sent her to Los Angeles where six months of dedicated art-making confirmed her chosen path. The experience of painting from morning until night, without distraction, was life changing for the young artist who told a local newspaper, “[i]t was there that I really realized that this is what I was.”5 In the years following the Fellowship, Browne produced paintings, drawings, and prints, while becoming increasingly engaged in New York’s Black Art and Feminist movements. She was an original member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which formed in 1969 to protest the egregious exclusion of Black artists from the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 (1969). A year earlier, many of the same artists had banded together to fight institutional racism in the art world when they demonstrated against the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1968 exhibition, The 1930’s: Painting and Sculpture in America, which had also ignored the contributions of Black artists despite the noted rise of many African American artists during that period.6 In response to the Whitney’s omission, a group of African American artists and curators, including Browne, mounted a counter exhibition, Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 1930s, at the then-recently opened Studio Museum in Harlem.7

Browne was also an early member of the artists’ collective Where We At, established in 1971 by Kay Brown, Faith Ringgold, and others to increase professional opportunities for Black women artists.8 She was active in the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA), and participated in the editorial collective that produced a special issue of the feminist journal Heresies that grappled with racism within the feminist movement. Alongside her art and activism Browne worked as an educator—supporting herself first as a teacher in New York Public Schools, then for the Board of Education, and from 1971 to 1992 as a professor of fine art and art history at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Between 1969 and 1971, Browne served on the BECC’s negotiating committee, which challenged the Whitney’s inequitable curatorial policies as evinced by the planning of the 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America.9 2. Vivian Browne “Oral History” interview by Henri Ghent, July 1, 1968. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 3. Leo Hamalian, “Talking to Vivian Browne,” Black American Literature Forum. Spring, 1985. 4. Ibid. Browne received her BS from Hunter College in 1950 and her MFA in 1959. 5. Elinor Greene, “Teacher With Gift Hears West Calling,” unidentified newspaper clipping c.1964. RYAN LEE Gallery, New York and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles. 6. Howard Singerman, “Rebuttal and Representation,” Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 (New York: Hunter College Art Galleries, 2018), 10. 7. Ibid, 10-11. Along with Browne, Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 1930s was curated by Henri Ghent of the Brooklyn Museum’s Community Gallery, Carroll Greene of the Frederick Douglass Institute in Washington DC, and artists Benny Andrews, Felrath Hines, and Faith Ringgold. 8. Kay Brown, “The Emergence of Black Women Artists: The Founding of ‘Where We At’” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 29 (Fall 2011), 121. 9. Benny Andrews, journal excerpts reprinted in Tradition and Conflict: Images of a turbulent Decade, 1963-1973 (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1985), 69-71.

When it became clear that the Whitney would not meet the BECC’s demands for an African American curatorial consultant on the project despite lengthy negotiations with museum director John I.H. Baur, the BECC organized Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal at Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village. With this counter-exhibition, artists with varying stylistic and political approaches—several of whom had pulled out of the Whitney exhibition in protest—presented a unified front through a politicized act of self-representation.10 In late 1970 Robert M. Doty, the sole curator of Contemporary Black Artists in America, visited Browne’s studio, ostensibly to select work for the exhibition, though as Browne recalled, he walked directly from the front of the studio to the back, and left without saying a word.11 That day Doty encountered Browne’s Little Men, a series of oil paintings and acrylic drawings she began in 1965. The Little Men are a succession of expressionist portraits of middle-aged white men, seemingly of the upper management or executive class as intimated by their collared shirts, neckties, and painting titles such as Wall Street Jump (1969). However, these men do not behave in a manner befitting their corporate stature. They flail and howl, they grimace and clench, apparently in the throws of infantile temper-tantrums, drunken rampages, or fits of hysteria. 10. For a detailed history and analysis of the two exhibitions see Singerman essay, “Rebuttal and Representation;” see also Tradition and Conflict: Images of a turbulent Decade, 1963-1973. 11. On an annotated letter from Robert M. Doty to Vivian Browne, November 17, 1970, it is written, “June, Vivian told me that R. Doty did visit her studio-that she had on view the ‘Little Men.’ He looked and left ‘without saying a word.’” RYAN LEE Gallery, New York and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles. Browne also recounted Doty’s brusque studio visit in a 1985 conversation with fellow artist Emma Amos in Artist and Influence, eds. Leo Hamalian and James V. Hatch (1986): 1-10.

Vivian Browne circa 1965. Photo courtesy Adobe Krow Archives.

Vivian Browne at Artist House exhibition opening, 1974. Wall Street Jump hanging on the left. Photo courtesy Adobe Krow Archives.

Little Men #45 and #102 (both acrylic on paper, 1967), feature single men that emerge out of rapidly brushed yet deliberate patches of color. Rage emanates from the man at the center of #102. He stands with tensed shoulders, his arms thrust rigidly downward terminating in tightly-balled fists, while the gaping mouth in his oversized head emits a primal scream. The central figure in #45, while less livid, appears to feel equally entitled to inappropriate expressions of emotion. He leans back and looks out at the viewer, sucking his left thumb while his right hand seems to grab at his crotch. The expression on his face is one of unsettling nonchalance. In the 1968 painting Two Men, two figures sit side by side, their hands suggestively at work in their laps. Their faces are tormented and tense. Browne’s application of color is exquisite while spare and muted—a bit of magenta for a necktie, a deep red whose form and placement suggests a phallus, and just enough brown and green to distinguish these men from their surroundings. What Browne so masterfully communicates in this series, with relatively little detail, is that the Little Men’s emotional outbursts are the product of their own social conditioning—the result of too much power and too little impulse control. Browne’s imagery emerged out of her own mediations on the experience of life as a Black woman in America. In a 1968 conversation with curator Henri Ghent, Browne discussed the genesis of the series, explaining, [t]here were some things in my life that I had always tried to skirt over and not make important, but they became so important that I couldn’t overlook them anymore. One was the fact of being a female in a male

society. And the other, well several others, was my difficulty with men, beginning with my father. And this becomes very, very personal and psychological and all of that.12 She continued, describing the emotional and psychological depths she plumbed to arrive at the subject matter of Little Men, as well as the understanding that it would make many viewers uncomfortable: I think I have come to grips with it and actually have to. Because if not, I can’t paint anymore. This isn’t something that is painted at all lightly. It’s something I had to dig for. I spent actually four months doing oil sketches on paper. I’ve got stacks of sketches in there. Jimmy Baldwin has a way of saying it. He says that you have to vomit first. And that’s what those sketches did.13 The visceral image of vomiting, with regard to both the impulsive, unpredictable, and crude behaviors exhibited by the Little Men, and the wrenching process by which they were realized, is apropos. But Baldwin’s full quotation also speaks directly to the kind of artist Browne was: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.”14 Throughout her career Browne reiterated her compulsion to make art, to tell her truth, and to use all of the artistic instruments at her disposal to distill that truth into its purist expression. She once wrote, “[w]hen I use words, I find I begin to describe only that part of my reality that fits into words, so it is not really at all my reality. But when I paint, I deal with a larger reality, one that comes closer to what I’m about, what my reality is.”15 The Little Men reveal and ridicule the wretched underbelly

of white male privilege as Browne experienced it. Critic Victoria Martin described them as “[a] kind of reversal of de Kooning’s Women series,” identifying “the pathetic men” as “impotent behind their brash belligerence.”16 The series was an important political statement, though as Browne discussed with friend and fellow artist Emma Amos in 1985, Little Men may not have obviously aligned with the Black art of the period. As she explained to Amos, “[d]uring the Civil Rights Era, one had to paint black themes, black people, black ideas. I didn’t…I was painting my kind of protest, but it didn’t look like black art…Then, I was painting these little old white men.”17 Despite their divergence from activist art of the time, the Little Men were included in a number of important shows in the late sixties and early seventies. These included the Museum of Modern Art’s memorial exhibition, In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968); the aforementioned Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal (1971); and Browne’s first solo show in 1974 at Artist’s House, famed jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s Soho exhibition space. In 1985 they were featured in the seminal assessment of civil rights era art and politics, Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade, 1963-1973, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Nevertheless, despite Doty’s 12. Brown, “Oral History.” 13. Browne, “Oral History” 14. James Baldwin, “The Northern Protestant” in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (New York: The Dial Press, 1961). 15. Vivian Browne, “Artist’s Statement,’ undated. RYAN LEE Gallery, New York and Adobe Krow Archives, Los Angeles. 16. Victoria Martin, ArtWeek, April, 1995, 26. 17. Vivian Browne interview with Emma Amos in Artist and Influence, eds. Leo Hamalian and James V. Hatch (1986), 9.

Vivian Browne at Artist House exhibition opening in 1974 in front of Wall Street Jump. Photo courtesy Adobe Krow Archives.

visit to Browne’s studio in 1970, the Little Men did not end up in Contemporary Black Artists in America. Perhaps he was among the viewers made uncomfortable by their subject matter, possibly because, as art historian Howard Singerman has suggested, they resembled him too closely.18 It has been fifty years since Browne began painting these ominous portraits of power in America. While 2019 saw the swearing in of the largest class of female Congress members in history, and the Time’s Up and #meToo movements continue to galvanize awareness of and commitment to permanent systemic change, “Little Men” still occupy the most powerful political positions in this country. Browne’s provocative challenge to white male power and privilege remains disturbingly relevant. In 1968, when Ghent asked, “what compels you to bring out this reality?” she responded by saying that it was not a search for truth per se, but “seeking what is real...there has to be something that’s real. I find that when I try to abstract an idea it’s merely an abstraction. But if I paint an idea in terms of a person of a sort or a person interacting then the idea is clearer and it’s more real somehow.”19 The realness personified by Browne’s Little Men is dark and dangerous, but there is a subversive sense of humor at work that reveals its vulnerability. The more visible these flawed characters become, the likelier they are to fall. If we can harness the power of their imagery to fuel the twenty-first century iteration of the long march toward a more equitable and just future, we might eventually be able to look back on them as history painting.

18. Singerman, “Rebuttal and Representation,” 38. 19. Browne, “Oral History”

Wall Street Oil on 59 3/4 x 46 inches

t Jump, 1969 n canvas s (154.9 x 121.9 cm)

Two Me Oil on 48 x 56 inches (1

en, 1968 canvas 123.2 x 143.5 cm)

Untitled (Little Man wit Oil on 36 x 20 inches

th Arms Crossed), c. 1967 n canvas (91.4 x 50.8 cm)

Wall Street D Oil on 54 x 48 inches (1

Dancer, 1968 n canvas 133.4 x 123.2 cm)

Dancing F Oil on 48 1/2 x 52 inches

Figures, 1968 n canvas s (123.2 x 138.4 cm)

Seven Deadl Oil on 59 x 112 inches (

ly Sins, c.1968 n canvas (151.1 x 284.5 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inc

n #1, c. 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 45.1 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inc

#15, c. 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 45.1 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inc

#40, c. 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 45.1 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 1/8 inc

n #45, 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 43.5 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inc

#70, c. 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 45.1 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 1/8 inc

n #92, 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 43.5 cm)

Little Men Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 1/8 inc

n #102, 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 43.5 cm)

Little Men # Acrylic 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inc

#105, c. 1967 on paper ches (60.3 x 45.1 cm)

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