Penning a list of pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and himself, Roger Brown writes in the 1980 Who Chicago? that “what is shared is attitude and not style.” Brown’s admiration for—and aesthetic affiliation with—Warhol’s work positions him far beyond the superfluity of purely regionalist designations. Like many pop artists, Brown interrogated popular imagery, politics, and the role of the periphery in constructing centered narratives of art and culture, using a vocabulary of vibrant interpretations of popular media imagery. Juxtaposing Brown and Warhol provides opportunities for rethinking the scope of pop art, which takes cues from a diverse array of aesthetic traditions and conceptual techniques.
Warhol exemplifies seriality in twentieth-century art. With repetitious, industrialized production methods, Warhol incorporated the logic of postwar production into the classical atelier. Hal Foster observes that this “serial structure integrates [pop], like no other art before, into our systematic world of serial objects, images, people.” The consistency of architectural forms and anonymized, ordered figures in Brown’s oeuvre testifies to a similar reflection on “our systematic world.” Brown visualized Warhol’s industrial techniques as deeply imbricated in our private lives. Pop art serves, at least partially, to show how our sense of narrative has been fundamentally altered by the rise of serial, modular forms in midcentury industries.
Both established commercial artists, Warhol and Brown were preoccupied by advertising and its proximity to political icons; their paintings record the seriality, banality, and terror latent in popular imagery. By showcasing similar techniques at play within both Brown and Warhol’s art, Roger Brown & Andy Warhol: Politics, Rhetoric, Pop broadens our understanding of pop art while re-examining one of Chicago’s best known artists.
Brown’s ominous California Cloud Surprise (1993) flattens the iconic Mickey Mouse into an inevitability, a feature of our terrain as natural as the weather. Front-page political issues meet adversing copy on the same plane of painting as in Brown’s hands, George H.W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are frozen as monoliths in Gulf War (1991); Warhol’s 1964 Jackie similarly isolates the political celebrity in a paean to disaster that almost anonymized its icon. Brown’s wry landscapes become Warhol’s star-studded psychological topography.
Both Brown and Warhol were passionate collectors, whose practices were informed by the images and objects they surrounded themselves with—and sometimes replicated. Sotheby’s six volume The Andy Warhol Collection, made for his estate sale in 1988, was the largest catalogue published in the auction house’s history. An obsessive collector, Warhol amassed and serialized objects just as he proliferated images, decisively cataloging popular aesthetics of postwar America. Brown, too, held extensive collections, though more singleminded in focus. His folk art, objects, and archival materials, now housed at the Roger Brown Study Collection (Chicago) and the Roger Brown residency (Michigan), situate the artist within a world of vernacular forms indispensable to the making of fine art.
Though he eschewed the mechanized aesthetics of New York’s pop artists, Brown employed similar techniques, both conceptual and aesthetic, in his art. Wielded by Warhol and Brown, popular culture becomes unflaggingly sharp, and skewers both ways. In 1987, Brown said of his work, “you put yourself on the line.” There might be no keener articulation of the artistic, personal, and ethical risks of being pop artists and painters of modern life.