Artist Vivian Browne’s Tantrum-Throwing Subjects Epitomize White-Male Privilege
WHEN AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS were weighing issues of race and representation in the 1960s, Vivian Browne (1929-1993) went in a unique direction. She began making drawings and paintings of white men in various states of rant, rage, and rebellion. Their white dress shirts and neckties indicate a certain professional status. They are men of privilege and power whose behavior is debasing.
Considered her first major body of work, Browne called the series Little Men. Her subjects clench their fists and cross their arms in frustration, guzzle sloppily from bottles, and grasp their crotches pleasuring themselves. One holds his mouth wide open performing a vocal tantrum. In “Seven Deadly Sins,” a subject literally puts his foot in his mouth. Another work is titled “Wall Street Jump,” indicating the social realm, mindset, and financial status of its subjects.
The expressive images make a political statement about white male patriarchy. Meanwhile, Browne’s masterful use of color serves a variety of purposes—defining space, indicating emotion, and guiding the viewer’s eye.
The scenes that unfold across the 50-year-old works portray stereotyped personas that resonate today, calling to mind 21st century phenomena—the actions of those who might rail against “reverse” discrimination, the shameful and more blatant behavior exhibited by targets of the #MeToo Movement, and the brazen conduct of the current President of the United States.
BORN IN LAUREL, FLA., Browne grew up in New York City, specifically South Jamaica, Queens. She earned a master’s degree from Hunter College and was a professor of art at Rutgers University for more than two decades. Her peers included artists Emma Amos, Benny Andrews (1930-2006), and Faith Ringgold.
“Vivian Browne: Little Men” was on view recently at Ryan Lee Gallery. It was the first solo show of her work since 1999. The New York gallery began representing Browne’s estate in December and presented the exhibition a couple of months later.
The body of work reflected her views and observations as an African American woman at the time. Civil rights laws were newly enacted, but little had changed and women’s rights remained elusive. The Little Men series captured how many felt, but few actually expressed on canvas. Browne did so with abandon, making nearly 100 drawings in addition to the paintings.
She discussed her unique subject matter with Amos, who is also represented by Ryan Lee. The conversation was published in the journal Art and Influence (1986), which was edited by Leo Hamalian and James V. Hatch. Browne said, “During 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.”
“During 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.” — Vivian Browne
BROWNE INITIATED the Little Men series in 1965. During the period, many African American artists were struggling to strike a balance between a desire to make important, complex art work and an urge to reflect their experiences and the state of race in America. They sought to determine their purpose, establish agency, and gain access to institutions or shun them altogether and start their own.
She was on the frontlines in New York, fighting for equity and inclusion for black artists and women artists. Browne was an original member of the Black Emergency Culture Coalition (BECC). Formed in 1969 by several artists including Andrews, Browne, Romare Bearden, Cliff Joseph, Norman Lewis, Ed Taylor, and Henri Ghent, director of the Community Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum, among others, BECC held major New York museums to account for their lack of diversity.
The group’s goal was to increase representation of African American artists in collections and exhibitions and open up opportunities for African Americans in museum leadership and curatorial ranks. BECC engaged with the Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art on these matters and when the results were unsatisfactory, members picketed the institutions.
Browne was also an early member of Where We At, a collective of black women artists established by Kay Brown, Ringgold, and others, who came together to improve their professional prospects. She participated in the Women’s Caucus for Art and helped produce a special issue of Heresies (a feminist publication about art and politics) that addressed racism in the feminist movement.
One of the outcomes of BECC’s meetings and negotiations with the Whitney Museum was the institution’s commitment to mount a survey exhibition showcasing works by African American artists. “Contemporary Black Artists in America” was organized by Robert M. Doty, a white curator at the museum. Doty visited Browne’s studio in 1970 to view her work for possible inclusion in the show.
RYAN LEE GALLERY commissioned Jordan Karney Chaim to write an essay about Browne’s life and work. In “‘Painting My Kind of Protest’: Vivian Browne’s Little Men,” she described the encounter with Doty, citing sources from Browne’s archives. Chaim wrote:
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 Browne recalled he walked directly from the front of the studio to the back, and left without saying a word. That day Doty encountered Browne’s Little Men, a series of oil paintings and acrylic drawings she began in 1965.
Later in the essay, Chaim continued:
Nevertheless, despite Doty’s 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.
The exhibition was the subject of some controversy and misinformation. Based on its agreement with the Whitney, BECC expected the museum to consult with black curatorial experts. With the understanding that didn’t happen, about one-third of the artists pulled their work from the show, BECC organized a panel discussion with black art professionals at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and also staged a counter exhibition. That show, “Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition: Black Artists in Rebuttal,” was presented at Acts of Art, a small gallery founded by African American artist Nigel Jackson in Greenwich Village.
SELECTIONS FROM BROWN’S Little Men series were featured in the “Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition” (1971) and “Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade, 1963-73” at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1985). More recently, a painting from the series was included in “Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971” (2018) at Hunter College, Browne’s alma mater. The exhibition revisited the 1971 protest show.
Chaim’s essay opens with an excerpt from an undated artist statement in which Browne said: “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,” Browne wrote. “This sense of righteousness 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].”
Ghent, the curator who was among the founding members of BECC with Browne, conducted an oral history interview with her in 1968 for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
He asked Browne what was next for her. Ghent said: “What are your plans for the future as an artist? Do you want to tell me about it?”
Browne responded: “I have one big plan and that is to get into a gallery, a gallery stable. And to become known as an artist. And not female and not anything else, you see, an artist. Or I would say and artist who is black.”