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Vivian Browne

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Vivian Browne (1929 – 1993) was an American artist known for her sociopolitical portraits and abstracted paintings inspired by her travels. Mindful of her particular experience as a black woman artist, she probed the intersection of misogyny and racism throughout her life and practice. “Black art is political,” Browne said in 1985 to Black American Literature Forum. “If it’s not political, it’s not black art.”

Born in Florida and primarily raised in New York, Browne received both a BS and BFA from Hunter College in 1950 and 1959, respectively. She attended the Art Students League for a short time, and in 1972 she studied at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. From 1971 through 1992, Browne taught at Rutgers University in Newark. She headed the art and design department from 1975 to 1978, and in 1985 she became a professor of contemporary black and Hispanic art, painting and other fine arts courses.

Browne was driven by content over form, and over three decades her work spanned many interests and impulses. She often depicted her friends and contemporaries, including large-scale portraits of Camille Billops and Norman Lewis, but she was particularly compelled by the realistic and even unflattering aspects of humanity. Her first major body of work from the late 1960s, Little Men, incarnates male anger and frustration. Across over 100 paintings and drawings, middle-aged men – naked or in business suits – suck their thumbs, wave their arms, and with grotesquely contorted expressions. As Browne said in a 1968 interview for the Smithsonian’s’ Archives of American Art, “I got into knowing that I could see into people, that I could get what I saw down which was very often not what other people saw.”

After a 1964 fellowship at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Southern California, Browne began to paint landscapes and produced distinct series on subsequent trips to Nigeria, China and back to California. She also worked with Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop and contributed to the important portfolio Impressions: Our World, Volume I, 1973–74 alongside Emma Amos, Benny Andrews, Eldzier Cortor, Norman Lewis, Vincent Smith and John Wilson. Browne was a member of the influential feminist collective Heresies and contributed to its eponymous publication, including serving on the editorial board for its historic 1982 Vol 4. No. 3 Racism is the Issue. Along with May Stevens, Sylvia Sleigh, and 17 other women artists, Browne co-founded of SoHo 20 Gallery on Broome Street in 1973. She was also on the board of Feminist Institute, the first women’s art school in New York.

Browne received numerous awards throughout her life, including a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and recognition as a Distinguished Teacher of Art by the College Art Association. In 1986, she was honored by Mayor Koch of New York City for her achievements in the arts, and in 1990, she served as a Fulbright Panelist. Browne’s work is held in numerous public collections including the Hatch-Billops Collection, Emory University, Atlanta; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York; and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

In 2018, Browne was included in Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971 at Hunter College, a revisiting of the 1971 protest exhibition organized by members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in response to the Whitney Museum’s refusal to appoint a black curator for their survey Contemporary Black Artists in America. In 2017, Browne was included in Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85, which traveled to Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston through 2018.
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