Portrait of Carolyn Singer
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The enamel-on-masonite Portrait of Carolyn Singer is a spectacular example of Joan Brown's portraiture from the early 1970s, though the sitter remains a mystery. 

Brown was famously reticent to enter the chaotic fray of radical politics, whose slogans, wardrobes and risk-taking showmanship seemed, by then, no longer in full control of the San Francisco Bay Area, her birthplace and lifelong home. The "Summer of Love," which made the city into a glimmering beacon of freedom for suburban hippie youths, not only from parents, but also from propriety and decency, had transformed San Francisco. But even the most peaceful revolutions have a way of leaving a sink full of dirty dishes for locals, and, by the beginning of their second year of marriage in the summer of '69, Brown and the artist Gordon Cook were tired of cleaning up after proponents of Free Love. 

Cook, in particular, was done with the "casual attitude about drugs" that seemed to have taken hold everywhere around them, resulting in the public piles of orphaned paraphernalia and the random screaming outbursts that distinguish most urban environments, especially ones with a reputation for being "groovy." The family moved to Snug Harbor, in the Sacramento Delta area, where the seven-year-old Noel Neri, Brown's son with the artist Manuel Neri, enjoyed playing with his older stepbrothers and the family's two dogs. Nearby, Brown took up a post teaching painting at the Sacramento State College. Before long, Brown realized that Sac-town was too conservative for her tastes, and the family moved back to San Francisco, to a house on Cameo Way in Diamond Heights, where Brown would keep her studio for the rest of her life. 

It was around this time that Brown decided to paint Carolyn Singer, who stands before us against a checkerboard background, the shadow on which gives the figure a flat, almost paper doll-like effect. The freckled woman appears almost saint-like in her pose, if not a bit awkward or unsure, as evidenced by her slight slouch and interlocked hands. The yellow embroidery on her puffed-sleeve dress pops against the black and white squares, as do her shoes on the red rug decorated with green dragons beneath them. We can assume Carolyn Singer a single, specific person rather than a composite, but, as of March 2021, there doesn't seem to be anything publicly available about this particular Carolyn Singer, or what her relationship was to the artist. (Please let us know in the comments if you have any leads on this mystery!)



  1. Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  2. Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972.
  3. Brown, Christopher, and David Simpson. On Painting: The Work of Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  4. Jones, Caroline A. Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950-1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  5. "Portrait of Carolyn Singer." OMCA Collections,
  6. Tsujimoto, Karen, and Jacquelynn Baas. The Art of Joan Brown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  7. Yapelli, Tina. Joan Brown: the Golden Age, April 12 through May 15, 1986, University Art Gallery, San Diego State University. San Diego: San Diego State University, 1986.