Home Arts Stanley Brown, Art History’s Most Elusive Artist, Is Coming Into Focus

Stanley Brown, Art History’s Most Elusive Artist, Is Coming Into Focus

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Stanley Brown, Art History’s Most Elusive Artist, Is Coming Into Focus

Conceptual art was always a tricky business. During the ’60s, Robert Barry photographed gases you couldn’t actually see. Piero Mazoni produced a series of tins called Artist’s Shit that may or may not have contained his fecal matter; the only way to know was to open them, and they’ve always remained shut (per the artist’s instructions). Sol LeWitt once placed a cube in a hole, then left it buried forever, totally out of view of others.

But of all the tricky Conceptualists, Stanley Brown must rank toward the top. If you’ve heard of him at all, it’s likely through word of mouth or by stumbling onto one of his pieces in a gallery, where his pieces are typically shown without any explanatory information.

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Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, United States, on October 17, 2022. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Few articles about him are available via a Google search, and even fewer pictures of himself and his art can be found. One of the select accessible articles is his ART news obituary from 2017, when he died at 85. It contains almost none of the biographical details one expects from a death notice.

brouwn likely would’ve wanted even less information, however. The handful of publications about brouwn that exist note that he requested there be nothing out there about him at all. He is quite possibly art history’s most elusive artist, and he is still coming into focus, albeit very, very slowly.

Now, brouwn’s work is the subject of an unconventional exhibition staged at two institutions: the Art Institute of Chicago and Dia:Beacon in Upstate New York, both of which also have his art in their collections. Curators Jordan Carter and Ann Goldstein declined to speak about their exhibition, in keeping with brouwn’s preferred methods for presenting his work, and the exhibition pages on their respective websites are mostly blank. There’s no public programming and no catalogue.

“The work will speak for itself, serving as a visual testament to Stanley Brown and a material experience of his work for those who encounter it,” a description on the website of the Warhol Foundation, which provided funding to the Art Institute show, notes.

What might you encounter when you visit the exhibition? The Dia show, which opens April 15, includes just two works, including one on loan from the Krüller Müller museum called walking through cosmic rays (1970–2009) that, according to its description, consists of “the cosmic radiation in a certain space, indicated by a text label.”

As for the Art Institute show, the first comprehensive brouwn exhibition staged in the US, nothing was released to the press in advance of its opening on April 8. Not surprisingly, however, the show includes versions of This Way Brown (begun in 1960), arguably Brouwn’s most famous work, which mainly existed as an idea rather than as an object, as was the case with many Conceptualist artworks. Working in Amsterdam, where he was based for much of his life, he stopped passersby on the street and asked them how to get from one place to another in the city. He had his unsuspecting participants draw a route on a piece of paper that was browned then signed with his name and stamped with the work’s title.

As curator Christophe Cherix has pointed outBrouwn was removing himself from the making of these works at one point: he merely provided a prompt to others, who would complete the piece for him. Today, we might say that Brouwn was questioning authorship, ceding control to someone else who likely did not have training as an artist. The routes drawn seem to suggest as much—many are schematic and plain, little more than a few lines that are virtually unusable as a map without the context of where and when they were quickly dashed off. One imagines that the narration of the routes as they were being drawn was somewhat more illustrative than what ended up on paper.

The concept behind This Way Brown may seem banal, but brown would prove that it was flexible in later works. One from 1969 told viewers, “Walk during a few moments very consciously in a certain direction: simultaneously an infinite number of living creatures in the universe are moving in an infinite number of directions.” The piece can be performed by anyone, either in a gallery or outside it, since it first appeared as a set of instructions—what’s known as a word score—in the journal Bulletin, What you make of that part after the colon is up to you.

another piece, from 2003 and recently acquired by Dia, instructs viewers to travel in several directions for a certain amount of meters: 5 meters in the direction of Belém, then 5 meters in the direction of Calcutta, for example. How can you tell you’re truly walking in the direction of Belém without the help of Google Maps? You can’t—you must follow your instinct.

One of the few biographical details that is known about Brouwn casts these artworks in a new light: the fact that he was an immigrant from Suriname.

Born in the capital city of Paramaribo in 1935, he came to Amsterdam 22 years later. Having crossed the Atlantic, Brouwn may have been processing his own migration. Anyone whose family has ever made a similar voyage, or who has done that trek themselves, knows that there are many things about these journeys that cannot be portrayed using maps. An atlas cannot capture all the maneuvering needed to get from one place to another, or the conditions by which one leaves, whether by force or through one’s own volition. Brouwn’s work unfolds a kind of cartography that’s inclusive of more than what appears on a sheet of paper.

Like many artists of his era, Brown didn’t start out making work in that mode. He came out of the Zero movement, which enlisted abstraction to create a sense of motion, and he likewise produced non-representational work. Unlike his colleagues, however, we don’t know a lot about what he produced early on because he destroyed it all.

By 1964, Brouwn had fully committed himself to a kind of work that exceeded fine art in the traditional, optical sense. He penned a short manifesto for the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London that appeared to be set in the year 4000. PAST, ONLY FUTURE,” it begins. It closes out by calling for the total liberation of sound, color, light, space, time, and movement.

Here we have another journey, this one from the present into the future. Brown seemed to be constantly in transit—a fact hammered home by his works from the following decades.

For a 1980 show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, for example, Brouwn showed a piece called 1 Step, 1 Meter, 1 Distance (1980). It was composed of three black lines on white pieces of wood. The first, at 80 centimeters, was meant to communicate the length of one of his paces. The second, at 1 meter, seemed to act as a stand-in for a standard unit of measurement to which his pace could be compared. The third was left more ambiguous, merely denoted in the piece’s title as a “distance.”

And while these systems of measurement seemed fixed, the rules could be fudged if you scrutinized the logic. A 1976 book by brown in the Walker Art Center’s collection is called 1 meter, 1 step, True to its title, the book is exactly 1 meter tall. Between the creation of this tome and the 1980 work, the rubric for what counts as a step seems to have slid. But it was that 1980 work which spurred the critic Paul Groot to label brown “one of Europe’s most important artists.”

By this point, Brouwn had also begun mapping his footsteps using units that he labeled “sb feet,” “sb cubits,” and “sb steps.” A cubit is the length of one’s forearm, and so it will vary widely, depending on a person’s size. brouwn’s sb cubits pushed this idiosyncratic form of measurement to its extreme.

As that sort of method would indicate, brouwn could not be contained, even as his work appeared at galleries with clout, like West Berlin’s René Block Gallery, which also showed Gerhard Richter and Nam June Paik, and in game-changing exhibition’s such as Kynaston McShine’s “Information,” the 1970 MoMA show that helped solidify Conceptualism as a movement. (His contribution to “Information” was an untitled work that only featured his address and contact information.) It should follow that brouwn would today be considered a Conceptual art deity, but that isn’t quite what’s happened.

Even though the Wikipedia page for conceptual art does make mention of Brouwn, he’s not quite as well-known these days as, say, Joseph Kosuth, Joseph Beuys, or Yoko Ono. This hasn’t stopped a core group of dedicated brouwn fans from nerding out over his art, however.

For the most recent edition of the Sonsbeek exhibition, curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung attempted to do the math on some of brouwn’s works. He looked specifically at the 2009 piece 2 x 2 x 10 voet (2 x 2 x 10 foot), a standing monolith-like form made out of unvarnished okoume, a type of wood that, as Ndikung pointed out, is native to central Gabon and the Río Muni region of Equatorial Guinea. Ndikung converted the titular dimensions to centimeters, then compared them to the true dimensions of the piece supplied by the Kröller Müller, who owns the piece, and found that the two did not synch properly. Ndikung, writing without punctuation or capitals in a manner similar to brouwn’s own, concluded that the piece fits “within a larger narrative of abstraction common in african expressions.”

This type of behavior would appear obsessive were it not for the fact that Brouwn’s art, simple as it may be, seems to be designed to inspire this kind of thinking. It can be striking to consider a remark Ndikung makes in that same piece: “stanley brouwn’s social absence is predicated by a meta-physical qua physical omnipresence in the work.” In other words, brown is everywhere and nowhere—rarely seen, never heard, just out of reach, yet always there, with us where we least expect it.

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