Just before midnight on a recent Sunday, painter Frederick Brown cranked up the volume on his stereo and began rocking in rhythm to the music pounding through his Manhattan loft. The singer was Huddie Ledbetter, the Louisiana bluesman and onetime convict, and the tune was a song he recorded back in the 1930s. “The idea is to bring Leadbelly’s spirit into the room,” said Brown warmly. “I just hope he doesn’t put up too much of a struggle.”
Jabbing at the canvas like a boxer taking the measure of his foe, Brown penciled an outline of Leadbelly’s fist-hard features, then began slashing on oil paints in colors as loud as the music. As he worked, a dozen other blues musicians seemed to watch from already completed canvases around the studio: among them, guitarists Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, singer Alberta Hunter and pianist Memphis Slim.
For Brown, the portraits are more than just the latest step in an already impressive career. They are, he says, a belated thanks and tribute to those who have helped shape his paintings for the past two decades. For years Brown has worked through the night with the blues blaring, seeking to translate the music’s rhythm and emotion onto his canvases. “I can hear the tones Muddy Waters had in his voice and turn that into color, shape, image,” he says. “Like the best painters, those musicians had the ability to strike the universal heart chord.”
When Brown completed the last of his blues works earlier this month, the 31-painting series went on display at New York City’s Marlborough Gallery, the first stop on a worldwide tour. Although the larger pieces boast prices as high as $50,000, it is feeling, not finance, that Brown cites as his principal concern. “If people can’t hear the sound in these pictures,” he says, “then it’s slip-out-the-back time for me.”
Brown, of course, is not likely to be facing any backdor exits soon. At 44, he is already ranked by many in the forefront of American expressionists. “Other high-profile black artists have been working primarily in abstract modernist idioms,” says Barbara Rose, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Art. “Fred’s work is unique because it is a very personal expression of the contemporary black cultural experience in America.”
Initially, the inspiration for Brown’s current series came during a trip to Europe in 1969, when he met Chicago blues-men Earl Hooker and Magic Sam at a music festival in Denmark. “We were talking about how blues musicians were more appreciated overseas than in America, and Magic Sam said, ‘You know we’re going to die, and nobody is going to know about us.’ Sure enough, both of them died a few months later. The cold thing is, guys like that die, and there’s no one to replace them. I decided then that someday I was going to do something so the great blues musicians would not be forgotten. Of course, getting at the spirit of the music is the real deal, and it took me 20 years before I felt I was ready.”
This year Brown decided the time was right and set off on a pilgrimage to Clarksdale, Miss., the birthplace of the Delta blues. There he immersed himself in the lore of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and the other Mississippi blues-men who had performed there in juke joints and madhouses a half century ago. He also visited the town’s Delta Blues Museum—and was shocked by its tiny, shabby quarters. Learning that the white blues-rock group ZZ Top had launched a fund-raising crusade for the museum’s expansion, Brown offered to up the ante with a personal contribution. Based on profits from the sale of prints from his blues series, Brown’s promise may cost him $240,000. “I felt black people should be involved in trying to preserve their own culture,” he says. “I had visions of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and all them cats saying, ‘Fred, you can do it, and you should do it.’ ”
Brown, after all. had been listening to blues since growing up in a working-class neighborhood near the steel mills on Chicago’s South Side. His father ran shoe-shine stands and pool halls, and bluesmen “Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were friends of his,” Brown says. “Jimmy Reed lived just up the street. I just assumed the blues was what life was all about.”
After earning a B.A. in art and psychology from the University of Southern Illinois, Brown eventually moved to New York City, where he met jazzman saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Coleman’s Soho loft was a hangout for avant-garde musicians and artists, and Brown frequently brought his paints and brushes there and worked while Coleman’s band rehearsed. He also encountered Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who took an interest in the struggling young painter and became, Brown says proudly, “my artistic grandfather.” De Kooning “told me to remember that art is a very old profession, which originated with the shaman in the cave. Basically it is magic and has healing qualities.”
In 1974, when Brown fell behind on his rent and was facing eviction from his loft, De Kooning gave him a painting and told him to sell it if he needed quick cash. Instead, De Kooning’s gesture prompted a New York City gallery owner to show some faith of his own by commissioning Brown for a solo exhibition.
With his scuffling days long gone, Brown now contends for wall space with the best painters in the world. He has four works in the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; another (a Paris window scene) hangs in the White House collection and three more in the Executive Mansion of Liberia. Last year he became the first Westerner ever honored with a one-man exhibition at Beijing’s Museum of the Chinese Revolution. During its month-long run in China, the 100-painting retrospective of his work was seen by almost a million people.
When freed from his palette and public, Brown retreats to the role of family man with Megan Bowman, 37, a former modern dancer and expressionist painter whom he married in 1979, and the couple’s daughter, Sebastienne, 4. “Somehow all those woman-done-me-wrong blues just passed me by,” he says happily. Still, there have been some troubling moments on the home front. Three years ago a burglar broke into the family’s Manhattan loft, and Brown, a gentle man but a black-belt karate expert, had to confront the intruder. “They took the guy to the hospital with internal injuries, and eventually he was sent to prison,” he says. “But it left me with mental scars to hurt someone so badly, and Megan has felt nervous living in the city ever since.”
Brown now speaks of building a studio one day in Carefree, Ariz., a sleepy desert town where his wife’s parents live and where Brown and his family spend three months each year. But until then, he says, he will continue painting in New York, working mostly after midnight, “when all the creative night spirits are out.” And regardless of what he is painting, he will listen—as always—to the blues for inspiration. “The music comes from people being pressed down to their essence,” says Brown of his creative wellspring. “It’s not decorative or pretty. But it embodies the full spectrum of joy and sadness. And it carries the spark of life.”