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Different Drums 

So near and yet so far away, visual art and music share much in common. Words like harmony, rhythm, mood and composition are as relevant to painting as they are to music. Yet, like siblings separated at birth, the kinship of art and music has long been overlooked, at least as far as America's official culture is concerned. Of course, such distinctions may not have been much of an issue on Chicago's South Side where painter Frederick J. Brown grew up, and where his music-buff father cultivated friendships with such epochal blues legends as Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed. And although Brown's talents are visual, his focus on music is at least as intense as his father's.

Early on, he dedicated himself to immortalizing his favorite musicians in paint and, in the process, developed a flamboyant pop-expressionist style that made him one of the more colorful figures to emerge in the New York art world of the 1970s. Actually, he started out in a mode of almost pure abstraction, as seen in one of the show's earliest works, In Seach of Jimi's Space (1971), which suggests the slashing splatters and pulsating color swatches of the abstract expressionists while simultaneously evoking Jimi Hendrix's slashing and pulsating guitar work and vocals, lending an almost psychedelic dimension to the paint. But he was able to use related techniques to evoke a particular persona in Anthony Braxton (1970), his portrait of the multi-faceted abstract jazz performer. Here the swatches, drips and splatters form a Zen-like construct of sketchy brush strokes that outline an otherwise empty figure with a bush haircut and bellbottoms. Yet it actually does somehow evoke Braxton's music because of its starkly sonorous tonalities and the repetitive pizzicato of the splashes and drips.

As Brown's style evolved, it became more suggestive of German expressionism. Works like Bleeker Street (1981), Stagger Lee (1984) and The Castle of Marquis de Sade (1983) are all large paintings that feature staggered rows of oversized figures that confront the viewer with freaky, sometimes almost sinister juxtapositions like some sort of Mardi Gras krewe from hell, and these are among the strongest, most intriguing works in the show. Others from the late 1980s and '90s are more conservative portraits of musicians and Native Americans that, while intriguing, sometimes lack the earlier fire. At his best, Brown is a significant artist who presaged 1980s neo-expressionism without ever quite getting credit for having done so, perhaps because his obsession with music removed him from the edgy, upstart zeitgeist epitomized by Salle, Schnabel and Longo. Here, at least, his work is center stage and in the spotlight, in all of its cacophonous harmonic splendor.

All of which makes for an interesting comparison with the expressionist woodcut prints of Hans Friedrich Grohs, also at NOMA. A protege of Feininger, Kokoschka, Klee and the expressionist greats, Grohs made waves at the Bauhaus and went on flourish as one of the more successful German artists of the 1920s and '30s. Those days abruptly ended in 1937, however, when the Nazis put him (and most other expressionists) on their list of "degenerate" artists who were not allowed to exhibit. Unlike many others, however, he refused to emigrate, and was even sent to the Russian front at age 50.

It was an ironic fate for a man who, unlike his more internationalist-minded Bauhaus alumni, often seemed as grounded in German history and mythology as the artists the Nazis most admired. In fact, his work is profoundly German, but in that darkly gothic tradition pioneered by Durer, without much Wagnerian triumphalism. On the contrary, mortality is a pervasive theme, and the anti-war message of works like Death as General, in which the grim reaper exhorts troops into battle, may not have set well with a deceptive and war-mongering, right-wing government.

After the war, Germans tried to look to the future, and Grohs died a respected if neglected figure, and that might have been that had not NOMA curator Dan Piersol discovered a trove of his work in Birmingham, where his daughter now resides. The result is this show, a fitting tribute to an artist who was always true to his vision regardless of the passing political passions of the time.

click to enlarge Painting about music: Frederick J. Brown's Anthony Braxton (1970) shows how a visual artist's technique can mirror the essence of a musician on canvas.
  • Painting about music: Frederick J. Brown's Anthony Braxton (1970) shows how a visual artist's technique can mirror the essence of a musician on canvas.
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