Search This Blog

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bill Theophilus Brown, 1919-2012

Bill Theophilus Brown (1917-2012)

On Wednesday, February 8, painter Bill Theophilus Brown died at his home in San Francisco. He was 92.

Bill was a powerfully charismatic man who had a wide circle of devoted, one could say captivated friends throughout his life. I was fortunate that several of my friends - Matt Gonzales, Barry Owen, Dan Becker, and Jessica Dunne - knew Bill and so over the last four years I found myself modeling for him, playing chamber music with him, and, four months before his death, interviewing him for my film Tie It Into My Hand.

While Tie It Into My Hand is still very much a work in progress, I decided to post most of Bill's interview here as a way for people who knew the man, his work, or both, to remember him and the extraordinary life that he led. This excerpt is titled Kissed by de Kooning: Scenes from the Life of Theophilus Brown. It can be found both below and at

Additional scenes from Bill's interview will screen March 1, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. at a Tie It Into My Hand sneak preview presented by Kunst-Stoff Arts in San Francisco. 

Over the course of the interview - conducted, according to the Tie It Into My Hand formula, as a violin lesson Brown teaches me on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto - Brown reminisces about his life, his relationship with fellow painter Paul Wonner, his career, and his friendships with artists including Picasso, Diebenkorn, Stravinsky, Cage, Isherwood, Hindemith, Giacometti, Barber, Eva Marie Saint, and de Kooning. Toward the end of the lesson Bill fact-checks his Wikipedia entry

If you would like to contribute your own reminiscences of Bill to this online memorial, please post them below to the comments. If you have photos you'd like me to add, my email is paulfesta at gmail.

Addendum #1 (2/10) - The San Francisco Chronicle has this obituary by Julian Guthrie.

Addendum #2 (2/10) - AP's obit

Addendum #3 (2/10) - New Haven painter and Tie It Into My Hand teacher Jonathan Weinberg conducted nearly six hours of audio interviews with Bill in 2010 for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art oral history project. According to Jonathan, those interviews are in the process of being transcribed and edited and will be posted online in a few months.

Addendum #4 (2/10) - The Thomas Reynolds Gallery, which represented Bill for many years, has a this page with video, obits and other news coverage and representations of Bill's work including many self-portraits. The video at the top is accompanied by Bill's performance of one of his piano pieces.

Addendum #5 (2/10) - ArtLyst obit

Addendum #6 (2/12): photos from Barry Owen, from his and Dan Becker's last visit with Bill at his home in the San Francisco Towers:

1 comment:

paulfesta said...

Barry Owen circulated this reminiscence among friends via email, and gave permission for me to repost part of it here:

I loved spending the evening with Bill in his little apartment in the San Francisco Towers. I preferred bringing some dinner (usually bought next door at Whole Foods) to going out to a neighborhood cafe or even down to the dining room.

I always arrived beaming with the expectation of pleasure and Bill would always light up when he greeted me at the door. Kiss, hug, "So good to see you!" and "Can I pour you a drink?"

The same appetizers (triscuits with jack cheese and pecan) were always set out on a small table between two chairs beside his simple parson's bed. I'd drop the bags containing whatever I'd brought for dinner on the dining table and we'd settle in with a scotch on the rocks.

Our visits usually included gossip and stories, often about famous people Bill had known. (Me: "By the way, did you ever meet Georgia O'Keeffe?" Bill, with a sly expression and chuckle: "That witch?" And then a story or two or three.) Maybe there'd be some back-and-forth about hot men, living and dead, in our circle and out. I usually noticed something new hanging on the walls and would ask about it. And if there was a stack of new work from the studio where Bill spent much of every weekday, I'd ask to have a look. We'd eat, and for dessert's dessert, read poetry to each other. Sometimes, Bill accompanied the readings with personal stories about the poets (Auden, Rukeyser, Sarton). I introduced Bill to Allen Ginsberg's "Please Master," and happily left my printed copy with him. We both loved Matthew Arnold's famous "Dover Beach," and read it to each other several times over the years.

My last visit was with Dan, just before Christmas. We ate in the dining room, which required wearing a jacket. Earlier in the year, Bill said that he wanted to die. He shared this with Dan and later with me on separate visits, so this was a new theme. Neither of us was too surprised and found it easy enough to discuss Bill's declaration, if briefly. "Everything is becoming too difficult," he explained. But on that last visit before Christmas, Bill seemed stronger and peppier than he had during the previous year. I mentioned this, noting how quickly he sprang up from his chair and walked across the room. He was greatly looking forward to the visit of a young friend from France. He showed us photos of [his friend] and explained how they knew each other, though I don't remember those details now.

Bill went into the hospital soon after [his friend's] visit, so it's easy to conclude that he burned himself out. He improved while in the hospital and came home. Just days before he died, as we heard from one of Dan's sources, he was strong enough to sit at his beloved grand piano and make more music. I was happy to read on Matt's Facebook page that he had had visited Bill at home, bearing raw oysters, a mutual favorite.

After Bill left the hospital, I called and left a message on his voicemail, but I did not want to just show up. I assumed he was convalescing and needed to conserve his energy. I hoped I would hear from him when he gained the strength to listen to his messages.

My heart is hollowed by this loss, but more than this, it's full with the richness of our friendship - and overflows with the unbelievable wealth of friendship in my life. I am cheered by the privilege of knowing this wonderful, accomplished, interesting and interested man. And by the knowledge that he lived long, had a blessedly full life, and went out "after a short illness" in what appears to have been a blaze of pleasure, and possibly, glory.