UC Berkeley alumnus and painter William Theophilus Brown dies

William Theophilus Brown, a UC Berkeley alumnus and American painter associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement, died Feb. 8 in his apartment at San Francisco Towers. He was 92.

Brown came to know some of the biggest names in art throughout his career, according to a September essay written for Art Matters Magazine by Matt Gonzalez, Brown’s friend and chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. Brown met Pablo Picasso in the late 1940s during his stay in Southern France, and painted with Alberto Giacometti in Paris.

In an October interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown recounted his time living in New York, where he encountered abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Marcel Duchamp. He subsequently moved to the Bay Area to find his own art style.

“I moved here because I was orbiting around all of these famous people, and I needed to find out who I was,” he said in the interview.

Eager to develop further as an artist, Brown enrolled at UC Berkeley as a graduate student to teach art, according to an October interview posted Friday on YouTube by musician Paul Festa to commemorate the artist’s death. On his third day of graduate classes, Brown met fellow artist Paul Wonner, who would become his partner for the next 50 years, Brown said in the video interview. Wonner died in 2008.

While at UC Berkeley, Brown met a group of artists that would eventually launch the Bay Area Figurative School, a movement whose style broke away from abstract expressionism to incorporate elements of realism, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Brown first gained fame in 1956, when Life Magazine printed three of his pieces. Since then, his work has appeared in venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, according to the New York Times.

His art brought exposure to the gay community through a highly controversial exhibit in South Texas in 2009, in which he featured drawings of nude males. The exhibit was held in response to Brown’s observation that galleries tended to favor nude females, according to Gonzalez’s essay.

Brown stayed active in art even into his nineties. In September, Brown hosted a drop-in collage-making session at the Berkeley Art Museum, where he taught visitors his distinct collage style in conjunction with the exhibition Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage. The museum currently holds 22 of Brown’s pieces, according to museum director Larry Rinder.