Robert Delford Brown
Artist and “religious leader”
by Mark Bloch
The body of 78-year-old artist Robert Delford Brown, an innovator linked to many of the late 20th Century's major art movements including Happenings, Fluxus, self-publishing and performance art, was found the evening of March 25 in the Cape Fear River, near his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. Local officials ruled the death as accidental. Brown moved to Wilmington from New York City two years ago in anticipation of a major museum exhibition at the Cameron Art Museum.
The late Allan Kaprow, originator of “Happenings” in the early 1960s, once credited Robert Delford Brown with "ecstatic power" and “transcendent vision” saying he "threw a monkey wrench into the avant garde in those days. Brown's work is important. He touches a nerve at the core of the social codes that organize not only our behavior but also the limits of our art.”
Walter Hopps, the late, legendary American curator said in 2004, “There were some outrageous performances of the time. Brown took this to an apogee, always wonderfully worked out-- not a passing gesture. Those of us who have been involved with him really know and admire his work.”
Brown stepped beyond art, calling himself a “religious leader” when he founded The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc. in 1964. The central concept in his self-styled religion, also known as Funkupaganism, is his Theory of “Pharblongence”, the anglicized version of an ancient word of Yiddish origin meaning "total confusion". “Many religions teach how to get to Nirvana. They all give very complicated directions. The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc. tells you how to get to NEVADA. It sounds close, and it’s simple: YOU TAKE A BUS!”
Robert Delford Brown was born in October 25, 1930 in Portland, Colorado. Both sides of his family had been in the USA since Revolutionary times. The family moved to Long Beach, California when he was 12.
Brown studied art at Long Beach College and UCLA, receiving his B.A. from UCLA and his M.A. there in 1956. He also studied drawing with the Surrealist and Organic Cubist Howard Warshaw (1920-1977).
As a young man, Brown met other art world fixtures-to-be such as painter Ed Moses and curator Walter Hopps who would go on to run the Menil Collection and remained a lifetime friend. In 1952, Brown had his first show in L.A. Hopps said in a 2004 interview, “After the show was over, he took it all out to the back yard of the place and burned it. He had been known to do this with his art.”
In 1959, Brown moved to Manhattan. There he met Harriet “Rhett” Cone, his wife and art-partner for the next three decades, who died of lung cancer in 1988. “My most fervent admirer, as well as co-conspirator, founded the Cricket Theater on Second Avenue where she produced and directed plays by such writers as Edward Albee and Samuel Becket.” Brown told an interviewer. With Rhett and her daughters, Peggy and Carol, in tow, Brown’s iconoclastic art career took off.
“I met Allan Kaprow when were in Paris on our honeymoon.” Brown said. Kaprow encouraged Brown’s participation in his upcoming presentation of the musical play entitled "Originale" by the German avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to be held as part of the “Second Annual Avant Garde Festival” in 1964. Brown elevated the intellectual affair to the level of spectacle with his outrageous image of "the mad painter" which earned him national headlines.
Later that year, Brown created a second success d'scandale, “The Meat Show”, staged in a large refrigerated space in Manhattan’s Meat District. Brown took as his palette, “200 pounds of beef livers, 50 gallon barrels of lungs, a pig, several lamb heads and 25 pounds of human hair.” With the event announced on the society pages of the Daily News, limos deposited shocked aristocrats at a scene more reminiscent of an episode of the “Three Stooges” than an art opening. Suddenly everyone in New York knew the “Delford Browns.”
Next, Brown tackled another taboo with his most well-known and longest-lasting creation, The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc. Brown incorporated his “charismatically inclined, transcendental, humorist” church which featured a cross-eyed deity called “Who Knows?” as well as tenets, a commandment: Live! and a prohibition: Do not eat cars!
In 1967, Rhett and Robert bought and transformed the Jackson Square Branch library on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village into physical headquarters of the Church, dubbed “The Great Building Crack-Up.” Large ceremonial plaques explained that the “Crackup” was a collision between two architects and two centuries: the 19th’s William Morris Hunt who designed the base of the Statue of Liberty and 20th century Modernist Paul Rudolf. For the next three decades it provided a home for dozens of unorthodox art exhibitions, gatherings and performances.
Brown also created “events” in Los Angeles and Nice, sported pink hair decades before it was fashionable, causing a London scandal in the Sixties. Brown also anticipated the “appropriation” movement and other unorthodox techniques with his books “Hanging” and “Ulysses” and “First Class Portraits.” The “post-punk” 1980s and skateboard culture of the last two decades also increased appreciation for Brown’s work in non-art circles.
He eventually transformed the Church’s cross-eyed “Who Knows?” face-as-logo into a forward looking “What Great Art!” icon. He emblazoned his collages of the last decade with messages like “People Helping People is the Future” as he increasingly embraced Utopian politics and Buckminster Fuller’s theories, believing that a “total and complete global transformation” was coming.
In the 1990s Brown sold his beloved “Building Crackup,” stating “because of cyberspace, real estate is dead now.” He jettisoned his TV and began to get all his news from alternative sources on the Internet. Since the early 1990s, the early entrant to cyberspace communicated via the “Church” website, Funkup.com, a twisted acronym of the First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.
His physical collaborations became “Collaborative Action Gluings” where by email and telephone, he arranged for a space and an audience of non-artists. He’d show up with glue, scissors, colored paper to cut up and several canvases for the attendees to embellish collectively with their unschooled musings.
In 2008, Robert Delford Brown was the subject of Robert Delford Brown: Meat, Maps and Militant Metaphysics, a major exhibition at the Cameron Art Museum, with an extensive catalogue chronicling Brown from the 1950s to the present. Director Deborah Velders said, "He was intense about his art, and he was intense about the world. He was intense about life."
Velders also said, “Robert Delford Brown's intense, visionary commitment to art as a vehicle of social change invites comparison to the British revolutionary poet-artist William Blake. Brown is certainly the William Blake of our time.”
Brown’s work appeared in hundreds of exhibitions and publications over the years. He is represented in the collections of (partial list): The Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado.
He leaves a step-daughter Carol Cone of Weston, Massachusetts and Wellington, Florida.
Two celebrations of his life will be held in this spring in Wilmington, N.C. and in New York City. Contributions in his name can be made to the Cameron Museum of Art, Wilmington, N.C.
Mark Bloch is the author and designer of Robert Delford Brown: Meat, Maps and Militant Metaphysics, (Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, N.C., 2008.)