Brown and Bronzed

By Brett Morris

In the world of American figurative sculpture, Joe Brown is something of an icon. Specializing in athletes, he produced over 400 works in his career, including statuettes, portrait busts, and sculptures. The son of Russian immigrants, Brown was a gifted athlete, and in 1927 won a football scholarship to Temple University. He didn’t graduate, however, and after trying his luck as a pro boxer, got work as an artist’s model, where he discovered a love of sculpture. This led to a seven-year apprenticeship at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Brown became the boxing coach at Princeton in 1937, continuing in that position until the early 1960s. He began teaching a sculpting course in 1939, became a resident artist at the university, and was made a full professor of art in 1962. He continued teaching at Princeton until his retirement in 1977.

Brown had a lifelong love affair with boxing, and the sport remained a constant theme is his work throughout his life. Lot 34, titled Dropped Antaeus, dates to 1969 and captures that gripping moment when the pugilist, knocked to the canvas and reeling, looks for the courage and resilience to get back to his feet.

Brown's sculptures resonate with strength and dignity, while also capturing the intensity of sport's most violent of confrontations. Lot 33, titled Boxers, created by Brown in 1943, is so provocative you can almost hear the punches landing. The feeling out period is over, the combatants are in close, trading blows without reserve.

As a former boxer, Brown had great respect and compassion for the men who laid it on the line by stepping between the ropes. Lot 36, titled Pieta, dates to 1974, and captures the moment when the defeated boxer, forlorn and vanquished, is helped back to his feet by the referee.

When it came to athletes, Joe Brown didn't restrict himself solely to the depiction of boxers. Lot 37, The Sprinter, dated 1949, captures a runner in full stride, while Lot 38 depicts legendary tennis player and humanitarian Arthur Ashe about to hit the ball at the point of service.

 

While not always his own favorite subject, Brown did occasionally dable in self portraits, producing Lot 39 (above left) in 1965. Five years earlier he had completed The Supplicant, selling here as Lot 35, a work whose name and posture highlights the brutal nature of the sport Brown loved.

Rago's 19/20th C. American/European Art sale is set down for Saturday, May 6 and contains over 180 expertly curated lots. Look now at the full catalog.