Robert Delford Brown, “˜Happenings”™ Artist, Dies at 78
by Bruce Weber
The New York Times
April 4, 2009
Robert Delford Brown, a painter, sculptor, performance artist and avant-garde philosopher whose exuberantly provocative works challenged orthodoxies of both the art world and the world at large, usually with a big wink, was found dead on March 24 in the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C.
He was 78 and lived in Wilmington, where he had moved two or three years ago to prepare for a 2008 exhibition of his work at the Cameron Art Museum there.
The death has been ruled accidental, Deputy Sheriff Charles Smith of the New Hanover County Sheriff”™s office in North Carolina said. The cause appeared to be drowning. Mr. Brown was last seen on March 20, said his stepdaughter, Carol Cone. Mr. Brown, who had had hip surgery and walked with a cane, was known to have been scouting locations for an art project in the river involving a number of rafts, and he is thought to have fallen in.
A colleague of artists like Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik, Mr. Brown was a central figure in the anarchic New York art scene of the early 1960s, a participant in “” and instigator of “” events-as-art known as “happenings.” He saw the potential for aesthetic pronouncement in virtually everything. His métier was willful preposterousness, and his work contained both anger and insouciance.
His raw materials included buildings, pornographic photos and even meat carcasses.
He often performed in the persona of a religious leader, but dressed in a clown suit with a red nose and antennas hung with ripe bananas. In the end his message to the world was that both spirited individualism and unimpeded creativity must triumph.
One happening, a 1964 performance of a musical theater piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen called “Originale,” included, according to Time magazine, “two white hens, a chimpanzee, six fish floating in two bowls suspended from the ceiling, a shapely model stripping to her black lace panties and bra, and a young man who squirted himself all over with shaving lather and then jumped into a tub of water.”
Mr. Brown, then known as a painter, played “The Painter.” He appeared showering colored powder on the floor while perched on a ladder and clad in a costume of his own creation, a suit appropriate for coping with hazardous materials with what seemed to be a giant vacuum cleaner tube attached like a monstrous phallus. He was inventing a creation myth, he said later, and indeed, his appearance in “Originale” led him to create his own religion, The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc. The church was jokey, but not a joke. It had a deity, called Who, to answer the mysterious questions of the universe. (What does the future hold? Who knows.) It had a philosophy, known as Pharblongence, an Anglicized skewing of the Yiddish word farblonjet, meaning “confused.” And it had a creation story, “about a civilization that has played a violent game of baseball” since its first invention, the stick, wrote Mark Bloch, in a biography of Mr. Brown, “Meat, Maps, and Militant Metaphysics,” published by the Cameron Museum.
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