Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Roger Brown (American, 1941–1997)

Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama (Mammy’s Door), 1974

Oil on canvas with mirror, wood, Plexiglas, photographs, postcards, and cloth shirt

89 3/4 x 48 3/4 x 18 in. (228 x 123.8 x 45.7 cm)

Gift of Maxine and Jerry Silberman

Born in Hamilton, Alabama, Brown came to Chicago in the early 1960s to study at the School of the Art Institute. There he met other young artists who, under the guidance and encouragement of Don Baum, were to make Chicago the birthplace of Imagism, a high-spirited, quirky realism inspired by popular culture and greatly influenced by naive artists such as Joseph Yoakum. Brown thereafter continued to work in a highly individualistic vein, creating images of the American scene as unforgettable and uniquely conceived as those of Grant Wood and Edward Hopper.

Characterized by a flat, stylized rendering of form; a matte, somber palette; and highly theatrical lighting, Brown’s paintings are typically city- and landscapes, such as Skyscraper (1971) and Criss Cross Country Groves (1973), in the MCA Collection. However, Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama (Mammy’s Door) is a construction which reflects Brown’s involvement in painting found objects, such as irons, toasters, and beds. Its form is that of a door in the shape of Alabama, one side painted as a landscape, the other framed in wood and featuring family photographs and memorabilia. Serving as a frame around the edge of the painting are coordinate markings that pinpoint places which were important to Brown as he was growing up: Included are Mammy’s house (Mammy is Brown’s great-grandmother Dizenia); Opelika, the town in which he was raised; the cities Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile; and the Huntsville Redstone Arsenal.

Spatially the painted side reads like a flat map, yet the various locations are rendered in a vertiginous, almost medieval perspective. The Gulf of Mexico is shown in an extension at the lower right of the painting; on it sails a three-dimensional boat. The underside of this extension can be seen in a mirror that is placed on the floor revealing a painted guitar as well as a message to Mammy.

The construction on the reverse is a replica of a door from Mammy’s house. Her name, Dizenia, is spelled across it in raised block letters, the braces of the door forming a giant Z. Attached to the door, a box marked “P.S. Chicago” contains a legend, also in the shape of Alabama, that explains the significance of the various images and records a family history. Also housed in this box are postcards, letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings. The six hooks across the door stand for the six children of Brown’s grandfather, Mammy’s son. Hanging on the hook that represents Brown’s mother is a shirt that Mammy made for him when he was a child. This conjunction of the personal and panoramic (the landscape on the other side) not only reveals the formal aims of Brown’s art, but also serves as a homage to his family and native state.