James Brown was born in Los Angeles, California in 1951 and was raised in Southern California, where he attended high school. He received his formal art training from Ecole Suparieure des Beaux Arts, Paris,1973-75; Immaculate Heart College, Hollywood, M.A. in 1975; and Instituto Michelangelo, Firenze, 1979. His work is described as primitive, yet refined and inspired by tribal arts - American Indian, African, Hawaiian.
During the 1980s, his paintings, mixing the modernist tradition of painterly application and adherence to the picture surface with clear influences from tribal art. In the early 1980s he began exhibiting in New York, and in this decade this work became a hit in the galleries and art press, sharing a look with the Bad Painting and young neo-expressionism of the East Village painters of the time. On 12 September 1987 he married Alexandra Condon, who was studying History of Art at NYU at the time. They had known each other for little more than ten years. Despite some time on the East and West coast of New York, he continued to live in Paris. With the fading of the East Village art scene he had increasingly shown in European galleries, where his work was now seen in the context of a post-war European modernism in the tradition of Jean Dubuffet. James and Alexandra had their first child, Degenhart Maria Grey Brown, on 24 September 1989 in New York. In 1991 their second boy, Cosmas And Damian Maria Todosantos Brown, was born on 6 June in Paris. On 16 April 1993, their daughter was born, Dagmar Maria Jane Brown, in New York. In 1995 he moved out to the valley of Oaxaca (Mexico) with his family, where they lived in a hacienda for nine years. During that time, James Brown continued exhibiting in Europe, the United States and Mexico. He and his wife collaborated with various artists, making rugs in a village in the mountains of Oaxaca. The rugs were made in the traditional Mexican fashion, weaved by hand on large wooden frames. Jamaes and Alexandra then decided to start making books with artists, so they started Cape Diem Press. Like the rugs, these books are printed in Oaxaca using old-fashioned and traditional methods. The books are printed in limited editions, and Carpe Diem Press continues to collaborate with artists. In 2004, they moved to the city of Mérida, in the Yucatán. Since then James Brown has been spending much time in Europe, exhibiting his work in France, Germany, Italy and Holland. He has been working mostly in Paris.
His work has taken on several styles over the years, but maintains a hand-made look combining concerns of the modernist tradition with motifs and spiritual interests from tribal art. Much of his work is a non-realistic but contains depictions or signs of recognizable faces or objects. More recently he has done more in an abstract mode. However, the line between representation and abstraction is often a difficult one in his work, such as his more recent “Firmament Series” – abstract canvases that can also be read as referring to constellations or stars, or groups of rocks. Besides paintings Brown has also produced sculptures and series of prints at various points in his career, and in the 1990s started to heavily utilize collage. Drawing and other unique works on paper have been important to his artistic development and production. In an Artforum review of a 25 year retrospective, Martha Schwendener noted "The works range from abstract gouaches to biomorphic and figurative watercolors to collages that update the synthetic Cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque."
According to his childhood friend, Tom Goethals, "Brown was an artist even as a child and really began to develop his craft in high school. He was an art major at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles where he studied under Mary Corita Kent, formerly Sister Corita. Eventually, he moved to New York where he developed the style that you see in his current work and then to a Mexican villa on a beautiful estate in Oaxaca, Mexico. He and his family were featured within the past year (2003) in an article in a popular magazine (I think it was Vogue, but I am not certain). That article included photos of James and Alexandra and their children, some of James' current projects, and their Mexican villa on a beautiful estate in Oaxaca, Mexico."
"I heard a rumor, perhaps ten years ago, that James had died. All of us here in southern California heard it including his family members. Where that rumor came from none of us ever knew."
James Brown has shown in many galleries from the early 1980s to the present. He has shown across the United States and Europe, as well as other places in the world, and since 1999 increasingly in Mexico. Several of his prints and painteings included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Selected shows include:
1983 Tony Shafrazi, "Champions," New York (Group Show with Donald Baechler, James Brown, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000),
1983 Nature Morte, New York
1985 Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, Switzerland
1986 Leo Castelli, New York, New York
1995 Leo Castelli, February, New York
2001 Pace Prints, February, Catalogue raisonne graphic work. New York
2005 Ex-Escuela Quintana Roo, "James Brown 10 acos en Oaxaca," Mérida, Mexico. (This exhibition traveled internationally)
2007 Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris (Showing his abstract “Firmament Series”)
2014 Livingstone Gallery, The Hague (NL)