The San Francisco artist Joan Brown loved to get dolled up and go ballroom dancing. Having survived childhood with an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother, a near-death competitive swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and all but her fourth marriage, she was, as she put it, “an eternal optimist.” Her work careened between figures swollen with paint as thick as frosting and flat, colorful still lifes with decorative elements. Brown was in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by the time she was 22. Tragically, she would die in Puttaparthi, India, just 30 years later, accidentally killed by a collapsed turret as she was installing an obelisk made to honor her guru, Sathya Sai Baba.

If the name Joan Brown doesn’t conjure up a specific image, it’s because she is impossible to classify. For Brown, painting was a diary that served to reinforce her mercurial existence. She believed in reincarnation and multiple lives, and because her art can seem the work of more than one life, it hasn’t found a proper place in art history. Now, a major retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, opening on November 19, goes a long way to acknowledging her abundant talent.

Refrigerator Painting, 1964.

Joan Vivien Beatty was born in 1938 in San Francisco. Given her troubled family, she knew she had to “get the hell out of there.” Just before being remanded to a Catholic girls’ college, she applied to the California School of Fine Arts—her unconventional portfolio included drawings of movie stars—and was accepted. After a bumpy first year filled with self-doubt and nude models who mortified her, she was about to quit when Bill Brown—a fellow student whom she eventually married—encouraged her to enroll in a summer course with Elmer Bischoff, the acclaimed Bay Area artist.

Bischoff changed everything. He opened her up. He taught her to trust her intuition. Brown began experimenting with house paint and peanut butter and jelly on large canvases, often with subjects drawn from the work of her art-historical heroes. The Browns moved into Painterland, a collective with other artists such as Jay DeFeo. Often photographed with a cigarette and a martini, Joan was recalled by housemates as having “panache … to the bone.”

Brown and her dog, Bob, in 1961.

Gradually, under Bischoff’s steady tutelage and the influence of his Bay Area cohorts Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, Brown began to get recognition. “She uses dense slabs of oil paint as if she were a millionairess,” a critic remarked. Large figures—sometimes bathers modeled on herself—were built up in putty greens, saturated blues, and fiery reds. The San Francisco dealer George Staempfli opened a gallery in New York and could not keep up with the demand for this work. MoMA’s purchase of Thanksgiving Turkey came from her first solo show, in 1959.

Brown also drew the attention of the sculptor Manuel Neri, a fellow second-generation Bay Area artist. They moved in together, feeding off each other’s daring and curiosity, and in 1961 embarked on a romantic journey of artistic exploration in Europe. Finally Brown got to see Rembrandts, Goyas, and Velázquezes up close. It was the very different qualities of Giorgio Morandi and Henri Rousseau, however, that were to have a profound effect on her next body of work.

“She uses dense slabs of oil paint as if she were a millionairess,” a critic said of Brown’s work.

The couple’s son Noel was born in 1962, but by his third birthday, despite Brown’s affinities with Neri, she had put aside the marriage as well as the impasto that had characterized their time together. Staempfli implored her for more of the thickly slathered canvases. Instead, she left the gallery. Brown seemed to fear being trapped—whether by marriage or the market.

She took the time away to pivot. She began painting smaller still lifes of animals and even shoes as well as portraits of her close circle of family and friends, which she imbued with personality and wit. In 1968, Brown married Gordon Cook, yet another former classmate. As with Picasso, one of her idols, each relationship seemed to mark a new artistic approach. Their move to the Sacramento Delta allowed Brown to focus on new work that saw her happily making do with cheap enamel paint. But the couple missed the energy of the city and returned to San Francisco. There she resumed working on a large scale and pursued a serious commitment to competitive swimming, revitalized in the waters she felt had magical powers.

Brown’s painting The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim (1975) was inspired by her swim from the island to San Francisco, which almost killed her.

In the 1970s, a series of introspective self-portraits in an array of guises helped her examine who the real Joan Brown was. Whether she was pictured outsize in a fluffy fur hat or surrounded by a constellation of her favorite things, these colorful patterned works maintained her abiding interest in the drama of the body in space, while also stepping a toe into the symbolism that would dominate in later years. Brown still didn’t feel she was taken seriously by critics despite the support of a new dealer, Allan Frumkin. How much harder it was to elbow her own way forward than to slip into commercial acquiescence. The effects of the terrifying Alcatraz swim in 1975 (she was submerged by the wake of a boat), a destabilizing love affair, and a divorce the following year were sometimes apparent in the pensive expressions and haunted blue eyes of her on-canvas avatars.

A self-portrait from 1970.

Teaching, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, was steadying, and it honored what Brown had received so unstintingly from Bischoff. In 1977, she finally got to visit Egypt—a girlhood dream—and South America, courtesy of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she soon added Asia as a destination. These far-flung travels marked a headlong dive into spiritualism and New Age religions, whose iconographies were absorbed into her latest work. A fourth marriage, in 1980, to fellow seeker Michael Hebel, further removed Brown from the art market. She decided to abandon “elitist” art entirely, ignore the critics, and focus only on public installations that could contribute to world peace. Her devotion to Sathya Sai Baba increasingly guided her paintings, symbolic works filled with visions inspired by his teachings.

A bout with cancer did not slow Brown down, and in 1990 she made that fateful trip to India to install the obelisk. The art world was shocked by the freak accident, but premature death was something she had foreseen.

Tempus Fugit, 1970.

Long taken for frivolous and peripheral after her early acclaim, this new exhibition reveals Brown to be an artist who learned to trust herself, who turned her back on the market and found her own way to express humanity—and then to transform it. —Patricia Zohn

“Joan Brown” will be on at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art beginning November 19

Patricia Zohn is a culture columnist who has contributed to numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Town & Country