There’s the upbringing by an unconventional mother, the novelist Shena Mackay. The discovery, at 21, that the acclaimed art writer and critic David Sylvester—a family friend—was her biological father. The years at the Slade School of Fine Art and in London, where the prevailing conceptual winds of the Young British Artists did not jibe with her desire to paint. The permanent flight to New York, which gave her the freedom she craved and relief from the shame of “doing things wrong.” A series of erotic drawings that brought her the attention of top-tier galleries. The subsequent fawning magazine profiles, and the realization she didn’t need all that as she forged on with one of the more mesmerizing explorations of painting in the 21st century. The legend of the British-born painter Cecily Brown has been carved into the lore of contemporary art.
After three decades of steady validation, and now 51, this former renegade of the London art scene has allowed herself to come full circle in two simultaneous exhibitions. A commission from the foundation of Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill and his family, the Dukes of Marlborough, for more than 25 works responsive to their ancestral seat, Blenheim Palace, returns her to England, where the paintings will be on view beginning December 3. And an exhibition of “Bedroom Paintings” at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, running through December 12, returns her to intimacy. A new monograph exploring her formation and oeuvre, out this month from Phaidon, completes the picture.
“Secretly, It Was My Religion”
The influence of Sylvester as well as that of his friends and subjects—artists such as Francis Bacon; men she once called her “fairy godfathers”—surely seeped into Brown’s bones, but she would likely have emerged a painter in any case. “Secretly, it was my religion,” she says. Her style, its gestural force likened to that of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, has become even more propulsive in her new works. She is one of the few artists successfully straddling the line between figuration and abstraction, comparing it to walking a tightrope. Looking at her work we are twice seduced: first by her dynamic brushstrokes and riotous color, and then by her provocative imagery. Brown preserves a quality of ambiguity, yet she still thinks of herself as a figurative painter. “When the body disappears, it’s almost like there’s no there there,” she says; it “just becomes paint showing off, doing tricks, playing games … jumping through hoops.”
Unlike Pablo Picasso or Lucian Freud, however, who depended on a ready succession of live muses, the inspirations for Brown’s performative practice have instead been works by long-dead artists and contemporary iconography. Her studio floor is strewn with reproductions and photographs. From Bacon she has sampled the faceless face, from de Kooning the restless figure, from Goya the intersection with real life, from Delacroix and Géricault the heroic, and from Manet—whom she once said she would most like to have been—the ability to shock. From newspapers she has drawn upon the plight of a Muslim woman on a French beach harassed by police and forced to remove her burkini, from the animal kingdom its randy bunnies, from pop culture the women on a Jimi Hendrix album cover, and from the paint itself an animating energy that can “contain a sort of life of its own.”
Getting it right can be poetic and mysterious. Nevertheless, there is a disciplined underpinning to the thrill of the chase. Brown, who can draw like an angel but swear like a sailor, imprints these inspirations into her unconscious by doing many preparatory drawings which she then abandons, leaving only the movement and tension of the originals. She loves the physicality of painting, sometimes working on multiple canvases at a time, frequently on ladders with rollers. She often uses mirrors to check the progress of a work, like a dancer. The term “action painter,” once reserved for macho artists such as Pollock, could apply here but with an entirely different shading.
“When the body disappears, it’s almost like there’s no there there,” Brown says. It “just becomes paint showing off, doing tricks, playing games … jumping through hoops.”
At Blenheim, the good girl gone bad, provoking the art world with her sexually violent imagery, seems far away. The sheer physicality of the canvases, riffing on the stately Marlborough ducal collections, cannot fail to impress. Here her inspirations include the 17th-century Flemish painter Frans Snyders (for his rich-hued spoils of the hunt), the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd (for his ensorcelled gardens), and the 18th-century Sir Joshua Reynolds (for his rosy-cheeked society portraits). Brown’s The Triumph of Death, with its Ensor-like skeleton astride a horse, is the center of a four-part battle scene (based on a Sicilian fresco) so large she couldn’t see it whole until it was installed. But she has not given way entirely to the romantic version of an upper-class life she never experienced. Refracted through the rollicking colors and bucolic settings is a personal vision of nature and man run wild.
In the smaller “Bedroom Paintings” at Paula Cooper, Brown revisits the edgy intimacy of bodies after many years away from this signature subject. It’s possible that after the grandees at Blenheim they were needed for ballast. But just as likely, the quieter, sometimes fearful domesticity of lockdown replaced the patchwork quilt of historical and contemporary images that have been her graphic archive. The lovers in When This Kiss Is Over and All I Want Is a Room with a View are no longer engaged in animalistic roundelays as in her early work; they instead appear to be finding comfort in each other. In Noon Burned Gold, there is welcome warmth inside. But in Red and Dead, the specter of disease has penetrated confinement. In Selfie, a figure holds up a phone—a 21st-century armorial?—in a room brimming with art hung Blenheim-style. The influence of Blenheim is also felt in the 2019 works that complete the exhibition. In Brown’s hands, entwined bodies, dead game, and overripe fruit share a similar carnal swagger.
Brown is among the elite group of women artists whose work brings millions at auction. Her champions—first Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian, then Paula Cooper, now the royals—attest to her blue-chip value. Yet she resists categorization, and is fiercely dedicated to experimentation. “You have to be able to risk losing it,” she has said. Still, as Francine Prose suggests in her essay for the new monograph, whereas we might once have invoked Bosch or Brueghel when we studied Cecily Brown, “now we think of a Cecily Brown painting when we look at the Bosch or Brueghel.” A great tribute to an artist who once thought she was doing everything wrong.
Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL