“It feels like 1967,” said a visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as artists, writers, friends and patrons gathered to celebrate British painter Cecily Brown, who arrived in Manhattan in the early 1990s and this month received a ‘career survey’ at the civilization-spanning institution. The last time this accolade was offered to a living British artist was Lucian Freud in the mid-1990s.
The reception that followed Brown’s opening was described by a New York critic as an “estrogen-fueled, generationally, artistically and socially changing thrill.” An early review noted that Brown “does everything old again”.
His figurative abstractions tell stories, often many at a time, in ways that activate every inch of the canvas; the work on display in Death and the Maid, running until December 3, has been piqued by the attention and returns the favour. “It’s beyond a dream,” Brown told al Observer after opening last week. “He seems to brag about even talking about it.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but people were really anti-painting. I wished I could make fantastic sculptures or think like a conceptual artist
If painters are storytellers, then Brown has stories to tell, and they can be barbaric and hackneyed and fragmented. There is no better place to show, then, than in the Met, with its invitation to collectors of art and artefacts.
Brown left London after graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art at a time when painting was out of fashion. In the age of young British artists, many who would succeed looked beyond the brush and paint.
In her early career, she was celebrated for her embrace of sexuality, often depicted by loving bunnies and later with orgiastic human figures. She is now 53 years old, and the exhibition at the Met – 50 paintings, drawings and sketches grouped around a title derived from a Schubert string quartet, Death and the Maiden – it’s an opportunity to move the story forward. Many works revolve around the themes of European painting: Memento moriTHE vanity (still life paintings that symbolize mortality) and, like the Wall Street Journal noted last week, “the specter of beautiful women flirting with death.”
The arc includes Fair of Face, Full of Woe (2008), an abstract interpretation of the Gibson Girl, the personification of female beauty in the 1890s by artist Charles Dana Gibson, now completed with a skull; A Year on Earth, depicting a pair of tangled bodies in a cluttered room, painted during pandemic claustrophobia; Lobsters, oysters, cherries and pearls, a tableau of luxuries celebrated in 17th-century Dutch still lifes; a 1997 watercolor of three women inspired by the sadomasochistic compendium Jeux de Dames Cruelles (Cruel Women’s Games); and another after Pieter Bruegel’s The Struggle between Carnival and Lent; and others distracted, synthesis of images that arrive at figurative abstraction.
“Like a magpie at work, there’s no hierarchy of sources,” Brown said. “It’s just the feeling of somebody watching everything, he’s taking what he wants when it’s needed, he’s shaking it and throwing it up like something else.”
The painter has opposed readings of her work that focus on sexualized images. “I could do a stripe of pink and someone would think it was something sexual even when it wasn’t,” she said. “There’s a read-ahead where people who expect to see something end up seeing it.” In fact, she said, there isn’t much eroticism in her work: “It’s been talked about so much” to the point that she got in the way of the painting.
Instead, the show highlights strains of eroticism and voyeurism. In No You for Me, from 2013, Brown reverses the situation: the viewer is really looking at a nude in the mirror, an inversion of the tradition of the post-coital woman represented by painters from Boucher to Bonnard and Sickert.
“It’s complex as a woman to always be looked at in reality and in art,” she said. “In that painting, the viewer becomes the subject. It’s a feeling I think women will recognize.”
Brown would first shy away from discussing the great demand for his work, and even more so in a scholarship context. “It feels good to be wanted,” is all he concedes. However, his Free Games for May, a painting owned by the late Warner-Reprise recording legend Mo Ostin, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York next month with an estimate of $3-5 million.
The Met survey offers an opportunity for reflection. When she moved to New York, Brown worked at a farmer’s market, as a waitress, an entertainer and, for a time, she almost gave up painting. “It’s hard to imagine now, but people were really anti-painting, and sometimes rightly so, I think,” Brown said. “I resented being a painter. Almost everything I saw that I liked was other types of art, and I wished I could make great Cibachrome [photographic prints] or sculptures, or thinking like a conceptual artist.”
As with many artists, the city has become an inspiration in its own right: “I loved the light and the physicality, looking up a boulevard and seeing everything up top, or looking the other way when you’re downtown. People don’t often mention how beautiful New York is. Such was the feeling of freedom”.
Her father, writer and art critic David Sylvester, thought coming to Manhattan was a horrible idea. “He thought I was going to be robbed,” he said. “All the warnings from him gave me a huge adrenaline rush. I used to walk around the city alone until I realized I really wasn’t [going to be mugged].”
Abstract art was born as a form of rebellion. “There’s a now-you-see-it, now-don’t-it-don’t-it aspect to my way of working,” Brown said of the exhibit. “Hopefully it gives the feel of someone who has a range and is investigating things, coming back to things over and over again, worrying about a subject like a jack russell with a mouse.”