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Cecily Brown

“Death and the Maid”

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

by Jonathan Goodman June 18, 2023

Header Image: Cecily Brown (British, 1969), Selfie, 2020, Oil on linen, 43 × 47 in. (109.2 × 119.4 cm)

The Swartz Family Collection © Cecily Brown

British-born Cecily Brown came to New York in 1991, where she quickly established herself as a painter of force and ambition. It makes sense that she moved to America, her style follows the free brushwork of de Kooning–to the point of excess. Such extravagance cannot be criticized as merely facile; Brown’s excessive use of paint, scattered across the canvas in thick swirls of pigment, demonstrates the American penchant for extravagance. The artist regularly works with the historically established vanitas image of women sitting close by a table mirror. The reference shows that Brown anchors her work both in abstract expressionism and in art before that. She reflects her admiration of great painters, the French especially, and her references establish a dialogue linking contemporary abstraction to figuration and to a past she finds inspiring. 

Despite Brown's excess, or because of it, her thick swirls of paint, in conjunction with art history, demands a broad understanding–the paintings seek both the fervent energies of the new and the gravitas of work done long ago. But surely Brown’s claim on the present stems from the erotic exuberance of her brushwork. Her style is so volatile and expressive as to become its own theme. Yet her freedoms may be excessive; the paintings often become caricatures of overstated liberties. But her audience, in New York especially, knows that this is the point–the New York School offers art inspired by extremes. Brown obviously follows de Kooning’s obsession with painting as an independent subject, she also complicates her art with allusions–a decision we rarely see in de Kooning’s messy subject matter. Her application of paint, heavy enough to suggest body weight, is often structured by a conceptual  awareness of precedents.

Brown’s abstractions are not purely so. Figuration plays a role and shifts the work into other styles, always the paint holds sway, as both material and theme. Brown’s surface becomes the painting’s major interest. Her freedoms come close to excess. Ab-ex abandon remains alive in Brown’s hands. Perhaps her historical allusions, which sometimes jar within her seas of paint, anchors her in ways she needs. One finds it impossible to separate her references from her application of paint. Looking at this work, we must wonder if New York artists remain mesmerized with a style that has lost its luster. Many would find the remark too judgmental, seeing as art in this style may be grand enough to continue generating  good artwork. Brown’s energies, profoundly sensual, remain capable of attracting a large and respectful audience. The esteem is so well established, the Met has seen fit to give her a solo show.

But what does that mean?  Many  painters continue  painting with poetic abandon, treating the style not as a cliche but as a discovery. It is as if the manner of  painting is new in their hands. But this is a romanticism; lyric abstraction is widely and well known. But it also might be threadbare: the  style reached its peak in the middle of the previous century. Brown’s choice to carry on, as though very little has changed, might be considered glib. In the third decade of the 21st century, lyrical abstraction cannot be as expansively imaginative as it used to be. If we regularly repeat insights, we turn dull. In Brown’s case, the force of her style often (not always) outpaces The precedents behind her.  Both mature and young painters follow this way of working. Still, it is easy to have misgivings.

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Installation view of Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid, on view from April 4 through December 3, 2023, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Paul Lachenauer, courtesy of The Met

Brown’s choice to leave Britain for New York more than thirty years ago feels like a decision favoring freedom–in life and in art. Surely she is now an American painter. Despite use of the vanitas theme, her work reflects new experience in its sensuous turmoil–also a good way to describe de Kooning’s art.  Brown’s allusions to major artists in Western art history are meant to deepen her undertaking.  At the same time, they add variety to a surface quite uniform in its density of pigment. Her realism is not only a theme, but a corrective to excess. The female figures are memories intended to save the artist from stylization. Also, Brown chose her show’s title carefully, seeking a historical base. Earlier versions of the title come up, and include major works of art: “The Death of the  Maiden”: a poem written in 1774 by German poet Matthias Claudius; Schubert’s great string quartet, composed in 1824; and a 1994 film made by Roman Polanski. Why Brown truncated the title to “Death and the Maid” is not clear.  But certainly the title is a way of anchoring the show. Brown’s inclusion of historical influence, in both her title and in the imagery she borrows from the past, amounts to an  independent reckoning of current culture–and an attempt to enrich today’s culture with a sense of history.

Brown’s 2008  triptych, Fair of Face, Full of Woe, shows three panels, each nearly overwhelmed by thick brushstrokes covering the picture plane, moving in curves and overlapping each other. It is as if Brown couldn’t find the space to settle in with reasonable painterly connections. Like the other two, the left panel is chaotic, but we can make out two women in white dresses facing each other. The white dresses are elegant and slightly erotic; the women’s shoulders are exposed. They sit in chairs, and their lack of features intensifies their anonymity. There seems to be a reflection suggested by the head of the woman on the right. Is this a society painting, one originating in 19th-century France? The viewer must decide. The central panel, primarily yellow and green, also has fleshy figures, although they are hard to make out. Complex brushwork occurs in the lower half, while above, we meet a yellow sky, prominent as much for its brushwork as for its mustard color. On the right, we see a dense tangle of muted green that covers most of the area; there may be the suggestion of a head hanging at the bottom of the panel. Looking hard, the viewer might see a vortex, but that is more than likely an act of the imagination.  Brown’s title leads us to emotion, as adumbrated by the thickness of the paintings, itself as a way of forwarding feeling. And her imagery can be so obscure as to evade recognition.

But how does one mimic a historical painting without closely adhering to its references? It is a contradiction to copy and assert contemporary differences when redoing a picture. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king known for his money and his erotic interests, is treated transparently by Delacroix; nude women crowd the picture. Brown reworks the earlier painting into a mosaic of colors, emphasizing the single figure hanging over the bed with her back to us. Perhaps the many colors and forms just underneath the bed, stretching along the width of Brown’s painting, is her way of illustrating the pleasures of sensual excess. Historically painting, long gone as a medium of current practice, carries weight nonetheless. Brown’s heavy hand, which some may not be comfortable with, could emphasize the body’s heft following the glorified sexual aura seen in the Delacroix painting. As happens so often with Brown’s paintings, our surmises are vague. Her revisions of great historical art are more occasions of submitting to the weight of her hand, its capacity for a density attaining the thickness of low relief.

Brown’s hectic 2000 painting, called Selfie, is a melange of barely recognizable forms. It is an interior, perhaps the artist’s studio. Pink and red occur on the bottom right and move up to the middle right of the painting. The rest of the compositional space is crowded with objects that simply cannot be read, even if their shapes suggest tangible things; many of these shapes are presented in white, but the picture plane is so crowded with the intimations of things it proves hard to assemble them into an entirely that makes sense. The title inevitably brings the picture back to a study of the artist herself, strengthening our hunch that the room stands in as a self-portrait of the artist. We can admire the density of the imagery, which are so closely put together that there is no space between the elements and no room to breathe. The randomly realized images cover the surface entirely but do not necessarily overwhelm Brown’s audience.

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Cecily Brown (British, 1969) Fair of Face, Full of Woe, 2008, Oil on canvas, 17 × 39 7/8 in. (43.2 × 101.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, 2009 (2009.533a-c) © Cecily Brown

The painterly found in Brown’s designs begin as a homage to the American tradition of expansive, expressionist art. But they also argue for a different point of view–Brown’s style can be seen as conscious independence, in which travesty breaks free of its constraints to become a style of its own. For some time now, we have understood that pigment can be presented as its own theme, pushing the application of paint toward a thick surface abstraction. But Brown’s paintings also regularly present figurative imagery, even if that imagery is as blunt and heavy as the abstraction encompassing it. The combination is what makes Brown original; bordering on travesty, she finds in extremism a way of turning paint into a vehicle praising art–we know this because she includes historical scenes, which we can assume are adding historical structure to her maelstrom of pigment–and yet are themselves heavily rendered. If we reached for a sweeping interpretation, we might comment that Brown’s flights mimic the crazy quilt arrangement of events and sights we confront daily. 

The final image to be considered, Untitled (Vanity) (2005), is figurative, more so than most of Brown’s efforts. It shows a woman in white, in profile, sitting with much of her back facing us. She looks into the mirror, where her short black hair and featureless face are reproduced in the figure facing her on the right–presumably her mirror image, although the shape of the hair is different, to the point where we are not sure if this is meant to be someone else.  It could be two women talking at a cafe table, with a large white curtain behind them. The vanitas began in the Netherlands in the 17th century; its paintings were intended to warn viewers of the inevitability of death or the vanities of life. In this return to similar subject matter by Brown, the image of the young woman reflected in the glass is once again, in contemporary times, meant to remind us of our limited stay. In working like this, Brown asserts historical awareness and the need to imbue her art with content unrelated to being understood as a painterly surface alone. Except by implication, there is little pathos in the image, which feels more like a version of historical work than a statement of human frailty. Still, vanitas cannot but linger in the composition, and surely Brown had the idea of death’s proximity in mind–even though the woman is young and beautiful.

How can “Death and the Maid” be accurately described, with recognition of both its strengths and weaknesses? One has to love deep brushwork to accept Brown’s premise, namely, the apotheosis of painting, regardless of the subject matter. This is dangerous since the pigment is a substance, not an image. It is more than complex to read on its own and offers nothing recognizable when used alone. At the same time, Brown’s revisions converse actively with painterly history within a high culture context. In her hands, that style becomes vigorous again. Brown’s inclusion of the vanitas tradition in abstracted pigment, given in heavy passages of paint, transforms her vision into a vital borrowing of the past. Perhaps doing so allows Brown to lend public worth to a personalized art; perhaps her manner of working is a homage to Western painting’s tradition of recognizing death. Whatever motives, it is clear that the show looks closely at the history of painting’s past–both recent and long ago. Looking at the extravagance of Brown’s undertakings, we can also admire her determination to fuse styles separated by great lengths of time. Her attempt to merge abstract and figurative styles looks like her most significant accomplishment. Establishing contact with distant ways of thinking and working in a period far from our own is not easily achieved.

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Cecily Brown (British, 1969), Untitled (Vanity), 2005, Oil on linen, 77 × 55 in. (195.6 × 139.7 cm), Private collection © Cecily Brown

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