New York CityPaula Cooper
October 15 – December 12, 2020
Cecily Brown’s first New York show in three years is a remarkable expansion of over a quarter century of work. It encompasses one painting that serves as a bridge to her last Paula Cooper exhibition,1 oils produced before the pandemic that are related to works in a concurrent display in John Vanbrugh’s venerable Baroque Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England,2 and paintings she has been making upstate since the advent of COVID-19 in March. As I argue in my essay on the artist in a new monograph, Brown’s oeuvre forms a compendium of references in a consistently broadening approach. Her art, which lies in a neutral zone between figuration and abstraction, is never evinced in the form of new styles, but forms an enveloping totality.3 Thus, this show is not a departure—though there are new, more resolved interiors and one suite of canvases employing reproductive techniques titled Of nothing something still (2019–20). It is an expansion by an artist who is constantly revisiting elements of her past while adding new motifs to convey a sense of where she has been, where she finds herself now, and allusions to the state of the planet, all with a facility that can hardly be matched.
The show is comprised of 13 works in 5 rooms and a central aisle. The large rear room includes the transitional Stranded (2020), a reprise of the “Shipwreck” paintings from the past few years, with imagery drawn from Delacroix’s Romantic, sublime scenes of storm-tossed boats, but bearing a color scheme that recalls her “Electric Ladyland” works of a decade ago. The swirl of human forms in a cosmic black penumbra links this picture to a series of “Black Paintings” from the early 2000s bearing recumbent nudes twisted in ecstatic bliss in inky voids—some of her strongest works. Across from Stranded is the similarly sized and exquisitely painted When this kiss is over (2020). Two figures are locked in an Egon Schieleian embrace, their heads at upper left. They spiral into another black void, one enlivened with blues and oranges, peppered with cherries (a new motif) and nipples, and featuring a gorgeous burst of opaline blue in the center and, at the bottom, a single lemon, seemingly teleported from Manet’s Young Lady in 1866 (1866) at the Met. Of course it could also be the head of a duck. Doubling is critical in Brown’s work: here the ecstasy of the model in Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866), also at the Met, is overlaid by Manet’s aforementioned chaste image of Victorine Meurent. As usual with Brown, you should avoid the temptation of deriving direct meaning from the title of When this kiss is over, a line from the song “Heaven” by the Talking Heads (1979) and soulfully covered by Simply Red, and instead lose yourself in the brushwork, the characteristic wavering between figure and ground, foreground and depth, objects and surfaces, glitter and grime. The lower right is astounding—with a mother-of-pearl liquidity reminiscent of Roberto Matta or Yves Tanguy and featuring a string of pearls and iridescent slashes of colors above a now-rare artist’s signature and date.
The showpiece of the rear gallery is The Splendid Table (2019–20), a triptych stretching over 26 feet wide that references still life paintings of game laid out on overburdened tables by the frequent Rubens collaborator, Frans Snyders (1579–1657). This subject dominates the works now at Blenheim, there housed in a country castle and forming a riposte to the English hunting tradition and its patriarchal and anti-environmental associations. Here, in the blinding white cubes of Chelsea, the pictures read as explosive bursts of color, from the red-dressed table that unifies the three canvases to the solar, heavenly splashes of yellow and orange at the top of the central panel. An odalisque of a rabbit stretches across the midriff of the central panel, a reference both to Brown’s murderous and rapacious bunnies who stood in for humans in works in her show Spectacle at Deitch Projects in 1997 and the lolling nudes in her works since.
Adjacent, a small room contains the most visually unfamiliar works in the show: Selfie, Picture This, and Up the Neck (all 2020). All three are just under four-foot square and appear to be interiors with carnal, intertwined nudes in the central foreground. Perpendicular lines abound to a degree that is uncommon in Brown’s oeuvre, and it is hard not to ascribe this rectilinear insularity to a lockdown mentality under COVID-19. The juxtaposition of figures against shifting and deftly applied vertical and horizontal architectonic strokes that read as background resembles a technicolor treatment of Giacometti’s astounding and largely grisaille portraits and self-portraits. But the direct frontality and isolation of forms of the Swiss artist’s bracketed figures are hardly Brown’s method. And in Selfie what seems a background crammed with windows and curtains in a breeze, framed pictures, grandfather clocks, a reflection of her studio ladders in a decorative mirror—even perhaps a monochrome American flag—through a variety of hot colors and slips of focus, moves forward to collapse space. This is Brown’s formal gambit. These three compositions feel like extensions of earlier interiors such as Hangover Square and New Louboutin Pumps (both 2005), but with a hothouse intensity that matches the coitus in the foreground and a pent-up energy that drives the gridded forms to all four edges of the canvases.
It is a good moment for Cecily Brown. The Blenheim show is a critical smash—though tantalizingly inaccessible as Britain locks down again. The Brooklyn Museum just acquired via gift Triumph of the Vanities II (2018), one of two grand canvases that recently hung at the Metropolitan Opera. Her impact on younger artists is more and more evident on gallery walls. This exhibit shows her impressive restlessness, resolve, and energetic mind in equal measure. Politics have crept into her work: in a front room visible from the street is Red and Dead (2020), a careening, impenetrable mass of brushstrokes—all chaos and smeared pigment across large patches of unpainted white linen. In the center is an “x” on a tapering, greenish form. It hangs adjacent to Lobsters, oysters, cherries and pearls (2020), another standout, whose display of gastronomical excess and rampant luxury seems a glimpse of distant pasts of blithe disregard, whether derived from opulent Baroque still lifes or in frustrated memory of our alluringly mundane, maskless lives before March. Below the ubiquitous sanguine table lurks a huge, yellow-eyed black cat, as disturbing as the ebony feline in Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Rationality, one hopes, will soon return to keep the nightmares at bay.
A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 West 21st Street, October 27–December 2, 2017. See my interview with the artist in the December 2017–January 2018 Brooklyn Rail.
Originally scheduled for May, but now on view September 17, 2020–January 3, 2021.
Jason Rosenfeld, “Cecily Brown: The Painterly Picaresque,” in Cecily Brown (London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2020), 42-90.