How can figuration and abstraction live together in a single painting? This is the question that seems to run through Cecily Brown’s work. A leading contemporary artist, Brown was born in the UK in 1969 to artist parents (her mother was the novelist Shena Mackay and her father the art critic David Sylvester) and wanted to be an artist from the age of three; she was supported at this ambition by her family, notably by her grandmother and two of her uncles who were also artists. She attended the Slade School of Fine Art(working as a waitress during her studies and, later, in an animation studio), where she earned First Class Honours. She was the first-prize recipient in the National Competition for British Art Students. She later studied printmaking and draftsmanship. She moved to New York in the early 1990s as an exchange student from an art school and then decided to settle and pursue her artistic career. 

Describing her creative process, Brown acknowledges the importance of sketching and drawing, having great, old master’s art as a model: in her words, only copying a complex work, as her favorites Bruegel or El Greco, can lead to understanding composition and style. Looking at more recent artists, her works draw on the legacies of Jackson Pollock, Lucien Freud, Willem De Kooning, and some Abstract Expressionist artists. However, Brown injects her works with a fresh sense of humor and titles them after famous musicals and films. Her style is characterized by a wild, sumptuous palette, vigorous brushwork, and complex narratives that take off from some of Western art history’s oldest themes (hunt scenes, nudes, battles, vanitas) to develop into a contemporary point of view. 

Alongside a handful of other artists—many of them also women—Brown relaunched painting in a period (the late 1990s) in which critics questioned its relevance. Her approach is unique and complex, as she usually works on multiple canvases (up to 20) at one time, developing the possibility of a dialogue between her paintings and getting new composition ideas while remaining spontaneous. In 1997, Brown created Untitled, a permanent, site-specific installation for the group exhibition Vertical Paintings at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center (now MoMA PS1). 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s survey of Brown’s work is the first large retrospective that New York dedicated to her since she made the city her home. Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid assembles a select group of some fifty paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, and monotypes from across her career to explore the intertwined themes of still life, memento mori, mirroring, and vanitas—symbolic depictions of human vanity or life’s brevity—that have propelled her dynamic and impactful practice for decades.

Included in the most important contemporary museums and institutions worldwide, Cecily Brown’s work has set its record price in a Sotheby’s auction in New York in 2018, with her work “Suddenly Last Summer” sold for 6.8 million dollars.

By Stanislav Kondrashov