Death and Delight: Cecily Brown at the Met

The painter’s mid-career survey provides a feast for the senses.

Walking into Cecily Brown’s survey show at the Met is a relief. Not because the paintings are particularly idyllic—they contain skulls, fragmented figures and lurking cats—but because they feel embodied. Contemporary art seems to be obsessed with the body: sexualizing it, dissecting it, reclaiming it, liberating it. But for all their interest in the body as an object, most contemporary artists don’t seem all that interested in the experience of living inside a body, in creating work that speaks to, let alone celebrates, the senses. Brown is one of the few, and in this disembodied era, her paintings feel like an affirmation and, occasionally, a delight.

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‘The Picnic’, 2006, Oil on linen, 97 in. ×10 ft. 3 in. (246.4 × 312.4 cm). Collection of Ken and Judy Siebel © Cecily Brown

“Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid,” contains roughly fifty paintings, sketches, and prints from Brown’s three-decade career. Brown, who was born and raised in England (she is the daughter of novelist Shena Mackay and art critic David Sylvester), moved to New York City in 1994, a year after graduating from art school. She soon rose to fame; by 2000, she had landed representation and a solo show at Gagosian, an interview on Charlie Rose, and a spread in Vanity Fair.

Brown’s early work was figurative and erotic: she filled large canvases with nude bodies—sometimes just parts of them—sketched in layered, frenetic strokes. The Met survey skips over some of the overtly sexual paintings from this era in favor of subtler pieces like Father of the Bride, a yellow and white painting featuring a single figure surrounded, and obscured, by clouds of turbulent brushstrokes.

‘Father of the Bride’, 1999, Oil on linen, 100 in. × 110 in. (254 × 279.4 cm). Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund, 1999 (1999:17) © Cecily Brown

Like much of Brown’s work, the painting owes a debt to the abstract expressionists of the New York School, especially Wilhelm de Kooning. (In a quote featured in the show, Brown explains that her male, American contemporaries “couldn’t paint like an Abstract Expressionist because it was too close, too recent, too American, and too macho, but as an English girl I could.”) Both Brown and de Kooning are interested in the body as a physical object: something to observe and paint. But more importantly, both are also attuned to the experience of being embodied, and try to express physical movement and sensation through color, composition, and the application of paint.

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De Kooning’s is a tough act to follow, and Brown lacks his force and clarity. Where de Kooning’s paintings, even the apparently chaotic ones, vibrate with the force of his presence, Brown’s often feel scattered, as if she’s dashed off brushstrokes at random. De Kooning also created visual depth by varying his brushwork and building up the surface of his paintings to different degrees, while Brown tends to work each section of the canvas to the same level, leading to a monotonous viewing experience. Yet there is also a joyful playfulness to Brown’s work that feels, in comparison to the Dutch painter’s heavy, sometimes violent work, like a breath of fresh air.

‘Nature Morte’, 2020, Oil on linen, 17 × 23 in. (43.2 × 58.4 cm). Private Collection © Cecily Brown

Abstract expressionism isn’t Brown’s only art historical antecedent; the show is peppered with homages to painters from across art history. Brown is particularly taken with 16th- and 17th-Century Dutch and Flemish painters. In Carnival and Lent, Brown riffs on Pieter Bruegel’s Fight between Carnival and Lent, capturing, in quick, active brushstrokes, the essential movement of the original painting. She also draws on the Dutch and Flemish tradition of sumptuous still lives. Lobsters, Oysters, Cherries and Pearls, which sits at one of the entrances to the exhibit, depicts a red tablecloth laden with rich foods, including a bowl of blood-red cherries. Below the table lurks the ghoulish face of a cat (Frans Synders, the Flemish painter whose work inspired the painting, often included cats and other live animals in his still lives). In Brown’s painting, the cat serves as a dark omen, a reminder that decadence will turn to dust.

Indeed, death is often prowling in the corners of Brown’s bright, lively work. Another motif Brown has borrowed from art history is the vanitas trope. Vanitas paintings aimed to remind viewers of the futility of earthly pleasures, often juxtaposing images of pleasure and youth with symbols of death and decay. Brown’s Untitled: Vanity, a painting based partly on an illustration by Charles Allan Gilbert, shows a young woman gazing at her reflection in a mirror; taken together, the woman’s head, her reflection, and the mirror form a skull.

‘Untitled (Vanity)’, 2005, Oil on linen, 77 × 55 in. (195.6 × 139.7 cm). Private Collection © Cecily Brown

Ian Alteveer, the show’s curator, wants to emphasize Brown’s darker themes (hence the show’s title “Death and the Maid” and the catalog title “Dancing with Death”). It’s hard to take this darkness too seriously, however, in part because Brown herself doesn’t seem to. Her play with vanitas and memento mori seems more intellectual exercise than expression of true darkness; also, she is so clearly enjoying her painting. Indeed, the true message of the show seems to be the flipside of the typical vanitas moral: we’re all going to die one day, so why not have fun while we can? And Brown knows as well as any contemporary artist how to have fun.

That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t. Brown’s fun is a deep fun, something akin to delight. It’s the fun of a painter who loves painting, of a physical body who loves being alive. Such fun is hard to come by these days and proves a balm for the senses—even, on occasion, for the spirit.

Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid” is on view through December 3 at the Met.

Death and Delight: Cecily Brown at the Met