with Jason Rosenfeld
Paula Cooper Gallery | October 27 — December 2, 2017
Cecily Brown’s recent show at Paula Cooper Gallery successfully activated the space with only five oils hung in two rooms. Her grandest work to date, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! (2016), is a thirty-three foot long picture on three panels. It forms a larger triptych with two 12 1/2 foot wide works on the flanking walls: Madrepora (Shipwreck) at left, and Sirens and Shipwrecks and Bathers and the Band at right, both from 2016. There were two smaller works in the front room: When Time Ran Out (2016) and Beach Blanket Babylon (2016–17). The basis for these pictures was Eugène Delacroix’s Romantic paintings The Shipwreck of Don Juan (there is a sketch in the Victorian and Albert Museum, London, from the 1820s, and a large finished version at the Louvre from (1840). She intercut this with traces of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), as well as allusions to contemporary images of women with burkinis being harassed and fined on French beaches by the authorities. Senior Rail writer, Jason Rosenfeld, met Cecily Brown at her studio in New York to talk about this show and her practice.
Jason Rosenfeld (Rail): The things that I was interested in at Paula Cooper were issues of the presentation. It was nice to see this show with only five pictures, and so carefully organized and thought-out in their placement. Even the height.
Brown: Oh great, somebody noticed that.
Rail: Yes. I’m obsessed by where painters want you to be in front of their pictures. There are two paintings in the front room [When Time Ran Out and Beach Blanket Babylon] that are lower than the ones in the main gallery, but those are so big—they’re so high—that you don’t really see it. With the ones in the front you’re looking down and into them.
Brown: Well, I really love installing. First of all I feel like it’s the first time I really see the work—especially with the paintings in this show—because the scale is so big in the studio that I can’t actually get enough distance from them. So in a sense I was seeing them for the first time. Several of them I hadn’t seen for about six months, because I always like working way ahead, putting things aside way ahead of time. So not only did I feel like I haven’t seen the paintings, or had slightly forgotten, but I’d never seen them with all that space around them. Usually, I tend to hang pretty high, and it was very much Paula Cooper and Steve Henry who tried them lower, and I felt that they absolutely got it right. The paintings are so fucking huge, and these were finished last year, but we thought, rather than bring them into the gallery, we did do a lot on a model, and again Paula who I adore and really respect her opinion and her eye obviously—she’d said from the beginning, “I think you’ll only need three in the large space.” So we tried it, and we tried other things just to make sure, but it was so clear that that was what worked. In the main room we agreed straight away, and they’re fairly high, but I just always felt that the huge one [A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!] was something to be immersed in.
Rail: Like a Barnett Newman?
Brown: Yeah, you absolutely enter into it, kind of like a surround-sound experience. So we all agreed almost straight away whereabouts that should be. We actually had them even lower in the front at first. I’m a huge believer in trying everything when you hang a show.
Rail: Oh yeah, the art handlers love that.
Brown: They love me—bring it back in, inch to the right. [Laughter]
Rail: You have to buy them beers after, that’s the key.
Brown: I do. These days they’re usually busy rushing off for their own shows that they don’t want to go for beers. But Paula very much thought that this immersive thing worked well on the smaller scale too, so I think I might try this again, because I really thought they worked, this way you could feel you could almost step right into more of a medium-sized painting.
Rail: There’s an almost vertiginous feeling where you’re looking down and then in and back. Especially with the titles such as Beach Blanket Babylon.
Brown: I’m glad you thought it worked. I had always done the slightly higher thing because I kind of like the idea that you’re looking up at something. And also I’m fairly short, so I always think, don’t do it at my height.
Rail: But when you work on them they’re low. And you’re using ladders—
Brown: I’m using ladders.
Rail: Do you ever change the orientation, do you ever turn them around?
Brown: I do sometimes. On the larger scale, not that often, but with smaller ones. But not that much, not the way some people do. Someone like Amy Sillman constantly does it as part of everyday practice, where I’m more likely to do it out of frustration, like let me just try this, if I really can’t escape a certain way of reading it and want it to open up again. And the big triptych in the show, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, I did turn—only once, the right-hand panel—I flipped it and worked on it.
Rail: So the yellow sun was at the bottom?
Brown: Exactly, but I think the yellow came in because I kind of wanted to disrupt it, to have it read all as one and yet exploit the fact that it is a triptych. So to both draw attention to that and try to foil that, so you go back and forth from reading it as one thing to three. So I flipped it to kind of get away from that unified feeling, but then I lost it and couldn’t get it back, and kind of cursed myself. Then when I worked on it and flipped it back, it was too disjointed. But in a way that’s what it’s all about, making problems for yourself.
Rail: It’s interesting thinking of them as a triptych because, unlike an altarpiece, they don’t read as discrete panels. They’re joined. I didn’t notice anywhere where the brushstroke went across, but they’re so similar as to be sort of unified. I thought of the whole room as a kind of triptych. The landscape qualities of the two on the sides, and then the big apocalyptic scene in the middle.
Brown: That’s interesting, because the two side works are like seascapes, and the triptych is more like the earth. With smaller triptychs I’ve often been more free and moved the panels around in the process. Especially with medium sized things, something might start as a triptych, then it goes into three separate paintings, then it becomes a diptych, then the left switches with the right. On a good day it keeps it really open and fluid. On a bad day there’s just too many options and it’s frustrating. But on this scale, I’m just going to call it from the very beginning—1, 2, 3—and this central panel is going to be the central panel. So I decided that was one rule, that these two on the side were never going to get flipped. And then I also more than usual almost decided on a subject. Left-to-right. That was a way to kick off, but then how to make it all one thing, even though it started as almost three discrete ideas. Normally, I would work on them separately, but here they just—it’s so big—it only just fits in the studio. So it’s kind of like, just commit to it.
Rail: I know you dislike the term “done”—preferring to think of the pictures as existing in the moment when you stop working on them.
Brown: You stop rather than finish.
Rail: An artist I was just working on, Ben Wilson, spoke of the idea that he called the “moment of recognition”—when he realized that he should cease. And Tom Nozkowski talks about the moment when he’s “satisfied,” and then he can put it aside. I’m interested in when painters know. You always say that you can’t see what it’s going to look like in the beginning. A lot of artists would say “Oh, I had it in my head the whole time.”
Brown: For me, in a way, the sort of notion that you’re chasing something—that you don’t know what it is until you see it. It’s a bit like Mr. Right, you know? You do have some vague notion of what this person is going to be, or this creature, or this thing that’s going to be right. I think that’s overly romantic, but—
Rail: He’s out there somewhere—each painting. [Laughter]
Brown: That, for me, is the thrill, the chase of the imagery and of not knowing what it’s going to be. In a way, the whole thing is about discovering the image, disrupting it, and almost deliberately losing it and pushing it around. So it’s not the moment of recognition—I have a whole gestation area in the studio; I’ve got one wall painted a different color. I’ll often hang things over there—it’s really a question of living with it over time. I never decide then and there that it’s done. So, there’s a lot of, “It’s close, it’s close, it’s close,” and often I decide it’s done, or decide to stop, and then live with it, and three weeks later just say “it’s not.”
Rail: Attack it more—
Brown: So there’s always this time that has to be built into it.
Rail: Would you say that the wall [in the gestation area] is olive?
Brown: Sort of drab olive, yeah.
Rail: How does that assist you in making the decision, the wall color?
Brown: I think it feels separate from the rest of the room—we always call this “the studio.” So, it sort of has a life outside the room. I never work on things on that wall.
Rail: But you walk past them, and you might notice them and say…
Brown: I walk past them, and I sit here, and now I’ll be noticing things about it. There’s always this one little part of your mind that’s percolating. I very much believe in peripheral vision and that you’re working on them without paying close attention. So a huge part of it is just time and putting things away and bringing them back and seeing… I trust the fresh eyes, but if you haven’t looked at something for a couple of weeks—and you weren’t sure—then when you flip it back ‘round you usually know straight away. When you’ve just worked on something, your relationship to it is too hot, overheated, and emotional, and neurotic, and you so want it to work. And sometimes you really want something to be done, just because maybe it’s gone on so long, and maybe the paint’s getting more built up than you want it.
Rail: Paintings are like relationships.
Brown: Somewhat. I think they have their own inner lives as well—and I am sounding so romantic...
Rail: You don’t control them totally.
Brown: No. And you don’t want to—I mean, it really is a back and forth. For me, the push and pull is between the painting, what it demands, and me imposing on it—but going back and forth.
Rail: And the source material then, the references—to me, are so remote by that point. In the Paradise pictures [2014-15], it was so concise, and these works at Paula Cooper and their references to Géricault or Delacroix—it doesn’t really matter. I think that’s something that you’re doing that’s quite remarkable. That it’s there—but it’s not so evident, so obvious, and I think it has to do something with this process that you’re engaged in.
Brown: Delacroix’s more-or-less my favorite. The oil sketches and small works—a bit like Rubens’s oil sketches. I don’t really like finished salon-y paintings that much. Manet is about as finished as I can go. But Delacroix’s oil sketches...
Rail: The subject is there—lots of animals.
Brown: Lots of animals. The color. I don’t feel there’s a particularly original way to talk about him. I think it’s all just so obvious. It’s like trapped energy, you know, the way the fighting animals all become one thing. The compositions are so tight and held together, but at the same time there’s this loose energy.
Rail: When I look at your work, and I hear you talk about how you don’t want to get rid of the figure or the figural, that seems to be the whole point. To get rid of it entirely is to put the viewer at sea. To retain a vestige is to give the viewer something to hang on to without making it necessarily narratival.
Brown: I think it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. I just don’t know how to do it. I feel like I’m trying to do it. I would love to be able to make clear figuration. I just don’t know how you do it. I think Dana Schutz does it brilliantly, John Currin—not all in his subjects, but… I think some people can do it but I just can’t. Someone just reminded me that [Gerhard] Richter used to call his abstractions “realism.” I like the artifice of painting and the fact that it’s this very fake world. But in a way, a strict representation is the most fake of all.
Rail: Over your career, you have been exploring elements of past art. I think you’re on the leading edge in that sense, and that stories are coming back. But it’s interesting that you’re talking about how you can’t do the present. The idea that it’s hard to tell stories about now.
Brown: I think you can, I just think you don’t want to do it very directly.
Rail: How can an artist navigate that?
Brown: Well, in a way I feel like I’m doing it a bit by using Géricault and Delacroix rather than a news photograph to talk about people dying on a boat.
Rail: It’s operating on a kind of level of metaphor. It grabs you on the inside. Did you see the Thomas Hirschhorn show right next door at Gladstone [DE-PIXELATION]?
Brown: Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing.
Rail: It’s interesting, because what he is doing is not so far removed.
Brown: I know! I thought it was such a great combination with mine.
Rail: That pixelation, the obfuscation, and then forcing you to look at the horror. I thought it was a really powerful exhibit. It just shows you the level of the political that is possible in art. We’re not in a space of remove I don’t think. He’s doing it. You’re doing it.
Brown: It would be ironic if this horrible period in our history was producing really good art, for a change. I’m uncomfortable talking about something too specific to my time because obviously one of the pleasures of painting—or why painting lasts is because it’s not too much stuck in its own time. The funny thing about painting—I don’t think it dates as much as other art. It might not feel as up to the minute, but it also doesn’t look old as quickly. Hopefully a good painting looks just as good in thirty years. A lot of people have mentioned the word “time” to do with the big triptych, which I’m really pleased by because I haven’t really thought of it like that, but you could kind of get a sense of the time it took, of time passing, because it’s so immersive. The layers work as meaning and paint, and you can see the way it was made maybe more than other works in the past. Having that much raw space to work on maybe made me—in a good way—spread myself more thinly. It’s funny how some of the little ones are the most worked and gnarly. On a small scale it gets more intense.
Rail: That durational element is really key. I was struck by the time that people were spending with the pictures. People were sticking with it. I love art that’s aerobic, so you go up to it, you move back, in a way—we’ll talk about your process—but I think that’s probably how you work, a bit. The idea that people were really giving it full attention. I hadn’t seen that since the PACE show of the Rothko dark paintings a year ago, where people were connecting to the works, and then they would just sit down, then they get up and go back into it. People were spending much more time in the gallery than they ordinarily would.
Brown: Well, that’s basically all I ever want to hear—you know, “my work here is complete,” because I always wanted to make people look slowly, and to spend time. Which partly comes from starting painting at a time when I felt like nobody was really caring. So, sort of using painting as a way to force people to really look at things. I just feel like one of painting’s great strengths is that it can unfold slowly.
Rail: And intricately. The brushwork seems to have a kind of energy that would imply freneticism—but, in fact, there’s a quietude related to looking at it, which I think people find surprising. The skeins all kind of work together in that.
Brown: Thanks. It’s sort of about time passing in a way, of course. Especially the two big blue ones [Madrepora (Shipwreck) and Sirens and Shipwrecks and Bathers and the Band]. And memory…
Rail: Even those two have a centrality, which is lacking in the big one. It’s not so interested in that because it’s all dispersed. Your work strikes me as a kind of corrective against the culture of immediacy, and the pulverizing amount of images that we are minute-by-minute subjected to. When you talk about time and you talk about experience and you talk about the sheer labor that’s involved in it, I wonder if that’s something that you consciously think about because when you look back over your career, subjects change, and the style changes. The colors change, the materiality, the size.
Brown: I’m glad you think that. I always worry that it’s all too much the same.
Rail: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty resonant, and there are sharp divisions. It’s not just because there were rabbits in your early work and then there’s Paradise. It’s a larger sense. When it’s a conscious decision and when it just strikes you that you need to do something different.
Brown: No, my worry is not that things don’t organically move into the next thing. The thing that worries me is always will I know what to do after this, even when I’m really involved in a body of work.
Rail: The abyss.
Brown: There’s always this panic at the edge. Like with the shipwrecks. I love this as a subject. It kind of works in so many ways for me, but I’m always conscious that I can’t keep doing this forever. It’s kind of like that with the Electric Ladyland women . In a way, I would have just loved to keep on painting those for the rest of my life because I found it interesting enough, but I do say, “No more.” Don’t do anymore black paintings. But then five years later...“I think I’m going to paint myself a black painting.” Revisit an old subject.
Rail: How does large-scale printmaking relate to what you’ve been up to lately?
Brown: I’ve done quite a few monotype shipwrecks, actually. In a way, there’ll be a moment in the middle of a painting where I feel like I really want to go and make prints of this because it can be a way of sort of getting to the image more directly or finding out what it is about the image that you’re drawn to, because it’s so immediate and you don’t get bogged down in materials. Sometimes I don’t do watercolors for a year, or sometimes I won’t print for nearly a year, and then suddenly I’m just like, oh, this really needs to be a monotype. I try to feel out which medium is most appropriate for the subject. Like with these [drawings for her exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, on view until April 2018], it was the first time I had used charcoal I think almost since art school. Because I wanted to do the image, and I started with watercolor and gouache like I normally do, and it just wasn’t fast enough…
Rail: For the shipwrecks.
Brown: …so I was like fuck this. I got so into the charcoal. It’s so fast compared to watercolor or ink. They’re definitely much slower. And the charcoal is just like chh chh chh chh chh. And I think you get the feeling of getting the information down quickly. Urgency is quite a good quality for a shipwreck painting to have.
Rail: So the medium somehow corresponds to the themes that you’re working on?
Rail: And the big prints that you’ve done, some of them were the Paradise series?
Rail: Sort of utopian, Edenic works.
Brown: Those were watercolor monotype, which is very ethereal, and there’s something poignant about the color. Everything feels kind of faded and suggestive and like something is getting away.
Rail: And it fit with the theme. You couldn’t do that for shipwrecks.
Brown: I don’t think so.
Rail: No, because they’re too sort of visceral and unsparing.
Brown: Brutal, yeah.
Rail: How do you interact with your large oil pictures when you’re working?
Brown: Well, these really big ones are completely different from other works just because you do have to address it much more physically, and it does become sort of almost performance. Those first marks you put down do almost feel like a trace of a dance. You know, because it really is larger than body scale, but you can kind of be quite reckless because you can do a huge mark, and it’s still not that big on the canvas, so you can sort of do whoop-dee-doo, like up the ladder and down, do one big, whoosh. It’s like the whole length of your body almost, but it’s not like you do that on an easel-sized painting, and you just cut out half the painting. There’s great liberation in it, physically. But if I’m exhausted I’ll sit down and work on small paintings because they’re basically the wrist and much more intimate range—I love to move very fluidly between large and small. And as you see I always have lots of different sizes going on at once and go from charcoal to ink to watercolor all in a day.
Rail: So anything that’s up there is in play?
Brown: Right. Exactly. I walk back and forth quite a lot in here. I can’t get back and see this all at once, ever, so I use my phone. I’d take photographs of it, and I’ll often—as soon as this whole weird meta thing that you’re painting away all big—and then sit down and take a picture, and instead of looking at the actual thing, I’m staring at it from my phone, and sometimes I think that’s so sad. Like, look at the bloody painting. But it’s really helpful to go back and forth. You just don’t see the composition when you’re next to it, and then on the phone you’ll say, “Oh, whoa.” And sometimes there’s an absolutely massive head there that you didn’t see, and I played on that a lot on the first triptych. The phone would capture things that I wouldn’t see with my bare eyes.
Rail: So you have lots of pictures of it in progress? And then things might appear, and you’ll just run with that. And they really are subconscious—the way that they just emerge.
Brown: Well, the subject is in my head the whole time I’m working. So a huge head might be an accident. Of course, I don’t really know what an accident is because it’s so knowing at this point, but I’m thinking about the head, and I’m thinking about changing the scale.
The shipwreck—I always dread that moment when you don’t know what to paint next, but this, I just sort of grasped on. There’s that great combination of subject and formally—you know, it was that sweet spot where what it is and what it looks like meet.
Rail: And what was percolating.
Brown: I feel like, how come I’ve never done shipwrecks before? It’s got everything I love in a painting. There’s a crowd of figures, movement, drama, action, romance, and contorted limbs.
Rail: And a different kind of light. Aqueous sort of light.
Brown: Yeah, so I’d started drawing these, and I had the two lighter blue paintings, and I thought, “Oh, they could be shipwreck paintings,” so I went back into them thinking more of this as a subject, and it really was that combination of the formal device of the edge of the boat and the way that the boat contains the figures. In a way, I feel like I’m always trying to paint a crowd, and since those Electric Ladyland women, I’d kind of been wanting to find a male crowd. One of the reasons I love Hogarth is those figures all cram together. You know—that condensed, pushed-together energy.
Rail: It’s interesting, too, that you work from reproduction instead of the painting itself because it feels like that allows you to do what you do on the surface in your own brushwork and not let Delacroix have a say in that.
Brown: Yeah. In fact these were all drawn from a small reproduction. That’s the first one I came across—this size, a few inches, and a week before I printed it out bigger before I could really see what was going on, what I wanted. It’s really the composition that’s so exciting to copy.
Rail: It’s interesting also that you seem to have an ability to look at things on a small scale and then look at them on a larger scale, so there’s the idea of working from your phone and taking a photograph of a large painting like this and then being able to kind of visualize it from that postage stamp size.
Brown: Well, I think that must be a recent thing because we’re so used to seeing things on our phone that it’s very easy to translate. It wasn’t then that I knew how it would look, but—no it’s funny. It’s almost humorous when you’ve got this massive great thing to look at things in the mirror. So when I’m physically working, rather than walk across the room where I feel like that old peripheral vision, by the time I—it’s right here. It’s like a dancer’s mirror. Everything in the studio is on wheels. So when I’m up on the ladder, especially when you’re working on something big, it’s so much easier to look over your shoulder. And again, I like that. I feel like you get slight remove, but also it’s just a physical thing. By the time you get down the ladder, put the ladder away, walk across the room, you’re like, “What the fuck was I looking at?” And there is a certain speed and urgency while I’m physically painting. Like if I’m up the ladder doing this, the paint does something. It’s going to have changed by the time I get back. Whether you’re going to catch a drip, let it drip or not. You really want to make those decisions quite quickly.
Rail: Is there also an element of seeing yourself in the work when you’re looking at the mirror? Artists have always used mirrors for self-portraits.
Brown: It’s a Renaissance thing, I think, to look at a painting in the mirror.
Rail: That’s how Brunelleschi rediscovered perspective. He used a mirror by the Baptistery in Florence, and it organized the world for him.
Brown: Exactly. I love that. That’s what a mirror does for the painting.
Rail: But you can never see the whole of it.
Brown: No, you can’t. I don’t look at myself—I think again it’s just the remove, and also the painting has many subplots, as I like to call them. And I noticed that in the first triptych I was ultra-right-handed. Like if I didn’t watch it, I always found myself down here, and I had to really make myself go to the left side. But I decided to exploit that and kept the left panel very much more open and realized, well, that’s part of the rhythm of it—that it was less worked and more open on that side, and then it kind of gets more busy, and the right was very congested.
Rail: You talk about being right-handed, and that’s still a factor even at thirty-three feet. Because landscape painters who are right-handed, whenever they’re painting, they’re reaching out to their right. They’re not reaching across to their left. They want to orient you on the left side of the painting, and you see the landscape spread out to your right. And you’re still having to deal with that at thirty-three feet wide. It’s fascinating because it’s not about your wingspan—your arms. It’s about how you move around it. And with your body and where you’re orienting yourself. That’s where I think the mirror helps. Because it flips it. It moves it around.
Brown: Yeah, the flip really helps. And I don’t register the flip at all.
Rail: No, it’s just a corrective in a way. It’s a fascinating process. Do you think about space in a very formal sense?
Brown: Well I like my space to be very aggressive, I think, that I play a lot with something—just as you think something is a long way away, it comes right up in your face again. So, I think about space a lot, but I like really messing with space. I mean I think I started that really early, realizing, like, changing scale really did weird things for the space. Like I’d often have one great big figure, and then smaller figures, a bit like Victorian Fairy Paintings. They weren’t fairies, though. I like the illogical thing of just sort of fucking with space all the time. But it does get me in a mess sometimes. Like you just get too bogged down. But I like space.
Rail: Like a Poussin, where it pulls you in through serpentine lines and diminishing forms.
Rail: Well I think the thing that you see in these is that there’s the boat, the horizontality in the bottom which reads as a kind of foreground, but then when you come up, it doesn’t anymore. There’s maelstrom which just comes out at you—in both of these pictures—and it denies your ability to get into it, in a way.
And capture that as the person is moving. So the inverse of the whole Salon tradition of stability. Well I think there’s a kind of connection between maybe that sort of—the figure, all the vestiges, the abstraction, and the painting—that that’s part of what you do—that it’s never settled. And that lack of resolution is what gives it its power and its interest throughout the whole thing.
Brown: That goes back to when to stop. Arguably, they can be done after the first day, sometimes.
Rail: And people will still like them.
Brown: Often they look best after the first day. I mean they have a charm that they never have again. Definitely.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.