Interview with Cecily Brown: Goodness gracious! Dare one say landscape paintings?

Adrian Dannatt talks to a well primed young painter


There is something faintly daunting about interviewing Cecily Brown, who is famous, beautiful, talented and young, who seems to know everybody and, more importantly, everything about the history of painting. The main daunt however comes from the fact that her late father, David Sylvester, was the greatest interviewer of artists in the 20th century. It would be inappropriate to dwell on family connections but Brown is so conscious of the art that has gone before her, so unusually aware of the lineage of every line drawn, that her father’s own extraordinary knowledge of and sensitivity to painting seems germane to her own work. At Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue Brown’s new work was propped up in preparation for hanging, adjacent art including a bold Jeff Koons painting, a late De Kooning and an exquisitely complex drawing by Gorky, all of whom Sylvester has, of course written about, not least for this same gallery. If the sexual imagery detectable in Brown’s earlier work generated embarrassing claims of "Bad girl" subversion or post-feminist parodic expressionism, her new exhibition makes clear that she was only ever really interested in being a painter, as good a painter as she could be, within the canon this entails.

The Art Newspaper: Goodness gracious, dare one say landscape paintings?

Cecily Brown: I didn’t know they were going to be landscapes; it came very gradually; it crept up. This bare one, "Eclogue", was the first and the next was similar, just a frieze of action going across a bare linen ground. The others started getting quite worked and it started looking really mannered, having worked figures on a bare ground. One day, getting frustrated, I just put in a blue cloud, almost as a joke, and it suddenly worked. It pushed and pulled it in all the right directions, so I thought, okay, put some skies in. You can almost tell what order they were done in from the amount of sky there is.

TAN: The first one, on the unprimed canvas, is not necessarily a landscape; the composition could almost be a battle scene by Uccello.

CB: Oh I’m so happy you said that! There’s a passage in The tin drum that describes a battle; I’ve had it lying around for a while, and that makes me think of Uccello. I really wanted to do a horizontal frieze of something. I’ve always been obsessed with a frieze of figures going across a canvas, it seems to almost embody what painting is, something still that as though it’s in motion. Like a Poussin frieze: there’s hardly anybody who makes things look more still than Poussin, but it’s still moving.

TAN: There is a huge energy in all of these paintings but it is an unspecified energy; you do not know what is going on.

CB: Well, I know exactly what’s going on but it really has gone back and forth, making it less and more explicit as I go through a painting. The most explicit bit is often in the centre, the central characters, like these little bunny figures here in the painting called "A quick one". They come from these bunny paintings I did four years ago. It’s really just a return to that as a theme but obviously very different in technique. But I don’t want it to be a game of "find-the-bunny". They’re meant to be like something seen from a train, speeding past and seeing something. De Kooning talked about his "slipping glimpse" and that’s exactly what I am trying to achieve.

TAN: In connection with your father, one could almost see the shapes of late David Bomberg landscapes in some of these fractured forms.

CB: Brown and mud are the things that one is always trying to escape from as an English painter. I think I literally had to leave England in order to do it. So to start using these grays and browns now is quite difficult. These browns are made from very bright oranges and blues, so I didn’t feel the dread of "Oh God, earth tones"; I felt I was inventing this rich brown that I wasn’t expecting to find. And then when I’d painted them it might as well have just been burnt siena out of the tube!

TAN: I like the strange shapes, even awkward shapes…

CB: I see this one as a still life after the hunt.

TAN: There is a sort of French sensibility in these landscapes, a sort of bourgeois landscape, the plein air picnic almost…

CB: I didn’t think I was going to go French, but in the middle of painting them I stumbled across a Eugene Boudin reproduction and thought they were more like this Boudin beach at Trouville than anything else—I found this very exciting, the three things: the sky, action of the ground and clusters of heads. I’ve always been very interested by the shapes of people like Manet and Degas, of the bonnets and umbrellas. Just look at the shadows in Degas, his negative space is the more charged, most animalistic, electric, full of tortured, screaming Boschian themes in what seems like quite a calm scene.

TAN: I do see some early Baselitz in them, the paintings of the Sixties. You are a German-French-English painter living in New York…

CB: And I always used to think I was Italian. But really I think the Chardin exhibition strongly influenced me, the thing about using bare linen was the Chardin background colour, these wonderful grays and browns, really rabbit colours. Soutine is also a reference in the most worked ones. I always feel like this with all my work, this collaboration with all the artists that I’ve looked at, they come out at different times.

TAN: It’s odd that these comparisons always come up with painting as opposed to other art forms. Is this part of the nature of painting itself?

CB: One of the things I find so exciting about painting is that I do see it as non-linear—you can have Uccello in your head next to Baselitz, but I rarely think about any other painter when I’m actually working it’s only in looking at them afterwards. I know when I was a student I was one of the only people who looked at old paintings; a lot of young painters don’t look at anything after the last ten years.

TAN: Presumably you don’t actively think "this looks like so-and-so" at the moment you are actually painting…

CB: Well you might sit down, look at what you’ve done and think, oh God it is TOO Baselitz or TOO Bacon, or TOO De Kooning.

TAN: And would you then change it, on the basis of being too close?

CB: Yes, I have done, I have done that. I know when I was younger if I made any mark that looked like Bacon or De Kooning, which I often did, then I would really get rid of it. Freedom came later on, when I thought fuck it, if it does show an influence then that’s fine too. I think in a way the paintings only freed up when I started not caring if it looked too much like someone else. As a student I had to really fight not to do Bacon, one of my first paintings ever was like Bacon does a Bonnard. I have always loved Bacon. But I often feel I love Bacon despite myself in a way. I always thought I’d grow out of liking Bacon; it seems a bit of a teenage taste, it’s art you have to see it for the first time when you’re sixteen…

TAN: Like Dostoyevksy…

CB: More like Holden Caulfield! The person I’m also thinking about a lot is Gorky, who is interesting to the issue of allowing influences to stay, getting right under people’s skin. With my earlier work I always thought it was more Gorky than De Kooning, I’m more interested in that ground between, say, biomorphic forms, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, rather than pure Abstract Expressionism itself. I was quite offended when I was first described as an expressionist and especially an Abstract Expressionist. To begin with I never think I’ve done anything really abstract. The irony is that when I finally let go of caring that they looked too derivative, that’s when I started finding a voice of my own. The main thing is you can’t be afraid of being corny.


Born London, 1969. Lives and works in New York

Education 1989-93 BA in Fine Arts (First Class Honors), Slade School of Art, London; 1992 New York Studio School; 1987-89 Drawing and Printmaking classes, Morley College, London; 1985-87 B-TEC Diploma in Art and Design, Epsom School of Art, Surrey

Curretnly showing Gagosian New York (until 16 March)

Solo Exhibitions: 2002 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C, Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles; 2001 “Days in Heaven”,Contemporary Fine Art, Berlin; 2000 Gagosian Gallery, New York; 1999 “Serenade”, Victoria Miro Gallery, London; “The Skin Game”, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills; 1998 Deitch Projects, New York; 1997 Deitch Projects, New York (Storefront Gallery); 1995 Eagle Gallery, London

Selected Group Exhibitions: 2001 Valencia Biennial, Valencia Spain; The Figure: Another Side of Modernism,î Snug Harbor Cultural Center; 2000 “Greater New York: New Art in New York Now”, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City; “Emotional Rescue”, Center On Contemporary Art, Seattle; 1999 “At Century’s End: The John P. Morrissey Collection of 90’s Art”,

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Lake Worth, Florida; Facts & Fictions: La nuova pittura internazionale tra immaginario e realtà: New York”, Galleria in Arco, Turin; “Pleasure Dome”, Jessica Fredericks Gallery, New York; 1998 Janice Guy Gallery, New York; David Zwirner Video Library, “Four Letter Heaven”