Interview with Cecily Brown on her UK success: “The act of looking is underrated”

After her achievements in New York, British painter Cecily Brown is having her first solo show in the UK


Back in the 1990s when the Goldsmith’s gang was turning heads and selling out shows, Cecily Brown was unfashionably immersed in paint. But a move to Manhattan and a widely praised show of lushly painted orgiastic rabbits at Jeffrey Deitch put her firmly on the art radar: Charles Saatchi headed the queue of her collectors and Larry Gagosian snapped her up. Since then Brown’s lush, erotically charged canvases—often with explicit fragments and intimate encounters nestling within their abstract painterly layers—have won the 36-year-old artist solo shows at the Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC (to name but a few), while her Black paintings were considered by many to be the wow of last year’s Whitney Biennial. Now, at last, she is being recognised on her home patch with a major solo show at Modern Art Oxford—her first in a public UK gallery.

TAN: The Oxford show spans works made over the last decade; does it include any very new paintings?

Cecily Brown: There’s one brand new painting which I’ve just finished called Aujourd’hui Rose which is really very different from everything else in the show.

TAN: In what way?

CB: I always get very superstitious about talking in too much detail because I am now working on other things like this one, and I have no idea yet where it’s going to go. The colour is quite different, and it is also taken from just one source which is is very unusual for me. It comes from a found image from a late 19th-century picture puzzle. I have always been fascinated by this kind of graphic art. It is physically a more open painting; it has a lot of space in it and is much less worked than usual.

TAN: Choosing to base an entire painting on a picture puzzle could be seen to be a crystallisation of the way in which so many of your paintings make images mix, morph, merge and throw up multiple readings.

CB: Exactly, and that is another reason we were excited to put it in the show because it makes the whole enterprise more explicit. I think using double images and picture puzzles states more clearly what some of the things are that I have been playing with over the last few years. I do not want my paintings to be a sort of hide and seek game of finding the imagery, but I realise that the thing I have become most interested in is making people really look as hard as they can, and ideally not to be looking for the naughty bits, but if that is what they are looking for, at least that will keep them standing there! The idea is that the process of looking becomes an end in itself.

TAN: So has the sex become a bit of a distraction in the way that people look at your work?

CB: It is funny because in the last three years there has been very little explicit sex, but it is still the thing that some people expect. I think it is less of a distraction now, in fact a few years ago when I was doing much more obviously sexual work, I realised pretty quickly that some people were not looking at these as paintings, they got stuck at the content and the imagery. They would read the image too fast for my liking. I had always wanted this just to be a way into them, that then you could start to see that there was a lot more going on and that they were concerned with all sorts of things, of figures moving in space as much as depicting something graphic. Then people were doing a “Where’s Waldo?” type of thing of trying to spot the sex. I still get complaints that there is not enough sex. But, you know, the work just changes over time, there is never any point in worrying about how it will be read. I like leaving things open to multiple readings. Fixed meanings make me nervous.

TAN: The exhibition also contains a film you made in 1995 which is described as “an animated painting”. Is this the only film that you have made?

CB: Yes. It is the only one I ever finished.

TAN: Why did you put it in this show?

CB: When we were discussing what would be in the show we would include mainly works on paper. I almost always think works on paper are distracting when shown alongside paintings and I would rather have a separate show of them. So in a way I thought the film served the same purpose as drawings, as something more intimate and direct. The film consists of nearly 2,000 films and watercolours. Also I had got very uptight for a few years after leaving art school and film was really the way that I got back into painting more freely, using colour more freely and realising that I had been cutting off my nose to spite my face by making all these rules for myself. In a way the film has everything that I always want my paintings to have: it is funny, and there is a kind of lightness—a sort of levity—and energy, not just a sexual energy.

TAN: But your primary medium is paint and it seems from looking at your paintings that you revel in the sheer physical process of applying the stuff and seeing what it can do.

CB: Paint is always surprising; it behaves differently every day. I have been painting for 20 years and it still constantly surprises me after all this time. I have always thought that if you are going to paint you should make things that can only be made in paint: you should exploit all its qualities.

TAN: Do you make drawings?

CB: Yes, mostly I draw with a biro or I make gouaches, usually just with black.

TAN: Do you plan your paintings?

CB: I usually just go for it, starting without a plan. There will be at least five or six things that I am working from at once, that will not seem to have much to do with each other. I started a painting last year and at the beginning it was more or less a copy of a work by Hogarth and it ended up with the composition becoming a sort of armature of the painting, but if you saw the two paintings side by side it would be hard to see what they had in common. Because I work on lots of things at once each tends to feed one into the next. I am working on this huge triptych and I am just getting so bogged down in it. So two days ago I just put it away. Now I am working on these tiny paintings. I needed to do something completely different, and that has happened a lot in the last couple of years, I like keeping things quite confusing from one painting to the next; I avoid making a coherent body of work. I think I still have a hangover from London art school in the early 90s; there is still a lot of painter’s guilt and shame and I still have to strategise to give myself permission to do things.

TAN: Your father was the late, great critic David Sylvester. Did he talk to you about your paintings?

CB: We used to go and see so many shows together, but we did not actually talk about my work very much. It was more just being side by side looking at things, but the intensity of his looking was a big influence: he always looked at things for much longer than anyone else. I am in New York and he was in London and for the last couple of years of his life, he did not see the work because my studio is on the fourth-floor with no stairs. The last group of paintings he really saw was my Gagosian show in 2000. I do remember him once coming to my studio and sitting there for hours while we talked about other things and not saying a word about the paintings, and then he sort of nodded at one as he left and said, “That’s a good painting”.

TAN: How do you want people to respond to your paintings?

CB: What I really want is for people to stop and look as hard as possible. I feel the act of looking is underrated in a way, that there is a way of blindly seeing things without really stopping and looking very closely. Very active looking is what I want people to do. I want to make forms that are either just dissolving or in the process of just becoming something, and to play with the relationship between the eye and the brain. My biggest thrill when doing a show is walking in and seeing people standing there for a long time, because I think I make really slow paintings. I have always felt that one of the great advantages of painting as compared to other media is that, because it is not time-based, you can completely bring your own time to it: you can look at it for a second or you can look at it over 10 years. I’ve always wanted the quick hit with the slow burn at the same time.


Born London, 1969. Lives and works in New York Education 1989-93 BA in Fine Arts (First Class Honours), Slade School of Art, London. Currently showing: Modern Art Oxford, 28 June-28 August Selected solo exhibitions: 2004 Cecily Brown, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. Cecily Brown, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid. 2003 Cecily Brown, MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma), Rome. Cecily Brown, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills. 2002 Directions: Cecily Brown, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Gagosian Gallery, New York. 2001 Days of Heaven, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. 2000 Gagosian Gallery, New York (SoHo). Selected Group Exhibitions 2005 The Triumph of Painting, Saatchi Gallery, London. 2004 Whitney Biennial 2004, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 2003 Gyroscope, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (through 2004).