Cecily Brown: Consideration and Reconsideration

"Death and The Maid" April 4-Dec 23, 2023, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“No You For Me” (2013)

Roberta Smith didn’t like Cecily Brown’s paintings in 2000: “…uninteresting from any distance and ultimately vacuous” and now she does: “The more I looked at the paintings, the more they calmed down, opened up and differentiated themselves from one another in color and composition.”A painter friend made a cynical remark about this turnaround that involved “monetary values,” “advertising dollars” and “future auctions.”
A quote from A Gentleman in Moscow:
“By their very nature, human beings [and paintings] are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration…”

I plan to reconsider too at some point in the future but right now, “Death and the Maid” is a series of disappointments. The paintings are so promising at first glance; the strokes are lush and varied; the paintings seem to offer an invitation to be seen slowly and pieced together in the mind of the viewer. But what actually happens is that once objects and scenes are recognized, there is no pleasure in looking at them anymore.

The problem is partly as Smith put it in her first review—“uninteresting from any distance.” This doesn’t matter when viewed online but IRL it does: the relationship between the abstract and the figurative is not fluid; it never changes when the viewer moves or shifts focus.
In No You… the label says the viewer is “placed at the vanity table” but it doesn’t feel like it. The objects on the table are painted with smaller strokes suggesting more detail but that doesn’t quite happen, and shouldn’t they be larger if we are closer to them? No object is in a relationship with any other, the mirror itself doesn’t seem to be closer than the back wall. No detail commands attention in its own right, distracting us from other areas of the painting and letting us “re-see” the whole.

“Vanity Shipwreck” (2021-2022)

It may also be due to the theme of the show: “intertwining themes of still life, memento mori, mirroring, and vanitas, symbolic depictions of human vanity or life’s brevity” (from the museum press release.)
It’s very didactic. Why bother deciphering images that repeatedly turn out to be the same images with the same meaning? I found myself resenting the Sunday School morality of it. So what if beauty, pleasure—the whole glorious life of the senses—is ephemeral? Does Brown want us to turn away from earthly things?
The Raft of the Medusa might be an interesting painting to copy without the perky young thing seated at her mirror—say as a meditation on  the floods, the plagues, the chaos and the multiple fuck-ups of our time. As it is, Brown suggests that women are so involved at looking at themselves that they are ignoring the shipwreck. Or should we ignore the implications of her long fascination with the vanity of women and just figure that Vanity Shipwreck is a meaningless mashup of art tropes?

Because I’m sure she wouldn’t be referring to the 11.5 million single mothers in the US who hardly have time to look in the mirror. And she couldn’t be implying that women are more vain than men, could she?

“Nature Morte” (2020)

In her interview with the Met’s curators, Brown states she is a lifelong vegetarian and sees this lobster as a symbol of brutality. The lemon is beautifully painted, the lobster doesn’t quite come together and the upper third of the painting doesn’t work at all. The lobster isn’t appealing, her women aren’t beautiful, so where is the tension, where is the heartbreak? The beauty and sensuality of the world are not lesser because they don’t last—quite the opposite.

“The Picnic” (2006)

I did find a painting that I really like—The Picnic. Two, actually because Carnival and  Lent is another good one. The Picnic has space to move around in; there is an established foreground—the table at a feast—and a horizontal line of revelers in motion. I see something like a Marilyn Monroe at the center extending her elbow towards us, a couple cuddling on the right and then the ambient space wraps around the table into the blue distance. The label says there’s a bunch of skulls around. Of course there are! The painting wouldn’t fit the theme if there weren’t. But somehow, miraculously, this painting lets me forget all that—I love a party that gets sloppy.

The show is “Death and the Maid” which the press release suggests may be a sly reference to class. I don’t see it in the paintings.

“Death and the Maiden,” the original poem that Schubert’s String Quartet #14 is based on is not about simple vanity, it is a heartbreaking plea of a frightened young girl for time to live.  (Schubert himself was dying of syphilis when he composed it; it is a cry of despair.)

Here is the poem in its entirety:


“Over! Oh over!
Go wild boneman!
I’m still young, go dear!
And don’t touch me.


Give your hand, you beautiful and delicate figure!
I am a friend and do not come to punish:
Be of good cheer! I’m not wild.
You shall sleep softly in my arms.”

Matthias Claudius (1774)


A Gentleman in Moscow