Cecily Brown (b. 1969)
Cecily Brown (b. 1969)

You Can't Make This Up

Cecily Brown (b. 1969)
You Can't Make This Up
signed and dated 'Cecily Brown 2011' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
55 x 77 in. (139.7 x 195.5 cm.)
Painted in 2011.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Lot Essay

I'm honored to be part of this auction. What's happened and happening in Haiti is one of the worst tragedies of our time and it's great to have an opportunity to help.


Born in London in 1969, Cecily Brown studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London before moving to New York in the mid-1990s. She quickly established herself as a key figure in the resurgence of painting during that decade, pursuing the gestural style that she has become widely acclaimed for.

Although always taking their points of departure from figurative sources, Brown's canvases verge on abstraction. There seems to be an explicit bond between her almost vibrating and pulsating brushstrokes and the often highly erotic subject matter. While her compositions may appear spontaneous, her paintings typically evolve slowly, stroke by stroke, and she often keeps several works in progress at any given time. The viewing experience is similarly prolonged, requiring an active and patient engagement with the entire canvas. Her surfaces range from smooth to thick and muscular, often including both in the same passage, and have a sensuous, corporeal presence.

Brown's obsessive attention to the physical properties of her medium conveys a dialogue with the history of painting. The artist cites a wide range of Old Masters as influences and also draws inspiration from more recent painters such as Francis Bacon, Arshile Gorky, and Philip Guston. Her satiated canvases may recall abstract expressionism, but more so than gesturing through spontaneous marks and splashes, Brown's compositions translate the typically latent erotic content of the earlier masters' work into a deliberate and exquisitely nuanced pictorial language with many possible meanings.

In You Can't Make This Up, Brown's "abstract realism" makes it difficult to pinpoint individual figures and other imagery. She asks the viewer just how much of a shape is enough to suggest a body or a landscape, while also exploring the active role of color to indicate a particular narrative. Objects and body shapes emerge from the layers of abstract marks and swirls, suggesting a nervous tension between the overt and the subtle (hardcore and soft). Compared to many of her other works, which use fleshy colors, the overall color scheme here is darker, indicating a more sinister plot. The ambiguity is intentional; as the artist notes: "My ideal is to have the tension and intensity of an aggressively sexual image without actually having to describe that."1

While allusions to bodies appear almost everywhere, there is a marked absence of a definitive punchline. The imagery seems to constantly shift and change as one looks across the canvas. Yet for Brown, it is not a question of concealing the subject matter, but rather of enhancing the idea of an abstract narrative. As she notes: "I've always wanted to be able to convey the figurative imagery in a kind of shorthand, to get it across in as direct a way as possible. I want there to be a human presence without having to depict it in full."2

You Can't Make This Up can in this way be seen to combine a phenomenological experience of looking at the canvas with a specific, physical sense of narrative. Like a Bacchanal landscape, it represents a celebration of the act of painting in the face of a generation that was largely in the process of abandoning it.

1 Cecily Brown, cited in "Cecily Brown in conversation with Lari Pittman," in Cecily Brown (New York: Rizzoli, 2008), p. 26.
2 Ibid., p. 28.

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