3 More

Can Can

Can Can
signed and dated 'Cecily Brown '98' (on the stretcher); signed twice, titled and dated twice 'Cecily Brown 98 Cecily Brown Can Can 1998' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
75 7⁄8 x 98 in. (192.7 x 248.9cm.)
Painted in 1998
Deitch Projects, New York.
Private Collection, New York.
Private Collection, Asia.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Cecily Brown: Where, When, How Often and with Whom, exh. cat., Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2018-2019, p. 105.
C. J. Martin (et al.), Cecily Brown, London 2020, p. 134 and 158 (installation view at Deitch Projects in 1998 illustrated in colour, p. 50; illustrated in colour, p. 135).
New York, Deitch Projects, Cecily Brown: High Society, 1998.
Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Innovation and Imagination: The Global Dialogue in Mid to Late 20th Century Art, 2019-2021.

Brought to you by

Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Included in the artist’s seminal solo show High Society at Deitch Projects, New York in 1998, Can Can (1998) is a monumental early painting by Cecily Brown. The canvas spans two-and-a-half metres wide, unfurling a panorama of colour, movement and form. Grasping hands, entwined limbs and ecstatic mouths can be glimpsed across the scintillating surface, flushed with gleaming coral, magenta and vermillion amid facets of lemon yellow and jade green. It is an abstracted bacchanal of multisensory delight. Can Can was the first of a number of Brown’s works to be titled after vintage Hollywood movies: in this case a 1960 musical comedy starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Painted during her first years in New York, where she had moved from London in 1994, it speaks to the joy, success and creative freedom she found in the city. ‘This is an intoxicating time to be painting,’ Brown wrote in 1998, ‘and New York an exhilarating and sympathetic climate. The mood is generous and open and eclectic’ (C. Brown, ‘Painting Epiphany’, Flash Art, no. 200, May-June 1998). In 2023, she was celebrated there with a major survey show, Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When she graduated from London’s Slade School of Art in 1993, Brown’s lavish, expressive paintings stood in contrast to the more conceptual stance of her Young British Artist contemporaries. In New York, where painting was undergoing a revival, she received a warm welcome. The city was also charged with inspiration for Brown as the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism: Willem de Kooning, who died in 1997, was still living on Long Island when she arrived. Brown’s work reflects a close dialogue with de Kooning, who famously claimed that ‘flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.’ While her later works would become more abstract, Brown’s early figuration dealt with distinctly carnal subject matter, bringing the medium’s power to voluptuous life. The bodily force of Can Can is unmistakable, its slick paint dancing and fluorescing with light and motion.

‘I like the idea that they were gaudy and bawdy’, said Brown of her filmic titles for this series. ‘It was really right for the body of work because they were very bright and chaotic, very much like a Busby Berkeley song and dance routine, maybe with a hand grenade thrown into it. My paintings were very broken up and fractured but they had this sense of too loud, too much action, too theatrical, which I always thought belonged in a painting ... I didn’t want really my peers to know the movie, because I wanted it to be suggestive rather than descriptive … For example the painting titled Can Can, it doesn’t mean that there are girls with their legs in their air. It was more the sensation of a can-can. Of course it was like a can-can as well. So Can Can was the beginning, and it was so freeing’ (C. Brown, quoted in L. R. Jørgensen and A. Kold, ‘Painting as a Marriage Between Brain and Body: An Interview with Cecily Brown’, in Cecily Brown: Where, When, How Often and with Whom, exh. cat. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk 2018, p. 105).

Brown’s first New York solo show, Spectacle, had opened at Deitch Projects in 1997 to huge acclaim. The paintings depicted orgiastic gatherings of rabbits, riffing on the packed figural compositions of Goya and Poussin. For High Society, in tune with her Hollywood inspirations, Brown amped up the size and vibrancy of her canvases, with fleshy, interlocking human forms taking centre stage. Can Can is a widescreen Technicolor fantasy. The dance’s risqué reputation—a public indecency charge is central to the plot of the movie, which is set in 1890s Paris—adds to the painting’s sense of erotic athleticism. ‘In attempting to match the fullness and extravagance of the cinematic experience,’ notes Jason Rosenfeld, ‘Brown more than doubled the scale of her pictures, the imagery became more convoluted and intense, and the colours were intensified … In these early and ambitious New York pictures, Brown tried to do it all in one go—to critique the history of representation of sexuality and [of] women by men, while retaining an evident level of pleasure in sexuality and physical acts’ (J. Rosenfeld, ‘Cecily Brown: The Painterly Picaresque’, in Cecily Brown, New York 2020, pp. 50-52).

Indeed, Brown’s gestural strokes and visceral colour manifest her own pure joy in the act of painting. She absorbs and subverts the work of de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists, destabilising their associations of male heroism. Her approach also draws upon the fleshy, bloodshot visions of Francis Bacon and Chaim Soutine, as well as masters of the deeper art-historical past. The Baroque hedonism of Rubens, Fragonard’s Rococo excess, the earthy carnivalesque of Bosch and Bruegel, and the chromatic drama of Delacroix can all be glimpsed in the present work’s spectacular, metamorphic surface. Yet the picture is entirely Brown’s own. She has spoken of ‘slowing down’ the viewer in front of her works, which cannot be apprehended in an instant, but stir, unfold and reveal their riches with extended viewing. Can Can is a virtuoso performance, choreographing a glorious, indulgent chorus of brand-new sensory delight.

More from 20th / 21st Century: London Evening Sale

View All
View All