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Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned)

Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned)
signed and dated 'Cecily Brown 2013' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
109 x 171 in. (276.9 x 434.3 cm.)
Painted in 2013.
Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2013
K. Grovier, Art Since 1989, London, 2015, pp. 94-95.
C. Martin, J. Rosenfeld and F. Prose, Cecily Brown, New York, 2020, pp. 78, 84 and 159 (illustrated).
Beverly Hills, Gagosian Gallery, Cecily Brown, September-October 2013.

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Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“Painting is a kind of alchemy… the paint is transformed into image, and hopefully paint and image transform themselves into a third and new thing ... I want to catch something in the act of becoming something else.” - Cecily Brown

Featuring a visual symphony of the artist’s masterful brushwork, Cecily Brown’s monumental Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) is an exemplary canvas that speaks to the very heart of her interrogation of the great themes of Western art. Brown, who is currently the subject of her first fully-fledged museum retrospective in New York, has been pushing the boundaries of the representation of the human body, and indeed the boundaries of painting, for more than twenty-five years. Nowhere is this bravado more evident than in Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), a painting filled with motion, rigor, and chromatic intensity.

Its fluxing, admixing bodies are larger than life and inspire us to contemplate how art and identity coalesce in unexpected ways. Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) could therefore be a portrait of humanity itself in all its unpredictability and fluidity. Of the many rave reviews for Brown’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one acclaimed: “Brown has demonstrated her fluency in paint no matter the scale, flowing freely between figuration and gesture, landscape and portrait, a native of every genre. She has forged an idiosyncratic hand that is recognized and prized, not for its rigid sameness, but for its ability to make any subject its own” (K. Herriman, “Cecily Brown Destroys Time—Throughout Her Life and Now at the Met,” Cultured, April 4, 2023 https://www.culturedmag.com/article/2023/04/04/cecily-brown-met-museum-survey). In this context, there are strong correlations—both compositionally and in its palette—between the present work and Matisse’s The Joy of Life (Bonheur de Vivre). The horizontal composition of both works enables the amalgamation of figure and landscape in a flurry of luxurious brushwork.

Due to its impressive, mural-like, scale, Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) becomes an immersive experience, and it happily finds beauty in its apparent chaos. The assembled figures are loosely divided into a darker left side composed of purples, blues, and pinks, and a lighter right side built up from yellows and greens. The latter section contains more bodies that are identifiable as such as they coalesce from Brown’s skillful brushstrokes.

A group of standing figures is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), as well as one potentially male figure on his hands and knees. In the center is a person who seems to be caught in a state of sorrow or shame. The leftmost, cooler bodies more readily dissolve into abstraction. One is turned away from us, while others are like living sculptures who have come alive and begun to walk.

This frieze-like arrangement with an emotionally charged central figure recalls Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), which depicts war through a gendered lens. Similarly, Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), with its purposefully melodramatic and cinematic title, suggests that there is some epic conflict within the picture plane. Yet, as is frequently the case with Brown’s work, we can neither know the nature of these mythic events, nor can we discern who is beautiful and who is damned. Speaking in a language all its own, “Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) is a raucous carnival of acrobatic flesh-tones. Like ‘The Venus of Hohle Fels,’ Brown’s work is an inscrutable totem of disjointed derrières and discombobulated limbs rendered in riotously indecipherable syllables” (K. Grovier, Art Since 1989 (World of Art), New York, 2015, p. 90). The Venus of Hohle Fels, the oldest depiction of the human body, is an appropriate comparison, since Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) feels like something beyond time, yet bound to it.

The title of this career-defining masterpiece evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922)—a tragedy that mythologizes the excess and hedonism of the Jazz Age in the United States. Fitzgerald writes in an early chapter, “It was October in 1913, midway in a week of pleasant days, with the sunshine loitering in the cross-streets and the atmosphere so languid as to seem weighted with ghostly falling leaves” (F.S. Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned, New York, 1922, p. 14). It is as if Fitzgerald were writing about Brown’s painting, which contains the earthy colors of fall and crisp rays of sunshine. Still, there is nothing languid about Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), which instead beats like a heart, evoking the diversity and wonder of the world. Limbs emerge from and disappear into the edges of the linen support, as if these entities might materialize in our own world at any moment. As artist Amy Sillman notes of Brown, “This woman paints flesh. She paints the drama of what it means to have a body and to have desire and to have that body be a surface” (A. Sillman, quoted in C. Kino, “Cecily Brown’s Fearless Approach to Painting,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/cecily-brown-show-new-york-metropolitan-museum-of-art-8e992f).

Another source for the present work is Edgar Degas’s early painting Young Spartans Exercising, also known as Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys (c. 1860)—one of the artist’s favorite paintings. The canvas is notable for Degas’s depiction of these classical youths with modern Parisian features—a transhistorical urge that has also driven Brown. In Young Spartans Exercising, there is a very clear gender divide, with a group of spectators in the background. The crawling boy is directly mirrored in Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned). Brown’s interpolation of this painting into her own is especially evocative given that Young Spartans Exercising is a squarely narrative and representational painting from an artist whose body of work is largely celebrated for its modern, contextless slices of life.

“Cecily Brown’s paintings are a continuous stream of color and forms that accumulate and expand on the canvas in changing, multiple layers of influence. Staring at her paintings is like leaning out over an orchestra pit, where cultural and historical references are like musical instruments mixing their notes.” - Danilo Eccher

Brown has likewise always occupied a productive and nuanced in-between space that is both familiar and fantastical, filled with “all the emotional conflict and intensity that might have come out in conversation throughout a long evening…The paintings are full both of what was and of what could have been” (K.V. Madsen, “Cecily Brown: Contemporary Fine Arts Galerie,” Artforum, December 2022, https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202210/cecily-brown-89740).
We also look to another icon of early twentieth-century painting: Max Beckmann’s similarly horizontal Junge Männer am Meer (Young Men by the Sea) (1905) is exemplary of the interspace of abstraction and figuration that characterizes Brown’s work. In part an academic study of the nude, it is nevertheless surreal, resulting in a scene that, like Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), is technically skilled and sublime.

Though Beckmann has often been associated with German Expressionism, he more squarely identified with New Objectivity, a German art movement that rejected the romantic aims of the Expressionists. This evinces the possibility of painting accomplishing both of these projects—lofty utopianism and unflinching realism. The same could be said of Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), which is both lyrical and material, ethereal and concrete. Brown and Beckmann alike show us the interdependence of figuration and abstraction, as well as painting’s necessary tendency to express multiple truths simultaneously.

But it is not just art historical sources that Brown draws inspiration from. The present work was painted after a sustained period during which she painted a number of works inspired by Jimi Hendrix’ 1968 album Electric Ladyland, which featured a photograph of a harem-like gathering of young nude women holding copies of his records on the cover. Brown’s responded with a series of paintings that were informed, bit not dictated by, groups of women, “Formally I was drawn to it, like a pile of body parts” (C. Brown, quoted by R. Small, “Cecily Brown Shows Her Women Uptown,” Interview, May 7, 2013, online via https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/cecily-brown-gagosian-new-york [accessed: 4/10/2023]). Untitled (The Beautiful and the Damned) marks Brown’s return to the male figure, inspired—in part—by the composition of Degas’ painting, while at the same time incorporating the French artist’s use of movement.
The ghosts or people that populate Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) unite to create a score, a grand composition that brings together all of the artist’s judiciously chosen inspirations. Critic and curator Danilo Eccher observes, “Cecily Brown’s paintings are a continuous stream of color and forms that accumulate and expand on the canvas in changing, multiple layers of influence. Staring at her paintings is like leaning out over an orchestra pit, where cultural and historical references are like musical instruments mixing their notes” (D. Eccher, “Cecily Brown in Turin,” Gagosian Quarterly, October 22, 2014, https://gagosian.com/quarterly/2014/10/22/cecily-brown-turin/).

“Thus layering, both visual and referential, is a remarkable aspect of Brown’s work, a layering that implies multiples points of entry and readings, in which the viewer is cast into a welcome state of flux. This is her prime artistic gambit.” - Jason Rosenfeld (in “Cecily Brown: The Painterly Picaresque,” Cecily Brown, London, 2020, p. 42.)

With history behind her and before her, Brown distills her inspirations and creates a fiercely unique style. In Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), she has expanded her vision to epic proportions in the tradition of the very best artists. She is the history painter of our moment as she depicts the accelerating nature of contemporary life.

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