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Twenty Million Sweethearts

Twenty Million Sweethearts
signed and dated 'Cecily Brown ‘98-99 CB 98-99' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
193 x 248.9 cm. (76 x 98 in.)
Executed in 1998-1999
Deitch Projects, New York
Private Collection, Florida
Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2000, lot 1
Private Collection (acquired at the above sale by the previous owner)
Sotheby’s London, 6 October 2017, lot 139
Private Collection (acquired at the above sale by the previous owner)
Sotheby’s London, 11 February 2020, lot 36
Acquired at the above by the present owner
Olav Velthuis, ‘Promoters and Parasites. An Alternative Explanation of Price Dispersion on the Art Market,’ Economics of Art Auctions, Milan, 2002 (mentioned, p. 132).
Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art, Princeton 2005, (mentioned, p. 79).
New York, Deitch Projects, Cecily Brown: High Society, April - May 1998.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

‘The paintings are like doors flung open suddenly to reveal something shocking. Because they are so energetic they might also be viewed as moments of a movie whose sudden arrest causes the mind’s eye to trip over itself in its own voracity, tangling in dense webs of coloured light, striving to mark order of intense and disordered sensations’ Robert Evrén

Titled after the 1934 Hollywood musical, Cecily Brown’s monumental painting Twenty Million Sweethearts draws on the traditional Broadway genre where illicit romance and repressed passion are indirectly veiled within cultivated codes of social etiquette. Brown has translated the ‘sweethearts’ into a turbulent maelstrom of coital bodies.

Known for her richly-painted canvases that occupy the space between figure, landscape, and pure abstraction, Brown has been at the forefront of a resurgence in painting since her career bloomed with force in the late twentieth-century. Twenty Million Sweethearts is an early example of her mature output, and continues this virtuosic practice by creating depth and intrigue within an illusionistic space. Never one to sit on her laurels, Brown’s constant re-examination of the time-honoured tradition of painting has garnered wide acclaim. “The boundaries of painting excite me,” she notes, “You’ve got the same old materials—just oils and a canvas—and you’re trying to do something that’s been done for centuries…I have always wanted to make paintings that are impossible to walk past, paintings that grab and hold your attention. The more you look at them, the more satisfying they become for the viewer. The more time you give to the painting, the more you get back.” What at first glance might appear as a barrage of colour, brushwork, and form, rewards careful observation with a discernible sense of space. But rather than give over an instantly recognizable subject, Brown’s works ask the viewer to question the structure of paintings and how we recognize three dimensions on a flat surface.

In Twenty Million Sweethearts, broad torso-like zones rendered in the fleshiest of yellows and pinks mingle with areas of colliding staccato brushstrokes, infusing the composition with pulsating energy. Brown’s brushwork inherits much from the work of American Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. De Kooning once claimed that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented, and Brown readily agrees: early in her career her figuration dealt with distinctly carnal subject matter, complementing the medium’s voluptuous power. She describes oil paint as “sensual, it moves, it catches the light, it’s great for skin and flesh and heft and meat … I wanted to make something that you couldn’t tear your eyes away from. I like the fact that because my earlier work was so known for having erotic content, I actually need to give very little now and it’s seen as erotic or hinting at erotic.” Twenty Million Sweethearts is electric with this submerged physicality, its tussling ribbons of sanguine colour recalling the raw, muscular anatomies of Chaim Soutine or Francis Bacon.

Brown’s practice is deeply entrenched in the history of painting. Shifting between abstraction and representation in an expressionistic manner, her erotic compositions pay homage to the legacy of the Abstract Expressionist painters that had dominated the New York art scene decades before her. Brown acknowledges her interest in the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1940s that were still engaged with the Surrealist interest in the unconscious. “If I had to place where it all comes from, the moment that interests me the most in twentieth century painting, and which I feel was not taken that far because abstraction happened in such an extreme way, is the moment when Rothko, Gorky and Newman were doing those biomorphic things that just hovered on the edge of representation. They’re not quite abstract and they are absolutely grounded in the figure.” Employing sex as her subject, Brown’s exuberant abstract canvases integrate these biomorphic forms, picking up where her predecessors left off in her own form of expressionism.

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