Cecily Brown played a pivotal role in the resurgence of painting in the late 1990s, and, when she created Eyes Wide Shut, in 2001, she had reached a creative breakthrough, fully articulating an abstract style of painting that had all the erotic frisson of her figurative works. Her painting practice, as art historian Linda Nochlin has put it, "has assumed the status of a complex and stimulating meditation on the nature of painting and the place of the human figure within it" (L. Nochlin, quoted in "Cecily Brown, The Erotics of Touch," Cecily Brown, exh. cat., Des Moines Art Center, 2006, p. 55).
The brightly keyed palette and vigorous brushwork of Eyes Wide Shut connotes a sense of ecstasy, although there is also a dark undercurrent of sharp strokes that suggests something more ominous might be hiding beneath the surface. The title is drawn from Stanley Kubrick's final film, released in 1999 and based on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler, about a man confronting the limits of his moral and erotic boundaries, which Kubrick filmed in a way that deliberately obscured the division between dream and reality, particularly in its meandering narrative and use of colored light. The title's reference to a way of seeing, of eyes that are paradoxically closed but opened wide, sets up the painting as a space of fantasy that blurs together the subjective experience of an inner and outer world.
Brown is clearly someone who is seduced by the medium of painting, its viscous essence allowing endless permutations of form. She channels her passion for the history of painting into her work. Although de Kooning is often cited as an earlier counterpart for her bravura handling and erotic penetration of the human form, Brown's work is broadly engaged in a dialogue with the painterly gesture throughout the history of art, from Titian to Cézanne and beyond. As Brown has stated, "The more I look at paintings, the more I want to paint, the more engaged I become and the deeper and richer it gets" (Robert Enright, "Paint Whisperer: An Interview with Cecily Brown," Border Crossings, no. 93 [February 2005], 40).