WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA. Cecily Brown is a British painter who was born in London in 1969 and completed her education in England with a BA in Fine Arts at the Slade School of Art. Her style displays the influence of a variety of painters, from Francisco de Goya, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Joan Mitchell, to Old Masters like Rubens and Poussin, yet her works also present a distinctly female viewpoint. Cecily lives and works in New York City.

How would you describe your working day?

In short, I drop off my child at school, I walk the dog, and I try and get to the studio as early as possible. It’s very different from my life before a child where I would start whenever I felt like it and work until late. I live about ten minutes from the studio and these days it is more or less 9 to 6. During those hours I try and squeeze in everything else. I go to the gym and run errands first, but once I start work I try to work through without interruptions.

Solitude can be important for an artist. Are you alone in your studio?

I am here three days alone and I have people helping two days, or sometimes the other way round. They are in the other part of the room doing more administrative things, not painting. I don’t have any assistants who help on my work, but I am very particular about who I allow into my studio, into my space.  If the wrong people are here I can’t carry on working. 

How do you start a new painting?

I don’t stare at a white canvas, I get going quite quickly. The beginning is the most exciting. I often lay down a wash in one colour and don’t have a clear image in mind of where I am going. I start pushing paint around until forms suggest themselves, usually very quickly.  That’s the way things begin. Later I put things aside and then keep checking on them for weeks or months, or sometimes years.

How long does it take you to complete a painting?

To complete a painting the average is three to four months, but things tend to be in the studio for at least a year. It’s most helpful to me to keep lots of things going at once. 

Is New York a more interesting place to live than London for an artist who is about energy and movement?

It’s hard to tell because I moved here really young and my work has developed since I have been here. It might be to do with the energy of New York, I don’t know. A painting having energy and movement is extremely important to me, so it could be that the restless energy of New York feeds into that a lot, but I did work outside the city last summer and the paintings had just as much movement and energy.

How do you relax?

In the studio I tend not to relax at all. Outside the studio, the same as everyone else, collapsing in front of the television or having drinks with friends.

Why did you leave England?

I left England in the early 90s. My reasons change over time. I thought I was leaving because I loved New York. In retrospect I wanted to get a long way from home, to have the freedom of being very far away from where one is from. I had come to New York for six months and absolutely loved it here and somehow felt more at home than I had in England.

“I had the desire to make people stay and look”

The Wine Faced Sea (2016-2017) oil on linen 154.9 x 180.3 cm. 61 x 71 in.

Why do you feel the need to live abroad?

I don’t know if it is a need. As I said, I think it can be very freeing to get away and get a sort of distance from one’s own country. When I moved here I liked the speed that people walked in New York.

Who are the artists who have influenced you more in New York?

I don’t think there are New York artists in particular in recent years who have influenced me more than artists from England or anywhere else. Of course my friends, people like Charline von Heyl and Dana Schutz, and other painters around my generation have been an influence, but art of the past I am equally influenced by, everything, Italy and Germany and France, easily as much as America.

Were you part of an extended group of Young British Artists?

I was never part of the specific social and artistic YBA group in terms of Saatchi and everything else, but they are my peers and more or less my generation. I am actually surprised I haven’t been placed with some of them more. In America lots of people don’t know I am English. In all humility I feel very similar to Malcolm Morley, an old school painter who leaves England and gets on with it in New York.  Is it American? Is it English? It is an Englishman working in America, and my work looks a bit like that.

Among others, your work has invited comparisons with Willem de Kooning who moved here from Holland and became part of a New York School. Are you part of a New York School?

I don’t think so, though it would be interesting to put together a show of people who moved from Europe to New York. It would be such a big show! Before I came here I hadn’t thought about de Kooning’s work until my work was so often compared with his and I paid closer attention to him. Anyone who is trying to figure out the tightropes of figuration and abstraction will inevitably be interested in the ground trodden by Arshile Gorky, de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

How was the curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch instrumental in helping you?

He came to my studio after I had been living in New York for five or six years and more or less offered me a show straight away.

Is your work more figurative or abstract, or both?

Both. I am constantly trying to make it more figurative and the figurative tends to disappear while I am painting. When the body of work becomes too abstract I go through a period of doing clearly figurative paintings to make the figure front and centre again. There are always fragments of figuration even if it’s not obvious at first sight.

I prefer a state of flux where the process is still in the process of becoming. From the beginning I was very aware that people looked at paintings very quickly and weren’t very interested in a painting so I had the desire to make people stay and look. I am not into hidden imagery, but I do like the sense that something will benefit from long and close looking, convey a sense of movement and move while you look at it, and reveal itself. The meaning is always shifting, just as the paint is.

“I still don’t believe art is for children”

Why is there this rambunctious animal energy in your work that people say is almost masculine?

I thought it was more because I was in the tradition of certain masculine painters than the energy.  There are certain animals themselves depicted. I always prefer to use animals, as their meaning seems less didactic than when you use humans.

What is your favourite animal to paint?

Rabbits, but I am actually painting lots of dogs at the moment. I am probably the only person who can see them, they keep disappearing.  The body can disappear and become something else that may be more interesting because it is more ambiguous and open to interpretation. This idea comes from Francis Bacon; the sense of a figure without really describing it is something I always wanted to do.  It is absurd to paint a figure when everything has already been done, but I still want a presence and am not that interested by abstract painting.

You use many mediums for your work. What is your favourite?

Oil paint is my desert island medium.  For drawing my favourite is biro, a ball point pen.

How did you feel about art as a child?

That art was both glamorous and dangerous. I feel glamour and danger belong in art. As a mum In New York, where people believe that their children should go see everything, I still don’t believe art is for children. I like disturbing art that is for adults. Not everything is for kids. Art should be disturbing.

You grew up with Bacon?

No. I didn’t grow up with my father who was close to Bacon. I met him once when I was about 21. I have seen it said on the internet that I did, but it’s not true, although I did grow up with catalogues of Bacon’s work in my mum’s house.

Are there more women artists now?

There are many more who are able to do it professionally.  There is still prejudice in general in the art world, but they are trying to correct things. It is still a boys club in lots of ways. In a way I am an exception and I personally haven’t really suffered from prejudice, but I see it. Or perhaps I have, one never really knows. Perhaps I would have had more museum shows if I had been a man.

How is it to hang in great collections like the Whitney and other museums?

It’s a dream, quite hard to believe sometimes. I have been extremely lucky the way things have gone for me.

Your two enormous paintings Triumph of the Vanities now hanging at the Metropolitan Opera House are the first paintings there since Marc Chagall’s in 1966. Isn’t this a wonderful acknowledgement of your work?

It is absolutely wonderful to have something there. It’s a great thrill. I was there last week and the thrill doesn’t really wear off for something like that. With the Met paintings I wanted to be an abstract satirist.

Has your work changed over the years?

Inevitably one has a voice and a way of doing things. I change the size and scale of the work to try and keep myself on my toes, like when you are young and are doing things for the first time.

Do you have a personal relationship with your collectors, people like Elton John and Mario Testino?

I have met both but I wouldn’t say we are friends. I am not quite a hermit now but with a 10 year old daughter it’s different. I may find myself back out in the world in a few years but I did my going to glamorous things and meeting people when I was younger and got it out of my system.

Are you still prepared to take risks in your work?

I never expected to make any money and never thought anything I would do would become popular. Now I don’t need to sell more and more pictures. In fact I can sell fewer. So I can keep things, or I can destroy them, or put them in storage and take them out in five years. I don’t work directly for a show and just get on with painting and figure out what’s going to be for a show later.

Is your work always about conflict?

I have always been drawn to dramatic subjects, battles, shipwrecks, the more sexual earlier paintings, warfare and conflict. As the sex got less depicted and carried the energy without painting people having sex, I am trying to get it across without going into detail. If the painting is going too smoothly I put it into conflict with itself, but I try to avoid doing topical paintings. The ‘Cops on the Beach’ four years ago are a figurative moment, which I don’t usually refer to.

What is the story of your paintings of Cops on the Beach?

In the South of France during the Burkini ban women were surrounded by cops and told they had to take off their tops which were modestly covering their flesh.  The symbolism of the abuse of power should not be read too literally.  It’s a very sad narrative, shown in the photographs of this event, of this tragic woman who was taking an afternoon nap, and how drama descends around her. It is very eloquent about a lot of people’s lack of freedom in the world today.

Oinops (2016-2017) oil on linen 154.9 x 180.3 cm. 61 x 71 in.

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (2018) oil on linen

226.06 x 210.82 cm. 89 x 83 in. 

Sirens in Ladyland (2018) pastel on paper. 81.3 x 198.1 cm. 32 x 78 in. 

Promenade (2017-2018) oil on linen 134.6 x 170.2 cm. 53 x 67 in.

The Last Shipwreck (2018) oil on linen. 210.8 x 200.7 cm. 83 x 79 in. 

Bathers with Cops (2018) watercolour, ink on paper 45.7 x 61 cm. 18 x 24 in. 

“I have always been drawn to dramatic subjects”

What about your shipwreck paintings?

I am interested in painting a crowd of people compressed in a space. When I stumbled on a reproduction of a Eugène Delacroix shipwreck that caught my imagination and I ended up making dozens of copies. Not to reduce it to formalism, but one thing is that to have an edge of something, in this case a boat, to contain the figures is a very useful device.  One of my problems is that everything spills over and is not contained enough, but the nervous energy I want has to be contained. Shipwreck is a subject that is incredibly loaded, moving, emotional, terrifying, dramatic, timeless, and the idea of the stormy sea and stormy sky, the straight lines of the crisscrossing sails and mast, the torment, and the obvious metaphor for the human race now or at any time. It is an extreme situation, and my work is attracted to extremes.  It has everything you could want in a subject. I keep thinking no more shipwrecks, but I can’t quite let it go or get away from them.

Are we living in an extreme time which is keeping you there?

Yes. I do think that. Partly.

Is your art a witness for the time we live?

I wouldn’t say anything that grand, but I wouldn’t mind if someone else did!

What do you feel about the markets in your work?

One has very little control over the secondary market, and my dealers have become very wary about who we sell to. I don’t worry about it, my galleries do. I am terrible on the practical and business side of things which I don’t want to impinge on my working life, but auction season in New York is at the same time of year as my birthday and has rather ruined it for me. It’s not necessarily a good thing to have very expensive paintings out there. I discuss with the galleries about who gets work. There are so many people out there now who are just looking for a quick buck, it’s just depressing.

What is your exhibition ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ at the Thomas Dane gallery on Via Francesco Crispi in Naples from March 19th to July 27th 2019 about?

I don’t want to give too much away! There are sirens, and shipwrecks and recent paintings from the last three years or so. I didn’t make this group of paintings for a show, my work is one big body I am working on all the time, but there are overlapping themes of figures on beaches, shipwrecks, and figures that could be sirens or witches.

Are you excited by your forthcoming exhibition in Naples?

Yes, the work is all shipped and I am very excited to see the work all in one place, out of the very cluttered studio. It’s quite nerve wracking. You don’t really know until you see them on the walls. My studio is quite gloomy and the Neapolitan light may be rather unforgiving.

Will you go to Naples yourself?

Yes, and my husband’s family is from Turin and he and my daughter will come to Naples with me. Installing the work is the best part, but it’s nerve wracking. You are stuck with the works that are there. It never ceases to amaze me how something can look wonderful next to one thing and horrible next to another.

Is your husband Nicolai Ouroussoff, who was the architecture critic for the New York Times from 2004 to 2011, a critic of your work as well as of architecture?

No, not so much. I am controlling about people coming to see things. He is when I invite him over to the studio, but sometimes it can be months before he knows what I am doing.


All images © Cecily Brown.

Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.

The credit for the portrait image is: Mark Hartman