Cecily Brown - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 7, 2018 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, USA
    Christie's, New York, 15 May 2013, lot 534
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cecily Brown, 20 September - 25 October 2008

  • Literature

    Susanna Slöör, Rapport från New York: Måleri som sublimerad erotik, Omkonst, 15 October 2008, online (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Cecily Brown’s celebrated mastery of painting is captured within the explosion of bold and gestural brushwork in the rich tapestry of depth, colour and form evident in Skulldiver II. This monumental canvas acts as an encyclopaedic display of the physical possibilities of the medium, a showcase of painterly experimentation, control and emotion. Painted in 2006, Skulldiver II is an expressive celebration of sex, a consuming motif which has frequented the artist’s oeuvre since the 1990s. For Brown, sexuality becomes enacted directly in the application of paint, as the artist captures a moment of raw and chaotic pleasure which is simultaneously depicted as a moment of beauty. In the present work, Brown constructs a complex composition, drawing upon a rich palette of warm yellow and pink fleshy hues to transport the writhing figures to the front of the enigmatic pictorial field. Exhibited at Brown’s prolific exhibition in 2008 at Gagosian Gallery, New York, three sister works from the Skulldiver series were exhibited alongside the present work; Skulldiver III (Flightmask) is now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Exemplary of the series, the present work vibrates with carnal lust, consuming the viewer with the power of ecstasy.

    Skulldiver II is direct and unapologetic in its visual reference to the sexual act that is suggested between the two figures in the painting. The energetic composition merges together in a celebration of desire; the figures’ bodies merge and blend with the fore- and background as if constantly in a state of abandon, while the outline of a pair of open legs welcomes the head of the other figure. Drawing upon a lengthy painterly tradition, the artist’s fleshy tones of the merging bodies echo that of the Neo-Classical figures depicted in The Death of Sardanapulus by Eugène Delacroix. Brown’s earlier oeuvre featured more overtly sexual references, however developing her practice the artist found that the subtlest of visual signifiers alluding to sex would allow a greater sense of sexual ambiguity and unbridled desire. As Brown asserts, ‘..what I wanted - in a way that I think now is too literal - was for the paint to embody the same sensations that bodies would. Oil paint very easily suggests bodily fluids and flesh' (Cecily Brown, quoted in Gaby Wood, ‘I like the cheap and nasty’, The Observer, 12 June 2005, online). Brown’s figures have a sculptural quality of the Neo-Classical whilst simultaneously her handling of paint conveys the same textual quality of Lucian Freud’s modern nudes. As Jeff Fleming describes of Brown’s oeuvre: ‘the paint on the surface of the canvas appears to breathe, making her paintings come alive with a human presence and, more significantly, with human sexuality. In Brown's work, paint literally becomes skin' (Jeff Fleming, 'Cecily Brown: Living Pictures,' Cecily Brown, exh. cat., The Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, 2006, p. 49).

    Scintillating in subject matter, Brown’s treatment of erotic scenarios appears instinctive. Brown expertly conveys a rapidity in her paintings whilst retaining a delicately balanced and careful composition, commanding a mass of brushstrokes to form a single entity made up of transient imagery. Sharing an affinity with the Abstract Expressionism movement, Brown explored abstraction whilst studying at the Slade. As a student Brown would cover up sections of Willem de Kooning paintings in exhibition catalogues and study details, marvelling at the painterly technique of a small snippet (Cecily Brown, quoted in ‘Willem De Kooning: Conversation with Cecily Brown’, Border Crossings, issue 121, February 2012, online). As evident in Skulldiver II, Brown draws upon the immediacy and brushwork of the Abstract Expressionist movement; her gestural brushstrokes create an abstract flurry of frenetic colour, twisting and turning to form momentary figures and objects. In the same way that Joan Mitchell’s evocative and exquisite colour play provides pockets of depth, so Brown’s vivid and electrifying canvasses suspend us in a moment of contemplation. However, Brown’s paintings incorporate areas of figuration, acting as visual anchors for our roving gaze. As the artist states, ‘There is a line that I'm always striving for that's not half-way between figuration and abstraction, it is both. It's almost like pulling a moment of clarity in the middle of all the chaos’ (Cecily Brown, quoted in ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown,’ AnOther Magazine, 14 September 2012, online).

    Concerned with life, death and sex, Brown’s work explores the deepest of human emotion and experience through the medium of oil paint. Allowing the paint to move, wash and blend, the artist’s canvasses appear fleeting, as if adapting to each viewer, whilst subject matter and colour oscillate to and from the background. Continuing a painterly dialogue with the art historical canon, Brown alternatively presents a refreshing viewpoint, providing a female perspective to break with the traditional notions of the past. At odds, for example, with the often anxious portrayal of female sexuality by male painters, Brown’s work draws upon a multitude of viewpoints, infusing her compositions with an innate tension. The exquisite painterly surface of Skulldiver II is enrapturing in its sensuality and is as confrontationally energetic as euphoric in its prolonging of high octane sexual engagement. This intoxicating canvas hovers between abstraction and figuration in a moment of revelry, creating a painterly rapture; the viewer can delight in the ever-shifting motion of Brown’s sumptuous palette and whirling forms.


Skulldiver II

signed and dated 'Cecily Brown 2006' on the reverse
oil on linen
215.9 x 226.1 cm (85 x 89 in.)
Painted in 2006.

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡♠

Sold for £513,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 hhighley@phillips.com

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018