Why Cecily Brown’s Lush Paintings Have Eternal Market Appeal
Cecily Brown in her studio, New York, 2001. Photo by Dave Howells. Courtesy of Gagosian.
Painter Cecily Brown is best known for large-scale canvases filled with bravura brushstrokes that exert a certain visual magic. They reward long and careful looking, appearing abstract on first glance and eventually resolving into suggestive figures. Such compositions often conjure female bodies and scenes from the West’s most famous paintings. It’s no wonder they enjoy a rare appeal: Brown’s canvases have been beloved for over two decades without pandering to trends, connecting to various art historical and contemporary interests while retaining a singular, recognizable, and evolving style.
In addition to these aesthetic qualities, disparate market forces—varying interests in figuration or abstraction, a renewed appreciation for female artists, the age-old allure of work depicting women’s bodies—have also helped Brown’s popularity endure. Given the artist’s preternatural talents and global fan base, the market can use her work as a kind of bellwether. Sales of her canvases have tested the profitability of online viewing rooms and the strength of the art market at large.
Brown’s rise in the art world dates back the 1990s, before she turned 30. After the British painter graduated from London’s Slade School of Art in 1993, she moved to New York. Deitch Projects gave her solo exhibitions in 1997 and 1998, with Gagosian adding her to its roster in 1999. “There was never a point when she wasn’t a giant star,” said Gagosian director Sam Orlofsky. He recalled his own early days in the city in the late 1990s, seeing Brown’s work in magazines. Institutions including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern began collecting her work as critical attention mounted, as well as tastemaking collectors like Eli and Edythe Broad and Don and Mera Rubell.
Blenheim Art Foundation director Michael Frahm—who’s organizing a COVID-19-postponed exhibition of all-new Brown works at England’s Blenheim Palace—also noted an important shift in critical art-world attention, and in artist studios, at the moment of Brown’s rise. “She is undoubtedly amongst the most important artists of her generation, playing a pivotal role in the resurgence of painting in the late 1990s,” he said.
Brown’s paintings from this era, spanning 1998 to 2002, have consistently notched top prices at auction. In fact, her top four auction results are for works made between 1997 and 1999. In 2007, Christie’s set a record for the artist as her market crossed the million-dollar mark: Her canvas The Pyjama Game (1997–98) achieved $1.6 million, more than double the work’s high estimate. Gagosian senior director Deborah McLeod noted that when the recession hit the next year, Brown’s prices continued to rise.
Contemporary art had a banner year in 2007, with sales at auction surpassing those of Impressionist and modern art for the first time. “The pool of contemporary art collectors was rapidly multiplying,” McLeod said. Brown’s work appealed “across collection categories,” as “her paintings found their way into classic modern and post-war collections alongside Picasso, de Kooning, and Bacon, as well as contemporary ones with Jeff Koons and Richard Prince.”
Cecily Brown, Suddenly Last Summer, 1999. Courtesy of Sotheby’s
The Pyjama Game sold again in November 2018 through Seoul Auction—this time for HK$39 million (nearly US$5 million). In 11 years, the painting had appreciated in value by over $3 million. The achievement was, no doubt, bolstered by Sotheby’s record-breaking sale earlier that year: In May 2018, the auction house sold Suddenly Last Summer (1999) for $6.8 million. That price remains Brown’s record today, though her paintings routinely trade for seven-figure sums—in 2019, her work appeared at auction 30 times, and sold for $1 million or more on seven occasions
“The painting is just a knockout,” said David Galperin, senior vice president and head of evening sales for contemporary art at Sotheby’s in New York. He cited the “ideal blend of abstraction and figuration” and virtuosic “shift in color and texture” in Brown’s work at large. The artist’s ability to make “extremely warm, extremely majestic, powerful, large-scale” canvases that comment on centuries of painting have found interested buyers around the world (though she’s never had a solo institutional exhibition in Asia).
Brown’s market most recently made news last month, when Gagosian sold her 2001 painting Figures in a Landscape I for $5.5 million through an online viewing room—marking the second-highest price ever paid publicly for Brown’s work. Notably, Gagosian hasn’t represented Brown since 2015, when she swapped galleries for the smaller, more conceptually focused Paula Cooper Gallery; the secondary market sale, in other words, may not have driven a dime to the artist herself.
The major market moment was an indication of Gagosian’s potency in the realm of online viewing rooms, even in the face of a global pandemic. Orlofsky noted that in setting the painting’s price, the gallery considered its own past results with virtual commerce, in addition to Brown’s previous prices.
Before it launched its single artwork viewing rooms in 2019, the gallery made a shortlist of artists to feature. Brown and Albert Oehlen were at the top. Gagosian quickly located and listed a prime Oehlen canvas last March, selling the untitled 1988 painting for $6 million—a new record for a public sale of his work. This success gave Gagosian leverage to bargain with its desired Brown consignors. The gallery was already in negotiations for Figures in a Landscape I in late 2019, and Orlofsky said “the stakes and the importance of online viewing rooms got higher” in recent months as the entire art world transitioned online. The canny sale gave the canvas the attention of an auction house cover lot at a time when auction houses were forced to postpone their own sales. In other words, the Brown sale displayed how a gallery’s ability to work nimbly could trump the creakier levers of an auction house at a chaotic, uncertain time.
In discussing Brown’s work, both Gagosian and various auction houses have made good use of the artist’s engagement with art history. As the artist references such painters as Willem de Kooning, Frances Bacon, and Joan Mitchell, it’s easy for Galperin and Gagosian to compare her prices to those of such 20th-century luminaries. De Kooning’s record is $300 million, Bacon’s is $142.2 million, and Mitchell’s is $16.6 million. Given a few decades, as the art world continues to rethink its chronic undervaluation for work by women, why shouldn’t Brown’s prices reach these heights?
“Large-scale, athletic, expressive canvases depicting sensual themes of the body have traditionally been the arena of male artists,” said Frahm. “Cecily turns this precedent on its head, bringing a bold female perspective to this field.” Her work could help upend gender disparities in pricing as well.
As for Brown’s contemporaries, Orlofsky mentioned Jenny Saville, another Brit who makes monumental canvases about the female body—and holds the record for most expensive living female artist, with her $12.4-million painting Propped (1992). “Brown is well positioned to achieve prices many times higher than she has to date,” said McLeod.
In addition to the growing market for her paintings, Brown is also enjoying a steady rise in value for her works on paper. In 2016, the Drawing Center in New York hosted the first-ever museum exhibition dedicated to Brown’s drawings, calling attention to a long under-explored component of the artist’s practice. As for prints, Brown works mainly in monotypes—unique, non-editioned works on paper. “Corresponding with the rapid growth in the market for paintings by the artist, we are seeing a growth in interest in her monotypes as well, which has resulted in rising value over the past several years,” said Mary Bartow, senior vice president and head of Sotheby’s prints department in New York. Without an emphasis on editioned works, Brown keeps her demand outpacing her supply.
Regardless of market appreciation, Brown’s own studio practice continues to evolve. Galperin noted the “continuing quality” of her work, and her ability to constantly tap into new powers as an artist. Over the past few years, Brown’s figures have become “a little more identifiable” as her brushwork becomes “a little wider and more diffuse,” Galperin said. “She remains an innovator, committed to exploring and investigating the figure in abstract painting.” Frahm also cited recent changes in subject matter. Over the past 25 years, he said, Brown’s work has expanded “from early works primarily focused on the erotic and carnal” to recent series focused on “shipwrecks and landscapes.”
Galperin predicts Brown’s work will remain popular no matter the eternal swings in popular interest between abstraction and figuration. “Her work is in the center of the pendulum. That’s why it remains enduringly relevant,” he said. As Rachel Cusk wrote in a 2019 profile of the artist, “with paintings of the highest canonical refinement, Cecily’s art appeared to have tunneled up through the continuum of Western art history and emerged into the light-trailing, kaleidoscopic sense-memories of everything we had ever looked at.” How could that ever get old?
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly noted that Deborah McLeod is a Director at Gagosian; she is a Senior Director.
Clarification: A previous version of this article mentioned that Cecily Brown’s work belongs in Eli Broad’s collection. It is more accurate to say that the work belongs in the collection of both Eli and Edythe Broad.