Cecily Brown in Conversation with Claire Cushman (MFA 2015)

By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) 

People often tell Cecily Brown that she paints like a man from the fifties. Her response? “Well, somebody’s got to do it."
Her large-scale, remarkably tactile oil paintings hover at the intersection between abstraction and figuration, and are often compared to Abstract Expressionist works. Based on the aggressive way she puts down paint and her star status in the art world, one might assume Cecily Brown would be a little intimidating in person. 

And you can see why I might be intimidated.
(Cecily in Vanity Fair, 2000)
However, when Cecily arrived at the Academy two days before Halloween, I immediately felt at ease. She has a warm smile and kind way of speaking, and carried a shopping bag filled with her five-year-old daughter’s Halloween costume. As we rode the elevator to the fourth floor, I asked her what her daughter was going to be – “A fox,” she answered. “My husband and I are dressing up as the parent foxes… My daughter’s been talking about it for the entire year.”
Cecily came to the Academy to conduct critiques as part of the visiting critics program. Critiques are just what you would imagine - other artists entering your studio and giving you feedback about your work. Sometimes the process is inspiring and encouraging, and sometimes it’s downright deflating. Every critic has something unique to say – some inspire new ideas, others help resolve specific technical issues, and some leave an artist feeling confused and overwhelmed. It’s not unusual to receive back-to-back critiques that completely contradict one another. Although critiques can be frustrating at times, critiques help artists clarify their direction, because they force us to choose what advice to listen to and what to tune out.


After looking around my studio for a few seconds, Cecily asks me was what kind of paint I use. I show her my paints, which include a variety of brands, and some large tubes of Winton, Winsor Newton’s student grade brand.
 “Okay,” she says. “First thing – don’t use Winton. Ever. It’s so shit. It’s just waxy and awful and ruins everything. I think it might be impossible to make a good painting using Winton.”
She then zeroes in on a large painting I’d done in my Painting 3 class of a nude model sitting with a dog, (a life sized German Shepard stuffed animal, to be exact). “What’s that red there? And this green thing?” she asks, pointing to an area behind the model. I explain that this is a painting of meat, (by Academy third year fellow Shangkai Kevin Yu), which we’d set up behind the model. The green is a cactus. “Hmm. This is my favorite part,” says Cecily. “The most interesting part is the most obscure part, where you can’t quite tell what’s going on.” She pauses, and then continues. “I would just paint right over the figure… But of course, I would say that,” she laughs.
Brown creates a unique aesthetic reality by working with a constant conflict between her desire to paint the figure, and her refusal to allow the figure to remain. “I never want to be saying “this is the way it is” – when I feel like I’m naming something in too final a way, or it’s too pinned down, that’s when I feel I have to say “but is it really like that?”
She moves on to another painting, a work in progress that had begun as three figures in a forest but is starting to resemble a cow. She points to an area at the bottom right, a purpleish blob that I hadn’t really considered. “This is like Francis Bacon’s rabid dog,” she says. “Go with that.”
As Brown paints, she both imposes her will upon the painting, and lets the painting tell her what it needs. “There’s always another story going on that’s not the main story – look at the way these marks are coming together,” again, referring to the dog.  “It’s subtle, but may be more important than the rest.” She urges me to squint, and look at the painting in a “gentle” way. “What might be there that you’re not immediately seeing?” 
Don't Bring me Down, 2011
 I ask her about appropriating from other artists. “Oh yeah, I take figures from art history and use them… Like I’ll take a Goya figure, and then a Bacon figure… But it’s important to mix it up between artists so it doesn’t become too derivative,” she says.
The old adage goes, “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” and Cecily Brown has no shame in stealing. “I have been looking at Munch and Beckmann,” she says. “I find as I get more assured of the fact that I can paint, I don’t mind letting my influences show.
Brown is most drawn to figurative paintings from the past. Her influences are mostly very old dead male painters – Brueghel, Bosch, Goya, Titian, Rubens… “These are people who I’ve loved for years, and I get so much out of – they seem very much alive to me,” she has said. But of course, she also tends to paint like a man from the twentieth century. She loves Beckmann, Bacon, Baselitz, de Kooning, Guston… and many German painters. “I consider myself an honorary German painter,” she says. Much has been made over the fact that Cecily Brown is a woman working in this aggressive, male way of painting, but she’s said this isn’t really of much importance to her. “Inevitably it’s got a feminine point of view because I’m a female, but studio is one place I’m not really conscious of my gender... I’ve never set out to do x as a woman - you just do your work.”
I’m curious about Cecily’s process, so ask her about how she begins a painting. “I just start,” she answered. “I never do any kind of prep – I just go right into it. Sometimes I make drawings about halfway through… but not usually.” Cecily doesn’t start with a clear idea of what a painting will look like, and usually begins by laying down a wash of colour. A form is suggested very quickly, and then she responds to what the painting is giving her. “I don’t have the angst that some people do in front of a white canvas, the problems for me start later. I begin, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I see what’s going to happen based on first few marks. It’s a very organic process.” She recommends working on several canvasses as a time, and seeing how they influence each other. “I’m more focused when I’m more spread out.”
Brown in her studio
 “I think you need to bring some areas more into focus, and clarify parts of the abstractions,” she tells me. She looks at my most recent painting, of three figures on horseback in a landscape. “It’s a bit muddy at the front. All this green is the same, and the head of this figure is clear but then it kind of dissolves into mud. If you add something at the front to clarify it, maybe some red, that could help. Have you looked at Delacroix? He’s great at that.” She continues. “You don’t want the left and right to be the same.” She advises me to look at every corner of the painting and make sure it’s different. “And try bringing different tempos to your painting,” she comments. “Paint really fast one day, and then go back in and paint some areas slowly, more carefully.” Brown tends to paint quite quickly and frenetically, but that comes after a long time of sitting, staring at the paintings, trying to get clues as to how to proceed. “I spend a lot of time of looking slowly so that I can paint quickly.” 
The goal in the second year at the Academy is to develop a cohesive body of work to present to the world. I think a lot of people who don’t make art on a regular basis assume that a given artist has a natural “style” or way of making things, and that that’s just the way it is. In reality, though, the more skill you have, the more options you have available to you, and the more you might feel like you can be 50 different artists doing 50 completely different things. For example, I’m mostly doing abstract painting these days, but took a master class with Will Cotton last weekend and made a the most rendered portrait I’ve ever painted.
The “cohesion” factor comes from making conscious decisions about what to emphasize and what to let go of in one’s work. This semester, I’ve begun to realize that what I’m best at and most interested in is working in a fairly intuitive manner. When I start a painting with a rigid idea of how I want it to look at the beginning, and follow this program through to the end, my work tends to look lifeless, or “choked up,” as my thesis advisor commented. As trite as it may sound, I am learning that my strength comes when I am able to let go, and follow my intuition. I found having Cecily Brown come into my studio incredibly helpful, because she had specific formal ways to approach this sort of painting. Cecily is an inspiring example of an artist who works in this way, but whose work still demands a tremendous amount of rigor. Her decisions are still highly formal and aesthetically based. Although she certainly throws paint around, she isn’t just throwing it around for the sake of it. She may not have a map when she begins, but trusts that she’ll be able to figure out the painting as she goes along.


Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) is a painter and Social Media scholar with a penchant for blogging.  From time to time check in on the Academy's blog to read more entries from Claire throughout the year.

Take Home a Nude, and an Interview with Gabriela Palmieri

By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) 

Gallery 1 Closing
You may have heard of “Take Home a Nude” and wondered whether this annual fundraising auction featured dates with the New York Academy of Art’s nude life models. Allow me to clarify – Take Home a Nude, wherein academy students, alumni, and other artists donate works to raise money for Academy Scholarships and programming, first took place at the Academy in 1992 – and the name stems from the fact that most of the work created by Academy artists at that time featured, well, Nudes.
Black Bottoms, by Tim Noble and Sue Webster
This year’s 23rd annual Take Home a Nude took place on October 9th at Sotheby’s. Although today’s Academy students still spend a minimum of twelve hours a week drawing from the nude figure during their first year, the work showcased at Take Home a Nude this year included a wide range of subjects, from abstracted elephants and minotaurs to chandeliers and seashells.  Of the 184 lots featured, (including work by Will Cotton, Alex Kanevsky, Vincent Desidirio, and Laurie Simmons, to name only a few) there were around 50 nudes – and the definition of what constitutes a “nude” is a loose one. Some of my favorite pieces were butt cheek prints by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, “Black Bottoms.”
Artwork hung in four galleries. Guests including Brooke Shields and Mary Kate Olsen perused the walls from 6-9 for the silent auction. At 9 pm, Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s and firecracker auctioneer Gabriela Palmieri opened the floor to a live auction, where she charmed guests into bidding just a little higher for each work. By the end of the night, $900k was raised to benefit the Academy’s scholarships and programming.
Gabriela working the crowd
Before the night kicked off, I interviewed Ms. Palmieri about her involvement with the Academy, Take Home a Nude, her work at Sotheby’s and her love of art in general. Here is our conversation.

CC: You’re part of the Academy’s president's Advisory Council and a big supporter of the Academy. What led you to support the Academy, and how did you become involved with Take Home a Nude?

GP: My dear friend Robby Looker, who was my mentor when I first came to Sotheby’s, introduced me to the Academy in 2007. Then I happened to sit next to Eileen Guggenheim at a luncheon, and I was so impressed with what the Academy stands for. I’m an Academic in training, and I really do celebrate any entity that is so committed to development and learning. Robert invited me to Take Home A Nude when it was still happening down at Phillips, where he was helping hang the installation. Then I asked Eileen if she would consider having Take Home a Nude here at Sotheby’s. She said yes, so I introduced the team. I think we’ve achieved unprecedented success in this format here. This is my third charity auction this week – and it certainly feels like “save the best for last” for me. This is a great crowd, and there’s a huge amount of energy, support and interest coming through here tonight.

CC: Well we owe you a big thank you for bringing Take Home a Nude to Sotheby’s! Do you have a favourite Take Home a Nude moment you can think of from over the years?

GP: They started doing this thing called “Hot Lots” during the silent auction portion of the evening. On some of the pieces, you start to see a bidding war – it’s as if these vultures begin swarming the works, like out of a Hitchcock movie almost.. . So you take the last bidders, the ones who really want to take home this nude, the last two or three standing, who are now somewhat hostile to one another, and you go into a bid-off.  Last year we had a hot-lot that ended up raising an additional fourteen thousand dollars. You can generate a lot more money this way, and it really makes a difference. It also becomes like a spectator sport – it’s this intense rally, and watching it feels like watching the US Open.

Gabriela in front of a Hot Lot piece

CC: Sounds intense! And I imagine the Live Auction is even more so. Can you tell me about what it’s like for you during the Live Auction process?

GP: There’s so much hope and anticipation riding on the results, so you feel very responsible. You have this gavel, and there’s something about when you get behind a podium… See, every bid matters, so you certainly want to coax people to keep on bidding, whether it’s through funny banter or a little bit of prodding. But there’s a fine line between that gentle nudge and putting someone on the spot when they’re really done bidding. So there’s a finesse and balance between the two. This is my artistry. It’s a privilege, a pleasure, but a really big responsibility.

CC: Sounds stressful. I can’t imagine being in that position! You are also the Vice President of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s - Can you tell me how you came to Sotheby’s?

GP: Well, first I completed by PhD in Art History at the University of Chicago. Chicago is an extraordinarily rigorous program that is really steeped in academia, methodology, historiography, and deconstructionist arguments… It’s a fantastic program, and made me into much more of a critical thinker and a better writer. However, being the art romantic I am, I really missed the proximity to the artworks. I had such a need for being around the actual art, that and that’s what landed me here.

CC: Not a bad place to be for an art lover. Are you an artist yourself?

GP: (laughs) No. I think the creative, artistic mind must skip a generation. My father is a musician, but none of my siblings or I got the creative gene. But I am mesmerized by someone who can pick up whatever implement or instrument – the crayon, the brush, the pencil, the camera – and make something, whether it be abstraction, figuration – it really inspires me. I also love being part of the nurturing process for artists, so that’s why I’m so excited about Take Home a Nude. Here at an auction house, we are a secondary exchange, and don’t get to have any involvement with the actual artists.  I love being involved with the Academy because it allows for that nurturing the early stages of an artist’s career.

CC: Do you have a particular movement or moment in art history that you’re especially drawn to?

GP: I really love any artist who pushes or punctures through the atmosphere of what was done before. So I gravitate towards seismic and defining moments in art history. Say, how radical the New York school of Ab Ex was, or how radical someone like Helen Frankenthaler was with a painting like “Mountains and Sea,” one of the first color field paintings ever painted. And I gravitate toward female artists. You never want to look at something for gender specificity, but there is something to be said for female artists and the challenges they have faced. For someone like Lee Krasner, when Hans Hoffman said of her painting, “this is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” Honestly I’m a little all over the place because once I see the work, I’m more intellectually, romantically engaged with the subject – because of its history, its context.

CC: I’m sure that makes it even more difficult to pick a favorite within contemporary art, then.

GP: Yeah. Before I started here at Sotheby’s I was a cataloguer and researcher, and there was a running joke that before I looked at the front of the painting I’d look at the back – I wanted to see where had it been. What shows had it been in? I’m really fascinated by the social life of works.


Brooke Shields and NYAA President David Kratz

Take Home a Nude is the Academy's Annual Art Auction and Party, held at Sotheby's.

Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) is a painter and Social Media scholar with a penchant for blogging.  From time to time check in on the Academy's blog to read more entries from Claire throughout the year.

Babies on Top of Cabinets, Surrealist Mollusks, and a Life Sized Mermaid


By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) 

“It’s hard to say life is small, delicate, and vulnerable unless you can show the real size of life,” says New York Academy of Art’s newest Senior Critic Judy Fox. On September 17th, Fox discussed the presence of abstraction in sculpture with renowned abstract sculptor and Pace artist Joel Shapiro for the Academy's first Art and Culture lecture of the school year. While Shapiro spoke about arriving at meaning through the process of sculpting, Fox explained her highly premeditated way of working. 
“The emotional effect is one of unattained glory, of someone trying to be something they’re not – a regular person trying to play a grand role,” says Fox, who relies on iconic figures from art or history, as well as a model she’s forced into the iconic pose and photographed. As she works, she observes the inherent tension between the real and the ideal. 

The day after the lecture, I went to Fox’s studio to interview her about her work. I removed my shoes at the door, and almost immediately had a layer of silky sculpture dust covering my bare feet. Natural light poured in from a wall of windows, and NPR – which Fox listens to constantly as she works – blasted from the radio. Strange figures stared me down from all over the room – babies on top of cabinets, surrealist mollusks, and a life sized mermaid from her 2012 PPOW show, “Out of Water.” Fox sat sculpting and continued to sculpt for the duration of our conversation. 

CC: What are you working on now?

JF: This long skinny thing that I’m scratching away at is part of a snake tree, which will be about eight feet tall. It’s a symbol of the temptations that confront Eve. When I think about evolution, and how animals express their sexuality, it’s not often visual – a chimp doesn’t dress up and doesn’t care about esthetics. Eve might represent the dawning of seduction and visual awareness.CC: How does this relate to your other work?

JF: I like to look at mythology, including religion, and think about the psychological and sociological themes that the myths are addressing. I reanalyze myths in a frank, contemporary, science-oriented way. I pillage all of time and civilization, and choose myths wherein the imagery seems to suggest a new interpretation by contemporary standards.

CC: Can you tell me how you arrived at your mollusk sculptures?

JF: I was thinking about evolution as an approach to visualizing the Garden of Eden. So I was reading the bible and I was side tracked by the third day, when the seas were created. I started thinking about primordial muck, primitive life forms, and sea monsters. I was interested in our connection to PRIMATIVE life, and our fear it, fear of monsters… you can see sea monsters at the side of old maps back when people believed the world was flat. These snakey, reptile wormy monsters were the inspiration for the worms. They were fun to make. You have to have a good time.

CC: What source images were you using to create these?

JF: I just worked from magazine and internet pictures, whatever I could get. Cephalopods are very flexible in the flesh, but they do have some anatomy, which I tried to study. I worked out the anatomy but also hybridized them with certain ideas I had, to give them different characters. I was using my ability to invoke human expression, to make them look like a person of one type or another. We are all animals, so we have certain things in common with them. We are fairly related even though not… I wanted to emphasize this ability to empathize across species. I was using form as a way of evoking aspects of human experience in a humorous way.
CC: What are you currently reading?

JF: I try to have a novel going… right now I am reading “Benang,” a novel by an Australian aboriginal writer, Kim Scott. I love anthropology of all kinds. That comes with being a figurative artist – you like to learn about the human experience from all sides. I tend to read science magazines and collect information that way. And listen to NPR.

CC: What artists are you looking at historically?

JF: My main stylistic influences/brothers are Northern Renaissance sculptors. I also love High Gothic sculpture, which is much more attentive to individual character. It’s actually kind of easy to make a Renaissance sculpture because all you really need is anatomy and curvilinear resolution. But to actually get all the individual character into it you have to observe a real example of a person.
CC: You mentioned during the lecture that you found observing nature more interesting than working from your imagination.

JF: When I was a student, I was once trying to finish up a piece and thought – “I’ll just make up the belly button,” which came out fine. Then the model came in, and damned if her bellybutton wasn’t way more interesting than the one I made! I realized that the act of understanding something is the act of trimming away all the irregularities. So I decided I was going to fight against that and stick to nature. For example, in painting, once you get some idea of what light and shadow looks like, you can probably do it credibly. But you’re never going to be Vermeer that way. There’s just nothing like actually observing real light and the myriad of color reflections. I encourage any artist to work from life. There’s no substitute for going out there and looking at reality.
CC: You spoke about trying to create tension between a model’s personality and the role you are trying to fit them into.

JF: In some cases, the model’s personality meshes with the hero or the figure they’re playing – that can work sculpturally, like in Shiva dancing. The model was a very confident, tough little kid – his personality fit very well with the Hindu god shiva, the creator and destroyer. So that worked well for the piece even though it wasn’t a very “tense” outcome. When the models are really different from the role I’m trying to place them into it creates tension, and makes a more poignant outcome. The sculpture becomes more about trying something that’s difficult. Both things are truth. It works in either direction. That said, there are still some pieces that end up more captivating than other pieces in the end.

CC: Do you ever scrap pieces, if you’re not happy with them?

JF: Of course I try to only make pieces that are going to be good because they take me so long to make, but some of them really end up being stronger than others. And since I’ve spent months and months on them, I use those pieces too. I show them all. It’s a big ceramicist thing to throw away imperfect pieces of your work. But ceramicists don’t usually work on a piece for a year.
CC: What is your pace?

JF: About one month for every ten inches of sculpture. Sculpting an adult takes me about nine months. And then by the time it’s fired, put together, seams fixed, it’s effectively a year for a life-sized adult. Kids are faster. And surrealist things are faster because they’re straight out of my head.
CC: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you made abstract constructions. How did you move from these works to the strictly figurative work you are making now?

JF: I loved doing the constructions and probably would have continued making them had I been accepted into the Whitney Independent study program – they would’ve discouraged figure – but then I wasn’t accepted, so I went to art conservation school at NYU. This was cool because no art school at the time would have encouraged me in any way to do the figure. But taking art history courses exposed me to very serious interpretations of figuration and its various styles. I was also doing my own work and working out a way of doing the figure that reflected my own time.

CC: What skills did you learn at NYU that you use in your work now?

JF: That program was where I was really introduced to polychrome sculpture, because most sculpture in the ancient world was painted. It was really more of a post 19th century thing to have everything be colorless. Art conservation taught me to mix and layer colors, as part of replacing lost areas. Kind of by surprise, it was a great place to learn to make art, and a fun education.

CC: What kind of work did you do as a conservator? 

JF: When I finished graduate school in 1984, I started my first job at NYAA. I was taking care of their cast collection, which had a tendency to get broken by party revelers – I would glue them back together, fill the losses, the usual restoration routine. I later joined a private business that worked on Modern and Contemporary Art. Being a conservator saved me from having to do the usual kind of hustling that artists so often have to do. It was a great day job, and overlapped with my studio needs.

CC: Were you ever interested in working 2D?

JF: I’m just a natural sculptor, and am very literal minded. It’s possible for me to draw, but I wouldn’t credit myself with having developed a drawing language that works. I have respect for drawing and painting, but I don’t really like doing either. For example, I painted my Cuttlefish sculpture with a colorful pattern on its back, and it was tedious for me to paint within the lines. I don’t love it, but I have to paint to give my sculptures that sense of life.

CC: When and how did you come to a clear idea of what you were trying to say with your work?

JF: I didn't come to a clear sense of how to make figures contemporary for a long time. I was searching for a way to express certain things for years. For example, I wanted to avoid monumentality in favor of subtlety and intimacy. I went down a few dead ends, but when I started the baby series in 85, I knew that the sculptures were finally taking care of all the things I wanted to say. Eventually the language of form that I developed became my style. In the 70s, the grad students would say “Why would you make a figure, why bother?” When I started to do the baby series it was like “well, it’s a figure because my work is about human issues and personality.” Modernism had gone so far as to chop off heads and do just torsos, and abstract elements of the body. The head, and the mind in it, was important subject matter to me. I was looking to make figures that addressed contemporary life in an interesting way. 


Judy Fox contributed two essays in The Figure: Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture – Contemporary Perspectives, the New York Academy of Art's debut monograph
celebrating the art of the human figure, published by SkiraRizzoli .

Her conversation with Joel Shapiro is featured on the Academy's Vimeo page and her extraordinary work can be seen on her website www.judyfox.net

Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) is a painter and Social Media scholar with a penchant for blogging.  From time to time check in on the Academy's blog to read more entries from Claire throughout the year.