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    The Roving Eye
by Anthony Haden-Guest
 
     
 
Cecily Brown in her studio
Photo by Todd Eberle
in Vogue, Oct. 1999
 
Cecily Brown
Tender is the Night
1999
 
Spree
1999
 
Lady Luck
1999
 
Dog Day Afternoon
1999
 
Harry Bertoia
Untitled
at Robert Miller
 
Harry Bertoia
Cascade
at Robert Miller
 
Despite a string of successes that ranges from a sold-out show at Deitch Projects in January 1999 to a glowing pictorial in the current Vanity Fair, painter Cecily Brown has stage fright. After finishing her installation at Gagosian on Wooster Street the other night, she was throwing off enough nervous energy to power a small generator.

"Some of them are not the paintings I thought I had painted," she said looking over the canvases in the tranquil gallery light. She eyed one. "This is the one I was terrified was not going to be dry."

Cecily Brown, a Briton, first came to New York as an exchange student in her early 20s. "I came in 1992 and spent six months here," she said. "And I've never felt happier anywhere. It was totally romantic and ridiculous. I just fell in love with it straight away."

This was a time when painting was not something an artist was supposed to be doing. "I gave up painting," she says. "I was completely questioning painting, and deciding it was pretty much over. All the work that I liked was odd, mixed media stuff, like the kind of thing that Mike Kelley makes. I went through a phase of making really bad semi-conceptual work."

It may be worth mentioning that when Brown was 21 she learned that she was the natural daughter of David Sylvester, one of Britain's most admired art critics and the author of a classic text on Francis Bacon.

She came back to live in New York five years ago. Why?

"It's not really about Not There. It's about Here. But I did feel that my work was completely wrong for that time in London. By the time I had left the Slade in '93, Damien Hirst was everywhere. I'm not a YBA." The Slade is a venerable London art college and YBA is common art-world shorthand for Young British Artists -- the generation that exploded into prominence in the 1990s. "I have the same background as the YBAs. I grew up with all the same influences. In a way, I don't think the sensibility is all that different. But the means are so different. Mainly it was about wanting to be here. But I certainly found it very, very difficult to paint in London, without constantly having to justify it. I felt that you couldn't be more deeply unfashionable if you tried. Without being that conscious of it, you really became fearful of making a splash. Anything gestural, anything that might be expressive, anything where irony wasn't the number one ingredient."

In London, she thinks, she would only have gotten a show at a gallery that specialized in figurative work -- a kind of post-post Impressionist ghetto, in fact. In New York, she showed at Deitch Projects, which presents plenty of tough-minded work. "I do think context is everything," Brown says. "Which is why having my first and second shows at Deitch was so essential. “Somehow it is conceptual and hip to be painting, rather than retro. Like with John Currin at Andrea Rosen -- I remember Andrea saying something about how the wrong kind of people were wanting John's work at first. That was why it was important I show at Deitch -- anywhere else and I would still be a waitress. I would be on the job right now." You would have had Cecily Brown at your table, by the way, at the Liquor Store in Tribeca or at the Ear Inn. Now you'll find her at Gagosian. But there may be a queue.

*        *        *
"Is this the Robert Miller who is the father of the Miller sisters?" a British journalist asked, earnestly.

"Oh, Lord! I wish" a gallerista said, fervently.

Well, no, the Robert Miller in question was not the duty-free billionaire father of three modish daughters but the resourceful art dealer, and the confusion was understandable. Miller has recently moved from the Fuller building on 57th Street to a tall-ceilinged new abode at 526 West 26th Street and this opening party was for Harper's Bazaar, the fashion magazine, which has been spendidly revamped by Kate Betts, so art-worlders were pretty thin on the ground compared with fashion folk and those whose names are always printed in bold face, like Tina Brown, Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Wintour, Martha Stewart, Uma Thurman, etc.

The following night was the actual art-world opening. It was as if the gallery had been bewitched, and been through the transformation scene in a pantomime, but in reverse, so that where there had been flowers, madness, revelry and (I am reliably informed) excesses in the inner offices were now filing cabinets and banks of Dell computers.

The opening was for photographer Todd Eberle and the singing sculptures of the late Harry Bertoia and there were actual artists there -- Jeff Koons, Ed Moses, Donald Baechler, Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz and Roberto Juarez and the great printmaker, Alexander Henrici, to name a handful. Oh yes, and a few bold-faces, too, like Graydon Carter and Anh Duong, among the few revenants from the night before.

*        *        *
It was, I think, either Hegel or Marx who said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Like so many famous sayings, this has always struck me as practically meaningless.

Well, I was wrong, and New York Street Art is proving it. Those who praised the graffiti writers of yesteryear -- including Norman Mailer, Claes Oldenburg and, um, okay, myself -- have been very quiet about the folk who are scratching their annoying tags on every subway window and (many) doors with various sorts of glass-cutters. Perhaps Tony Shafrazi will discover another Futura 2000, Daze, Crash or Keith Haring amongst them?

Even more annoying are the writers who are emulating Jenny Holzer or Samo at street level. One particularly busy artist writes Hallmark-card-ready messages on sidewalks in chalk in firm clear capitals. His recent contribution on my corner was typically brilliant.

ENJOY THIS DAY AS IF IT WERE YOUR LAST.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Contact us at: mail@therovingeye.com


ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).

In the bookstore:
True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World by Anthony Haden-Guest

Fifty Years of Portraits: Peter Beard with an introduction by Anthony Haden-Guest

Studio 54: The Legend with an introduction by Anthony Haden-Guest