Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Glenn Brown
signed on the reverse
oil on panel
68.5 by 53.3cm.
27 by 21in.
Executed in 2000.
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Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Private Collection
Sale: Bonhams, London, Contemporary Art, 13 October 2011, Lot 8
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Bignan, Domaine de Kerguéhennec Centre d'Art Contemporain, Glenn Brown, 2000, p. 54, illustrated in colour
Vigo, Museo de Arte Contemporanea, Melodrama, 2003
London, Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 59, illustrated in colour
London, Thomas Dane Gallery, Translations - Creative Copying and Originality, 2005
Bristol, City Museum and Art Gallery; Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery; London, National Gallery, Passion for Paint, 2006, p. 11, illustrated in colour
Liverpool, Tate Liverpool; Torino, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo; Budapest, Ludwig Muzeum, Glenn Brown, 2009-2010, pp. 38-9 (Liverpool) and p. 9 (Budapest), illustrated in colour
Gwangju, 8th Gwangju Biennale, 10000 Lives, 2010, p. 143, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Selected for all of Glenn Brown’s major exhibitions to date, Little Death is a remarkably envisaged and highly sophisticated example of the artist’s longstanding dialogue with Frank Auerbach’s 1973 work, Head of J.Y.M.  As the most realised conception from a series produced in 2000 specifically engaged with Auerbach’s painting, Little Death illustrates Brown’s masterful painterly showmanship via the tonally rich flourishing swirls of paint that immaculately embellish his photographically-smooth trademark surface.  In flattening the expressionistic gesture, sculpturally impastoed brushwork is emptied of its machismo drama: the physicality of Auerbach’s paint is evacuated and reduced to a complex surface pattern.  In pushing the original composition, colour palette and brushwork of Head of J.Y.M to the limits, Little Death represents the peak of Brown’s engagement with Auerbach’s 1973 work.

Belonging to the generation of artists that emerged from Goldsmiths in the early 1990s, Glenn Brown is renowned for making mutant clones of canonical paintings spanning centuries of art history. The epitome of postmodern expression in paint, Brown’s practice of ‘painting paint’ is embroiled in a complex negotiation between mechanical/painterly reproduction and authorial detachment. Masters from art history act as hosts through which Brown obscures his own creative persona: Fragonard, Dalí, Rembrandt, de Kooning, Kris Appel and Frank Auerbach constitute the mainstay of Brown’s artistic vocabulary.  Denounced for plagiarism during his Turner Prize exhibition in 2000, Brown converses with the notion of appropriation, a concept most notably associated with Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman during the 1980s.  However, his paintings are far from mere quotations or straight copies.  Passed through a hyperrealist prism these paintings are distorted, skewed and turned upside-down; brush marks are obsessively rendered, colours are hyped-up and texture is rendered flat.  Essentially, Brown gazumps the viewer’s preconceived understanding of art history and pictorial reality.

Brown’s incorporation of the flattened aesthetic of mechanically, even digitally, reproduced imagery mirrors the way visual culture is mediated by its proliferation.  Spurning the original works themselves, inferior two-dimensional reproductions sourced from postcards, book illustrations and art-print websites constitute Brown’s inspirational supply.  Moreover, the explosion of digital-technology with the onset of the Twenty First Century affected an alteration in Brown’s preparatory methods; the greater freedom and distortive complexity afforded by digital manipulation is prevalent in the increasingly aggressive surface dissolution evident post-2000.  In abandoning the manual restrictiveness of the photocopier for preparing his paintings, Little Death is a prime example of Brown’s more recent coalescence with digital-technology and hyper-space: "Brown transmutes his subject into the computer and outside of the traditional space/time coordinates" (Michael Stubbs, ‘No Visible Means of Escape’, Exhibition Catalogue, Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Glenn Brown, 2009, p. 107).  Heightened digital-distortion and a sense of the impossible space of the digital screen are uniquely brought to the fore in this work.  The transformed colour palette, sharp focus of the brushstrokes and photographic blur of the silhouetted J.Y.M is juxtaposed against a background that simultaneously evokes Dalí’s surrealist polarising skylines and the Romantic mountain vistas of Caspar David Friedrich.  The conflation of surrealism, romanticism and expressionism constitutes a schizophrenic relationship to art history that mirrors the way the eye darts across the distracting frenzy of Brown’s excessive brushwork. Nonetheless, the controlled and arduous manner in which Brown executes his work is in fact antithetical to the energetic conceit of his painted brush-marks.  

In contrast to Auerbach’s technique of sculptural application and gouging removal of paint to render his subject, Brown mimics and yet flattens the vigorous brushstrokes by measuredly and meticulously working across every centimetre of the picture’s surface; with tiny brushes, detail, colour and composition are painted systematically from left to right.  These particular production values which demand unhealthy stretches of time spent alone in the studio are in-part constitutive of the melancholic sense of isolation and alienation associated with Brown’s work. 

The title Little Death substantiates this melancholic reading.  Once again subverting authorial conventions, Brown’s titles are adopted second-hand from a range of cultural sources. Little Death here invokes the Victorian euphemism for masturbation; in wentieth Century Art history this theme traces a controversial legacy through the work of Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp. The Freudian connection between sex and death resonates within the title's allusion to the French translation, ‘le petit mort’, a term which refers to the post-coital instant of spiritual evacuation, momentarily felt as an expenditure of life’s forces. Thus, when conflated with the Dalí-esque polarised skyline, this painting also evokes the confusion of sex, desire and death exploited by the Surrealists. Rich in visual and cultural allusions therefore, this work’s particular emphasis on the relationship between artistic-ingestion, isolation, death, sex, and abject desire, position Little Death as the ultimate expression of melancholia in Brown’s oeuvre.

Little Death not only expounds on the signification of expressive painting and ingestion of art historical models, but marks the beginning of a period in which Brown’s subjects are increasingly removed from the painterly verisimilitude of the original.  Partly tied to the proliferation of digital manipulation techniques in recent years, surface distortion and saturation is hereafter intensified in Brown’s work. In moving away from the trompe l’oeil hyperrealism of his early Auerbach paintings, Little Death highlights Brown’s heightened adoption of an excessive brushwork stylistically his own, that would come to consume his work after 2000.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction