Immersing the viewer in an utterly tantalizing frenzy of enflamed painterly gestures, Cecily Brown’s Suddenly Last Summer is a luscious fusion of painterly abstraction laced with hints at representation. Brown’s feverish brushstrokes, characteristic of her distinct style, engage the vernacular of painting itself, capitalizing on the sensuality of the medium and its ability to playfully manipulate the viewer’s perception through descriptive possibilities. Although abstract, Suddenly Last Summer presents Brown’s supreme mastery of paint in its commanding and elusive power of suggestion. Executed in 1999, Suddenly Last Summer represents one of Brown’s earliest forays into tackling the human figure in her paintings and draws judiciously upon art historical precedent, incorporating influences of Baroque Classicism, Impressionism, Proto-Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.
Taking its title from a popular romance mystery film of the late 1950s, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly Last Summer is deeply rooted in contemporary culture while also paying homage to its forbearers in a splendid collusion of art historical references. Evoking Peter Paul Rubens' The Judgement of Paris (c. 1606), Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), and Paul Cézanne’s Large Bathers (1898), the present work overwhelms the viewer in a beautifully balanced and rich composition. As Johanna Drucker writes, “The higher order of compositional organization in Brown’s work references the grand tradition of theatrical landscapes filled with figures allegorical, historical, or observed. […] She engages with her sources as if in a lover’s provocation to another touch, another exchange, excitement rising with response at the level of the mark, swatch, line of the brush drawn through the wet paint.” (Johanna Drucker, “Erotic Method,” in Cecily Brown: Paintings 2003-2006, New York, 2005, p. 9) Perhaps most evidently, Brown’s visual language and handling of pigment and paint is informed by the gestural mark-making of American Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, Brown’s tenacious and tantalizing brushwork and sensual pinks are an affirmation of de Kooning’s famous mantra that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented," and Brown herself described the medium as "sensual, it moves, it catches the light, it’s great for skin and flesh and heft and meat … I wanted to make something that you couldn’t tear your eyes away from." (Cecily Brown, in D. Peck, "New York Minute: Cecily Brown," Another, September 14, 2012) While she certainly looked to de Kooning’s luscious and fleshy paintings of the late 1960s and 1970s, Brown’s handling of paint and figuration in Suddenly Last Summer also pays distinct homage to de Kooning’s early 1950 masterpiece Excavation.
Playfully challenging traditionally perceived boundaries of abstraction and figuration, Suddenly Last Summer illuminates the extraordinary potential of paint to unpack the admixture of sensorial faculties that makes up our human experience of seeing. In a cacophony of pale fleshy pinks, verdant greens, bright reds, and vigorously deep blues and purples, Brown capitalizes on the unpredictability of paint, hinting at figuration in unexpected places while ultimately embracing painterly abstraction.
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