Cecily Brown's Sensual Ode to the Altar Piece

By Sotheby's

A midst the exploding market for Cecily Brown – which has seen all ten of the artist’s top auction prices achieved in the past two years – emerges the fantastically expressive and irresistibly bold Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard, which leads the Contemporary Curated sale (26 September | New York). Lush in powerful gesture and chromatic vibrancy, the present work basks viewers in its seductive grandeur. A triptych of monumental proportions, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard derives its title from Isaiah 40:28-31, a Biblical verse that exalts God’s glory; its three-panel format, which was historically reserved for Christian altarpieces, echoes the work’s nod to the influence of Western religiosity on the history of art. Exhibited in Cecily Brown from June to July 2011, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard reverberates with a powerful suggestion of human flesh, perfectly illustrating the artist’s reflection that she wants “there to be a human presence without having to depict it in full” (the artist in conversation with Lari Pittman in: Dore Ashton, CecilyBrown, New York 2008, p. 28).

Through the sensuality of its painted surface, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard exhibits the implied human presence inherent to Brown’s distinctive style. With its fiery reds, fleshy pinks, and rich ochre, the present work invites viewers to consume its luscious forms, fulfilling the artist’s desire – viewing her works “should be a pleasurable, even a hedonistic experience…” (the artist in conversation with Lari Pittman in: Ibid., p. 27). The painting’s hints of violet pigment, swashes of cool blues and mossy greens, and its infinite variations in brushstroke – ranging from quick horizontal streaks, broad flourishes, thick dashes, to coiled skeins—cause the eye to wander around the canvas’s massive surface. As such, the viewer is “susceptible to the enchantments of the density of paint, of color, as they perform events on the canvas surface” (Ibid., p. 20). Playfully challenging traditionally perceived boundaries of abstraction and figuration, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard illuminates the extraordinary potential of paint to unpack the admixture of sensorial faculties that makes up our human experience of seeing.

Cecily Brown, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard [Triptych], 2011. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.

Viewers can readily discern the present work’s deep resonance with a seemingly endless array of art historical references. From the passionate aura, sweeping lines, and smoldering red palette of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Defeat of Sanherib, King of Assur, the textural figuration of Paul Cézanne’s Large Bathers, to the carnal tumult of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brown’s Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard evokes the vernacular of legendary painters across the history of art, abstracting her forms all the while retaining the grand narrative impact of her forebears. Perhaps most evidently, Brown’s visual language and handling of pigment and paint is informed by the gestural mark-making of the American Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, Brown’s tenacious and immersive brushwork is an affirmation of Willem 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: Derek Peck, "New York Minute: Cecily Brown," Another, 14 September 2012, online). A visceral and commanding celebration of painting’s elusive power of suggestion, Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard engages the medium of painting itself, capitalizing on the sensuality of the medium and its ability to playfully manipulate the viewer’s perception through descriptive possibilities.

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