Just after Cecily Brown finished at the Slade art school, she came second in a competition, the John Jones Open. The prize was a plane ticket to New York. It was 1994, the height of the Young British Art boom. Brown, a gestural, non-conceptual painter, never came back. She returns to London so infrequently that when I invited her to choose a venue for lunch, she had no idea where to go.
“Nowhere has sentimental value. The first thing I thought of was a vegetarian Indian in Drummond Street where I went as a student when I never had any money, but they don’t take bookings.” Eventually she opts for a restaurant she has not visited before: HIX Mayfair in the quintessentially old English, mahogany-panelled Brown’s Hotel — Agatha Christie was a regular. It is round the corner from Thomas Dane Gallery; Brown is in town for a solo show there, which she calls her “homecoming”.
Painting and sex have things in common
Slight, thin, girlish — she is 46 — in black fleecy jacket and jeans, with dark hair in a ponytail and angular yet delicate mobile features and huge chestnut eyes, she darts in nervously and laughs in surprise that the place is decked out with YBA icons. Tracey Emin’s pink neon “I Loved You More Than I Can Love” hangs above the fireplace; Angus Fairhurst’s wallpaper depicts a surreal Epping Forest.
“What I hated about the YBAs was that it was a closed club, it made me feel I could never be part of this so I may as well fuck off halfway round the world,” she opens. “I didn’t fit in England when I left. You couldn’t do what I wanted to do without being attacked. But I was shy. I wouldn’t have gone up to Sarah Lucas and said, ‘Can I come to the pub with you?’ The YBAs I know now are all lovely people.”
The story of how Brown, the outstanding painter of the YBA generation, became a New York art star — works fetching more than $1m at auction, taken on in her twenties by uber-dealer Larry Gagosian, profiled in Vanity Fair magazine — is a celebrity legend. It speaks of America’s embrace of the new; of British uneasiness with painting, perhaps even with seriousness. “I’m not ironic. I think that’s the thing that separated me from my peers — I was sincere, earnest, I don’t know how not to be. I fit in better in America because they’re very earnest. I felt at home in New York at once.”
London, by contrast, “is the most nerve-racking place to show, the audience is very tough here. America never quite seems real even now — England is the harsh reality, America is the fantasy. It’s weird being back in England, I don’t really quite belong here and I don’t really belong in America. I feel at odds about everything. My natural state is being torn, it would be bad for me if I wasn’t. If I had to narrow the work to one word, it would be ‘conflict’. I don’t like things to go along too happily.” She looks suddenly panicked. “I just feel very nervous! I think I’d like a Bloody Mary! No ice,” she adds hastily to the waiter. “In America they put ice in everything, but I think of a Bloody Mary as a soup.” I order a glass of champagne to toast the new show.