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I Was Wrong About Cecily Brown

Artists change, but so do critics. Welcome to my turnaround — from a fairly negative first take on the work of the New York-based painter Cecily Brown, to a largely positive one. The shift in opinion — which, off and on, took the better part of 23 years — has been pushed over the finish line by “Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid,” a revelatory if crowded survey of around 20 paintings accompanied by 25 drawings and prints, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was organized by Ian Alteveer, curator in its modern and contemporary art department, who focuses on Brown’s reinterpretation of the vanitas motifs over the last 25 years — skulls, skeletons, mirror-gazing young beauties and the 17th-century-inspired still lifes of tables heaped with luxury foodstuffs. Traditionally these accumulations served to remind the faithful of the inevitability of death and the sinfulness of earthly goods. The message was, in other words, you can’t take it with you. And this focus in turn brings some order to Brown’s enormous and varied output, and helped me see the challenges of her work in a new light...

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