The new painting achieved a sort of critical mass last May, when Cecily Brown, a 29-year-old British artist who moved to New York in 1994, sounded a clarion call in an article she published entitled "Painting Epiphany -- Happy Days Are Where, Again?" in FlashArt. Brown, who studied art at Slade but left London and its hothouse of YBA's (Young British Artists), wrote about feeling shame at "my pleasure in painting, my predilection for emotionally charged subjects, and . . . my love of dead painters." She quoted Currin as saying, "The art world was so guilty and embarrassed after neo-expressionism . . . painting was a laughingstock."
Brown was so discouraged with the attitude toward painting in the early nineties that she temporarily gave it up. But now, she proclaimed in print, things had changed. "This is an intoxicating time to be painting, and New York an exhilarating and sympathetic climate. The mood is generous and open and eclectic. . . . I don't think that any of the young painters see themselves as part of a movement, but there is a shared sense of surprise, because in our lifetime painting has been so very sick."
Maybe that's why there is no nineties equivalent of the raucous eighties art scene: no clubs that double as galleries, like the Mudd Club, Area, and Club 57. Unlike the last generation of art stars, who spent their nights club-hopping and networking and whose flamboyant behavior frequently landed them in the gossip columns, the new breed of painters are a relatively staid bunch.
"There is no real center," says Brown, who has tried to remedy that by throwing regular parties in her loft. There is a bit of a music-related moveable feast: Cultural Alchemy, producers of SoundLab, throw a D.J. night called Abstrakt at Fahrenheit every Tuesday and draw a number of Lower East Side artists who come to hear D.J. Spooky spin. At last summer's "Warm-Up" series at P.S. 1 on Saturday nights, thousands of art types came to party in the playground created by an Austrian group called Gelatin. And the roving D.J. group Dark Green has hosted parties at various bars on the last Friday of every month. But these painters tend to socialize at home. "We go to each other's studios and have dinner," says Brown. "We gossip about art and each other's love lives," adds Loeb.
Standing in her light-filled loft on Allen Street, Brown, makeup-free, looks even younger than her years. The daughter of Shena Mackay, a well-known British novelist, and David Sylvester, the art critic, she's not unaccustomed to the limelight. "I always had to explain why I was painting, as if it were slightly immoral," she says, laughing. "It was like I was a 'dirty painter.' I had a painting crisis and stopped working."
That was then; at the moment, Brown is in the midst of a painting orgy. Slender and unimposing, she doesn't look physically large enough to have created the canvases that line her walls. Dense and painterly, they are filled with tangled images -- many of them turn out to be naked bodies engaged in a variety of sexual acts.
"It was considered the most self-indulgent of all the art forms, and you had to justify why you were doing it," she says, gesturing at a painting with a central image of huge, billowy thighs. "I was sick of one show after another of cool, cerebral art. People were missing work that was visceral. People want to see color. Finally, I can be unapologetic."
Brown's canvases of nearly pornographic rabbits were a huge hit when Deitch displayed them in the storefront window of his gallery in 1997 after seeing her work during a studio visit. "The show was sensational," says Deitch. "We had four small paintings, and I'd never seen anything like it. People were standing in front of these paintings for half an hour." This May, she had a solo show of eight large paintings, which immediately sold out to such collectors as Saatchi and Francesco Pellizzi. And last month she left Deitch for Larry Gagosian. Although Gagosian is known for making lucrative contractual offers to artists, Brown insists that money wasn't the motive. "He didn't offer me so much money. I've just always loved that space," she says.