Cecily Brown: Untitled (After Jeux de dames cruelles), 2013, watercolor and gouache on paper, 16¼ by 12½ inches; at the Drawing Center.

The title of Cecily Brown’s exhibition at the Drawing Center, “Rehearsal,” was intended to reflect the meaning of the Old French version of the term. Rehercier, a wall text instructed, meant “to go over something again with the aim of more fully understanding it,” rather than, as “rehearse” currently denotes, to practice for a crowning performance. Featuring seventy-eight works on paper from 1997 to last year, the exhibition—the artist’s first solo museum show in New York and her first presentation dedicated exclusively to drawing—argued for Brown’s sketches as a unique site of formal investigation that should be considered separately from the expressive, visceral, oil-loaded paintings for which she is best known. Though the drawings sometimes approach the large scale of her canvases, they are not preparatory studies, making this independent showing apposite. 

Hung on bubblegum-pink walls, the drawings were grouped in sets of three to eleven according to their shared source imagery. Brown is up-front about her art historical references in these works—Degas’s Young Spartans, plates from Goya’s “Disasters of War”—so identifying the original sources is not the game. Nor is the point to ascribe the critical logic standard to appropriation art: Brown is not parodying these forms. The sketches bear witness to her process of making copied form her own through repetition. In two watercolors—each Untitled (Bestiary), 2011—from a series based on the cover image from a book of nineteenth-century engravings, the upper contour of a baboon’s arm seamlessly doubles as the smooth ridge of the adjacent rhinoceros’s back. One of the various works titled Strolling Actresses (After Hogarth), meanwhile, gainfully exploits the older artist’s serpentine line through a number of details, including the articulation of a bald eagle sprouting straight from a squatting man’s head. The fluidity in Brown’s drawings might result from her working process; according to the exhibition catalogue, she follows her sources without stepping back to evaluate what she is making. Her facility with line is clear: she puts marks down quickly and confidently. 

Motifs recur not only within sets of drawings but also across them. In a 2013 watercolor rendered in variously diluted burnt sienna tones—one of the multiple images designated Untitled (After Jeux de dames cruelles)—the main event is undeniably an impending spanking located dead center, with one figure’s arm raised above another’s bare ass. Yet despite the scene’s apparent interiority, a feathered creature with a V-shaped brow and hooklike beak, imported from another series, perches at the composition’s margin. Its presence suggests Brown’s flattening of her catholic referents into an ever-available present, a historically coded yet highly subjective personal vocabulary. Everywhere, narrative is infused with energy, sometimes sexual, almost always primal, from acts of penetration to pairings of wild beasts.

Four 2010 drawings, each Untitled (After Knox Martin), portray a crowded scene composed of swans, a recumbent nude, a trumpet, a ram, and, on the periphery, a petite, ponytailed figure gazing at an image of a skull in her hands—perhaps her sketched interpretation of the scene before her, or, even, a mirror. Each of the four drawings shifts slightly the extent of what is framed, as if Brown held a viewfinder up to the original painting (Knox Martin’s Concert in the Park, 1955), cropping differently each time. This shifting perspective suggests the import that active looking holds for Brown’s practice. As she explained in an interview, “Learning to draw is teaching yourself how to see, or making something you want to see.” Her drawings open onto a formal dreamland, willed into existence through repetition.