Summary of John Currin
Since the 1990s, John Currin has reigned as one of the art world's greatest provocateurs residing on the double-edged sword of desire and disgust. His work, which mingles an early training in classical painting with a decidedly American palate for the absurdity found in kitsch, presents figurative portraits, often nude, that reflect the perversity within our culture's obsession with beauty and perfection. Although he is often accused of misogynistic tendencies due to his jarring subject matter, he contends his presentations are intended as satirical references to society's ever-present barrage of the elusive "ideal" fed to us through art history, media, advertising, and the glossy pages of magazines. This exploration into vanity continues to inform his work today.
- By combining classical tropes of beauty, such as the lounging Renaissance nude, with contemporary images such as those found in today's porn and women's fashion magazines, Currin posits that our fascination with vanity is eternal.
- Upon first glance, Currin's paintings may seem like realistic figurative portrayals of the beautiful, yet upon closer inspection something goes awry. A body part emerges larger than its otherwise symmetrical parts, the neck on a graceful vixen might stretch inordinately long, or the female nude central to our observation turns out to be old enough to be our grandmother. The pleasure of voyeurism turns into discomfort and we are asked to reflect upon the original motivations within our glance.
- Currin's use of thick brushstrokes on a face amongst an otherwise smooth plane or darker shades within a paler sea of flesh hint at the underlying morbidity expressed through our desire for perfection.
Progression of Art
Bea Arthur Naked
Before achieving his current level of fame, Currin painted this portrait of the popular television actress as part of a series of images focusing on mature, well-to-do women. At the time, Arthur would have been in her late sixties, while he was in his late twenties. He told New York magazine in 2007, "The Bea Arthur painting is from Maude, which I used to watch as a kid. In the eighties, I didn't have TV for, like, a whole decade. When I started watching again in the nineties, The Golden Girls was in syndication. When I had a loft with Sean and Kevin Landers, we'd always take a break in the afternoon and watch The Golden Girls. When I made the painting, I was living in Hoboken and still making abstract paintings, and I was very frustrated. I was walking back from the PATH train and this vision of Bea Arthur just came to me."
With her biting wit, matronly hairstyle, and deep voice, the television comedienne is an unconventional choice for this type of portrait, which typically features a very feminine, youthful subject. Currin does not depict Arthur in a particularly erotic or sexualized manner, but instead presents a thought-provoking challenge to the viewer. By presenting the plainspoken Arthur in the nude on a flat yellow background, he interrogates the ageism associated with sexuality in much of late-20th-century popular culture, as well as long-standing artistic conventions.
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
Many of Currin's early works focus on older women, exemplified by the figure depicted here. Her pose and gaze recall that of a fashion model, but the artist complicates this association by giving the woman an aging body and close-cropped gray hair. The portrait merges the aesthetic of popular fashion magazines with that of early Renaissance and Mannerist paintings. The image of this woman is not taken from life, nor meant to depict any actual person. As Currin explains, "The people I paint don't exist. The only thing that is real is the painting. It's not like a photograph where there's another reality that existed in a certain moment in time in the past." Even so, the painting unsettles expectations about what physical types of women are considered suitable subjects for art (or even advertisements). The skinny woman's regal face and posture are striking and captivating, leaving the viewer to wonder about the remarkably narrow standards of beauty prized by contemporary culture.
Oil on Linen - Whitney Museum of American Art
The Bra Shop
In this iconic work, we find two women engaged in the seemingly ordinary act of bra shopping. The redhead helps the blonde take an accurate measurement in what could be construed as an act of communal sisterhood. Yet the overblown size of their breasts hints at the pair's entrapment within a society that values individual physical endowments in warped disproportion to the whole. Their body parts are magnified as distracting objects of attention. The crude rendering of the women's faces presents an antagonistic contrast to the other elements in the painting to which we are drawn instead, participating unconsciously in the act of sexism.
Currin has remarked about this painting, "I had already received a small amount of criticism about my sexism, and I wanted to make something that I wouldn't have to worry about being termed sexist - because the image is so sexist that it's sort of beyond repair."
Oil on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art
Since the late 1990s, Currin has taken inspiration from the mood and atmosphere of Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings to explore the cliches, biases, and sexual desires hidden just beneath the surface of mainstream culture.
In this image, he leaves behind the overt pop-culture references and aesthetics, so at first glance it appears to be a much older painting than it truly is. The figure's loosely tousled hair, body, and mien bring to mind the Classical muses, nymphs, and goddesses of artists like Botticelli. In contrast, there is something about her face that is out of sync with more classical depictions of women. She looks toward the viewer expectantly, and there is a breathless, seductive quality to her expression conjuring the wanting ingenue or fragile waif immortalized by contemporary fashion models of the time such as Kate Moss. She epitomizes heterosexual male desire, an eager and beautiful thing to be taken and possessed. This awareness of being watched coupled with an apparent urge to be seen as desirable imparts the figure with a distinctly 20th-century subjectivity.
Many critics have pointed out the woman's resemblance to Currin's wife, Rachel Feinstein, who often filled the role of his model and muse. Because he painted this piece during the early days of their marriage, likely when they were still in the "honeymoon" phase of their relationship, the work may be seen as an expression of Currin's newly wedded bliss.
Oil on Canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Nude on a Table
In his evolving depictions of the female nude, John Currin expertly mimics a number of distinct styles from art history, merging high and low source materials to produce works that succeed simultaneously as satire and homage.
The woman's face and hairstyle, as in many of his paintings, seems borrowed from contemporary magazines and advertisements. Meanwhile, the candelabra and lemons on the left side of the composition evoke Dutch still life painting. Yet, the image is most evocative of Renaissance paintings depicting the dead Christ, often shrouded in a white sheet with his head lolling lifelessly to one side. There are numerous iconic renderings of this scene, including Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-22) and Annibale Carracci's Corpse of Christ (1583-1585). Currin's painting is an uncanny replica of the latter's contorted posture, viewed from the feet. One might weave a common thread between the objectification/mysticism of the body of Christ and the female nude, both of which continue to be placed on a pedestal, even in death.
Oil on Canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
This large painting depicts three young women of similar appearance, presumably sisters. All have pale skin and fair blonde hair, piled at the back of their heads. A number of critics have pointed out that, like Honeymoon Nude (1998), these women bear a strong resemblance to Currin's wife, Rachel Feinstein, who is tall, blonde, and slender. Although the title refers to an American holiday, the clothing, furniture, and overall style of the painting are more representational of European Renaissance painting. The elaborate room is decorated with a silver-gilt mirror, Corinthian columns, and a chandelier.
The woman on the left feeds the woman in the center with a spoon; she angles her neck like a baby bird, straining for food from its mother. Meanwhile, the woman in the smock seems absorbed in a thought or task, her head bowed as she ignores the boisterous pair beside her. On the table in front of them is an assortment of objects worthy of a Dutch still life: an enormous uncooked turkey, a bunch of grapes, an onion, a white plate, and a vase of flowers (which contains both decaying and vibrant roses in the vein of nature morte). With its absence of sexual imagery, the painting is a marked departure from the paintings for which Currin is best known, though the image serves as a reminder of the constant impetus for consumption -- of both foodstuffs and luxury goods -- that pervades contemporary American culture.
Furthermore, the painting offers a somewhat creepy, unsettling spin on subject matter reminiscent of the Americana of Norman Rockwell. The raw flesh of the turkey, the dying flowers, the long, craning necks of the women, and the unusual facial expressions make the composition seem at once strange and familiar.
Oil on Canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
This painting comes from Currin's most recent series, which takes inspiration from print and online pornography. He told The New Yorker in 2008, "One motive of mine is to see if I could make this clearly debased and unbeautiful thing become beautiful in a painting."
The work depicts a young couple kissing, presumably as a prelude to sex, yet manages to portray the intimate moment as completely vulgar and unappealing. Their faces smash together almost to the point of deformity, particularly in the case of the man, whose right cheek seems to be much larger and higher on his face than the left. Closer inspection of the woman's face reveals drawn-on eyebrows and heavy pearlescent eye shadow. Her girlish hairstyle seems at odds with the lines in her face; this is a woman who is trying to appear younger than she actually is. All of these features combine to suggest that these are actors portraying teenagers in an adult film an implication underscored by the tight focus of the image as if centered squarely within a screen. The pair's probing tongues wriggle outward as if intended to titillate an unseen audience rather than each other. Moreover, though the pair's eyes are closed, the woman faces the viewer as if in anticipation of an audience. The image is more lurid than beautiful, asking the viewer to ponder the complex role of pornography in constructing sexual desire, notions of beauty, and relationships between men and women.
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
Biography of John Currin
Currin was born in Colorado to a physics professor father and piano teacher mother, the third of four children. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Northern California, first settling in Palo Alto, and later, Santa Cruz. They finally moved to Connecticut when he was ten.
As an adolescent in Stamford, Currin took regular art lessons from a classically trained Russian painter named Lev Meshberg. He discussed his former mentor with New York magazine in 2007 saying, "I painted with him on weekends from the time I was 14. He had one of these completely romantic studios, with a bird in a cage and musty old books. I learned how to hold a palette, how to squeeze paint out of the tube. In art school, they don't really show you that stuff. They do everything in their power to kill the attractiveness of the whole procedure."
Currin went on to study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he obtained a BFA in 1984. Immediately afterward, he pursued an MFA at Yale, where he became close friends with the painter Lisa Yuskavage and conceptual artist Sean Landers. Currin later remarked about the latter, "With Sean, our work was stylistically very different. He made these drawings, fictional letters to his loan officer on yellow legal pads - they're really weird, and I always loved them. It inspired me, because I was trying to find my style. Sean hit on something that was his alone earlier than I did."
He completed his MFA in 1986, then moved to New York City. The year 1989 marked his first major exhibition with a series of portraits of young girls derived from photographs in high school yearbooks. By this point he had developed a distinct, kitschy style of figurative painting that focused on bold depictions of women and men, drawing inspiration from sources like Playboy and Cosmopolitan. This subject matter placed Currin at odds with the more politically charged artworks of the time. By 1992, Currin was selling his work at the influential Andrea Rosen Gallery, and had established himself as a critical and financial success. Currin and Rosen briefly dated during this time and although they eventually split, he continued to show his work at the gallery for ten more years.
Currin met his wife, artist Rachel Feinstein, in 1994 when she was living in a gingerbread house modeled after the story of Sleeping Beauty in a New York gallery for six weeks. A mutual friend had told Currin that Feinstein resembled some of the women in his paintings with her tall, slim physique and pre-Raphaelite hair. They were engaged two weeks after this meeting and married three years later. Feinstein also became his muse, modeling for many of his paintings. They have worked on a number of creative projects together and have come to be regarded as an art world "power couple." Currin credits Rachel with a shift in the tone of his work, telling The New Yorker in 2008, "With Rachel, I realized I could be different from everyone else just by being cheerful in my work. In art school, I wanted to be intense, like Francis Bacon, but I'm not - I'm better when I'm jokey and cheerful." The couple has three children.
The frank sexuality of Currin's work attracted its fair share of controversy throughout the 1990s, with a number of critics dismissing it as sexist and misogynistic. One critic with The New Republic argued, "His work is toxic - art pollution." Yet Currin steadfastly maintained that his art offered a satirical commentary on perceptions of women in contemporary culture. Despite these issues surrounding his work, his reputation continued to grow, and by 2003, his paintings were selling for "prices in the high six figures." Around the same time, he started showing at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, New York.
Currin's popularity continues to bloom along with, and perhaps despite, his commitment to pushing society's buttons. His recent works merge the influence of 16th-century Northern European paintings with pop culture pinups and Internet porn, interrogating the boundaries between the beautiful and the grotesque. He once again defended his use of provocative source material in New York magazine in 2007, claiming, "It's not a shock tactic. In every art school in the world there's a guy doing porn. As a failed shock tactic, that's kind of interesting to me."
Currin and Feinstein continue to enjoy a colorful, glamorous social life that expands beyond the insular New York art scene in which they maintain studios and call home. They count people like Mick Jagger, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Anna Wintour among their circle of friends.
The Legacy of John Currin
Currin's satirical portraits take on highly charged social and sexual taboos with impeccable, classical painterly techniques. This elbow to the ribs and tongue in cheek stab into the annals of tradition has introduced humor into an otherwise seriously inclined historical genre. His investigation of cultural norms surrounding femininity and beauty has influenced a number of artists, including Cindy Sherman, whose photographs highlight the performative nature of femininity in contemporary America. His influence can also be seen in the painstakingly detailed, though visually jarring portraits of Sarah Ferguson and his old friend from Yale, Lisa Yuskavage.