- John Currin: New Paintings (2006)Our PickBy Norman Bryson, Alison M. Gingeras and Dave Eggers
- John Currin (2003)By Robert Rosenblum
Important Art by John Currin
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.
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.
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."