"The more love you show, the more you destroy it," says John Currin explaining his use of a palette knife in his 1997 painting called The Bra Shop. With the more than 400 works collected in his new book, this quote (describing the mottled faces on girls with massively oversized breasts) helps make clear that Currin loves paint, loves mark-making, loves line, loves color and, yes, all the sensuality of the way he paints explicitly relates to the sensuality of the bodies he depicts.
Of course, Currin's work is a lot more complicated than that. Often bizarre, usually warped and always funny, Currin's masterful technique cleverly toys with figurative painting and the book with source photos from Currin's archive, short works of fiction by Dave Eggers and the artist's own commentary does his extensive body of work justice. The hardbound slipcovered monograph is available from Amazon.
Norman Bryson opens the brilliant, anxious essay he wrote for the lavish new book on John Currin with an admission: ‘When I first saw Currin’s The Cripple, what I sensed was not only the cruelty that lay within the construction of the image, but a nasty stickiness in that cruelty, a way it had of making you connive in its own malevolence.’ He goes on to explain that the ‘figure’s misshapen and twisted body evidently originates with the painter, whose attitude towards the deformation he inflicts seems to include enjoyment.’ Bryson, who positions Currin firmly within the history of caricature, never allows his uneasy fascination for the work of this complex, virtuoso painter to get in the way of his distaste for the paintings often vicious power. The question he consistently returns to is whether the artist – and by association, the viewer – is complicit in this cruelty or whether, as he somewhat ambivalently concludes, Currin is generously opening up ‘a psychic and emotional space inclusive enough […] to suggest what a “full” subjectivity might feel like, even in corrupted times’. Bryson’s response to the often sly misogyny and homophobia of the work is less ambivalent. He writes: ‘Currin’s female figures are viewed through the lens of a male desire that can be active, representing and masterful, only when the feminine appears as passive, represented, and stupid. Degradation is not only the precondition of desire, it becomes its own turn-on.’ Then, as if wondering who else might be a target, he declares: ‘Gays, of course. Currin acts out around the figures of gay men as though he never got beyond the era of the closet: you can tell they’re gay just by looking […] they’re a mess of tell-tale details with only one tale to tell […] his visual construction of the gay male harks back to earlier and (from a homophobic point of view) better times, when stigmatization was the order of the day and you could stigmatize with impunity.’ Phew! I can’t wait for Bryson to write an essay for a painter he doesn’t like!
What Bryson doesn’t address – and with over 300 colour illustrations, this is something the book makes very clear – is how surprisingly tender a painter Currin can be. He paints his wife and child as though he has just kissed them, flowers as if they’ll always bloom and golden curls as if they’re more valuable than diamonds. He can also be excruciatingly funny: leafing through these glossy pages, it dawned on me that much of the satire in Currin’s paintings recalls the dazzling, observational comedy of the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap.
Alison M. Gingeras hooks her essay, ‘Pictor Vulgaris’, around a term employed by art historian Jan Emmens, who argued that the prevailing image of Rembrandt as a rule-breaker was the invention of 17th-century critics, and that Rembrandt – like Currin – was in reality a conformist. Currin, it would seem, concurs, commenting that ‘the mystery lies, I hope, in how conventional my paintings are’. Attempting to reconcile such a comment with the reality of Currin’s paintings of women with deformed, enormous breasts, Gingeras states, rather oddly, that the artist’s depiction of women has less to do with his feelings about women than with his feelings about painting. ‘It dawned on him’, she writes, ‘that by rendering the women’s breasts in the most absurdly “sexist” and anatomically impossible manner, he could “get away from the neutrality associated with figurative painting.”’ Neutrality? Figurative painting? I must have missed something. (Or, as my mother might say, how is it women always end up being the pawn?)
Dave Eggers takes a different tack entirely: his enjoyable contribution to the book comprises 11 short stories, with subjects ranging from weird wives to the commercials of Norway, all of which feel like a satisfyingly apt response to this complicated and imaginative artist. Strangely, the book includes no biography (perhaps the assumption that he is youngish, white, American and male is so evident it doesn’t need spelling out), but Currin is glimpsed through numerous quotes. Maybe one of the most telling is: ‘I have wanted to structure my paintings so that the first, visible layer includes the dopiness of myself and my world. Solemnity is somewhere else, below the surface.’
What kind of art was in your childhood home?
We had my uncle’s paintings, which I always loved—a very vivid memory for me was going to his apartment in Los Angeles. He had floor-to-ceiling paintings of sexy women with fruit on their heads. We had a whole bunch of reproductions my parents got on their honeymoon, super-high-quality things printed on panels, from Florence. There was a Willem van de Velde Dutch harbor scene, and some close-ups from the Sistine Chapel. Until I was 8, I thought they were the real thing.
When did you first see some masterpieces in person?
After I moved to Stamford, when I was 10—going to the Metropolitan Museum. The big El Greco painting knocked my socks off—somebody in ecstasy, with three nude women somehow involved in this religious experience. It was El Greco at his most twisty and psychedelic. I couldn’t believe that’s what old-master paintings actually looked like.
What about contemporary art?
As a kid, I kind of thought that art had just stopped in the fifties, and that it turned into hippies doing things naked. In art-history books, it always ends with some guy from the seventies who just has neon lights. Like every other kid, I liked album cover art. I didn’t really like Yes, but I did have this book of all their album covers. I drew girls a lot. I’d do awful fantasy Tolkien stuff. I still have a Middle-earth troll in a boat.
What did you listen to?
It was a classical-music house. My mom taught piano all day. But what I really liked was the Beatles, Led Zeppelin. And I was scared of them at first, but I liked the Sex Pistols. I remember seeing them on some news show and thinking, That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Did you play any instruments?
I took violin for eight or ten years, but the main thing was that my teacher’s husband was a painter from the Soviet Union. 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.
At Yale, you became close friends with artists Lisa Yuskavage and Sean Landers. How did their successes, and failures, affect you?
The core gang was always Richard [Phillips], Sean, and Lisa. 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.
What are some of your favorite books?
Moby-Dick was huge for me. Just the idea of a ship that moves around laterally, but you can also go down into the depths of the ocean—I thought that was so beautiful. I’ve read it over and over.
Dave Eggers wrote some of the text for your new catalogue raisonné. How did you come to work with him?
I had read his big best seller ["A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"], and after that, I remember reading something—I think in Harper’s—that really impressed me. He was taking questions from a Harvard audience, and someone asked about “selling out,” and he just went nuclear on the guy, and wrote this long essay about saying “yes” to everything. And it was a rallying cry. It just destroyed the whole careful, elite attitude. My wife, Rachel [Feinstein], always says, “Just say yes, always.”
You famously painted a topless portrait of Bea Arthur. Were you a big fan?
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.
You also like to work from old photographic sources. Where do you find some of this stuff?
It first happened by accident. Somebody gave me three boxes of old Playboys from the seventies. The ads in those days were just better. Lately I’ve pulled some things off the Internet, old Danish porn. The crappier my source material, the more it frees me up.
In this show, there are a few paintings based on hard-core pornography.
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.
There are also several paintings of fully clothed women absorbed in books.
After my retrospective, I became very self-conscious—thinking about feeling paralyzed. You become afraid of making bad paintings, and as a result you can’t make any paintings. The image of reading was an image of impotence, trying to think your way into a painting instead of painting it.
John Currin makes paintings that get people talking. In a time of widespread academic feminism, his paintings of voluptuous nudes came across as, perhaps, unexpectedly daring. And so was his masterful technique a breath of fresh and unconventional beauty in a time of bad painting fetching high prices. Currin has never been concerned with fashions or political correctness. From the beginning, he has set his own somewhat cantankerous course, and, fortunately for him, the world has come to appreciate his candor, his cleverness, and the talent that sometimes seems to afflict him. I interviewed him over lunch, the day after I did the same with his (very expecting) wife and muse, Rachel Feinstein.
GLENN O’BRIEN: Is the baby overdue? Is there a date when the baby’s officially supposed to...
JOHN CURRIN: Yeah, like, now.
O’BRIEN: That’s what I figured.
CURRIN: Well, the actual date was either Hitler’s birthday or Larry Gagosian’s birthday. But Rachel’s never really done it on the day it’s supposed to be . . . I think it’s gonna happen, like, tomorrow. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: After the first one, they tend to get easier, no?
CURRIN: I don’t know. The second one was harder. He was, like, stuck up inside. Rachel probably told you the story. It had to do with this little, like . . .
O’BRIEN: Vacuum, yeah.
CURRIN: Yeah, like a suction yarmulka thing that goes on the kid’s head—which always blows my mind because everybody’s always yelling about how you have to support your child’s head because their necks are very weak. Well, it’s like, “Uh-uh!” [laughs]
O’BRIEN: I have a big ridge in my head from the forceps. They pulled me out with, like, pliers.
CURRIN: Rachel has that, too. Rachel was born on an Indian reservation—so it was pretty low-tech. Her dad was in the Army medical corps. Instead of going to Saigon, he went to Fort Defiance, and so she has this funny lump. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: So, when did you know that you wanted to be an artist?
CURRIN: Well, I guess when I was 11 or 12. I mean, that’s what I was good at. My uncles were doctors, so I had some vague idea that it would be cool to be a doctor, mostly because they had swimming pools. [laughs] I thought, Hey, if you’re a doctor, you can have a swimming pool. But as soon as I could think rationally about it, I wanted to be an artist. I guess I thought I was gonna be an illustrator or something, because I didn’t really know that art still existed. I think I had this idea that it had kind of turned into naked hippies hangin’ out in their lofts. [laughs] You’d see Christo or someone like that . . . When I was a kid, I was more interested in album covers and stuff like that. I was studying violin, and my violin teacher’s husband was an artist. They were from the Soviet Union, and I started taking lessons with him. He couldn’t really speak English, but I started painting with him on weekends. He was a very good painter. He did traditional still lifes. He had a garret studio with a parrot in a cage. It really looked like a 1930s movie-version of a studio. The first time I saw it I was like, “Wow! This is what I wanna do.” Aside from the old masters, I had never seen somebody making good paintings before. So I realized that maybe there’s an actual art world.
CURRIN: I think at around the same time I saw some Francis Bacons and [Willem] de Kooning stuff as well—you know, contemporary art.
O’BRIEN: I saw a documentary about Jack Levine and they asked him what made him want to become an artist, and he said that he found out you could draw naked women and get paid for it! [both laugh]
CURRIN: He’s pretty much right on the money there.
O’BRIEN: So what was your earliest work like?
CURRIN: Copies of my teacher’s stuff. And then I made some sort of Frank Frazetta naked girls that I didn’t show my teacher. I did still life and anatomy and copies of Degas that he would give me to copy—you know, drawings out of books.
O’BRIEN: Frank Frazetta—is he an illustrator?
CURRIN: Yeah, he’s like Conan the Barbarian. He’s the originator of the style that’s now sort of standard. Do you remember the Clint Eastwood movie The Gauntlet ?
CURRIN: The movie poster was done by Frank Frazetta. It’s the hero standing atop a hill of either corpses or tires or something, with a babe kind of collapsing onto him.
O’BRIEN: Sondra Locke collapsing, yeah.
CURRIN: But he’s actually very good. And when I went to college, and I went to art school, I started to realize that Warhol was cool and that pop art was fun. But it was kind of gradual, because in my high school, there was certainly no acknowledgement that you could become an artist or anything like that.
O’BRIEN: When I was in high school, the idea of becoming an artist was that you could go work for Mad magazine.
CURRIN: Oh, yeah. That would’ve been pretty great, actually! [laughs] There would have been no shame in that.
O’BRIEN: I was thinking about erotica in my youth, and I remember looking at nudes in the Encyclopedia Britannica—black-and-white plates of marble statues of nudes. What was your first experience of erotica?
CURRIN: My mom had a large collection of Coronet, which was kind of a general interest and art magazine.
O’BRIEN: It was a small size, right?
CURRIN: Yeah, and it changed radically at some point. It became family-ish. But before that, it had amazing Paul Outerbridge pictures and European art-photography, nude photography. And there were all kinds of general interest articles. There’d be, like, a pro-Mussolini article, like, “What an amazing man of action,” you know, “Pilots his own plane . . .” And then, “How to Have a Good Conversation”—sort of high-minded American stuff. There’d be an article on Meissen porcelain . . . that kind of thing. And so those had a lot of nude women in them.
O’BRIEN: It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of that since I was a teenager, but my parents got Coronet, too. I remember one particular photo with a nude girl in stockings with her legs crossed, holding, like, a champagne glass. But it was okay because the photographer was an important artist.
CURRIN: Yeah. We also had an Eadweard Muybridge book. Most of the women in the photographs are not so great-looking. But there are a few amazing-looking dancers. I used to look at that a lot, and I think my uncle the doctor had some Playboy magazines.
O’BRIEN: So when did you first paint a nude? When you were studying with the Russian?
CURRIN: No, I didn’t have a model then. I guess when I went to art school they had models. And they did their best to make it not something you look forward to. It’s, like, early in the morning, and it’s six hours long. And you fall asleep looking at this person, and it’s not very erotic.
O’BRIEN: And the models were probably pretty gnarly, right?
CURRIN: Sometimes there’d be surprisingly great-looking models. There was this one redhead at Carnegie Mellon who was great-looking, andat Yale there were fantastic-looking models. A lot of the acting students would do modeling in the arts school, so there were some gorgeous girls, but the cliché in our school was to get either the really emaciated person or the really obese person—which is stupid, you know? The idea is to get you to be able to draw. It’s better to have good-looking people. But you’d often have the semi-homeless guy—which would be awful, you know? Especially if they got erections while you were drawing them—which is just totally gross. But I didn’t start doing nudes until I was in art school, and I tried to do, like, de Kooning and Polke and Schnabel. I tried to work like that.
O’BRIEN: Rachel said that you did abstract painting for a while.
CURRIN: It wasn’t really until after I got out of art school that I realized that I’d been doing that sort of for the audience, for that context. Somehow, being alone in the room, it made no sense at all to make those kinds of paintings.
O’BRIEN: But when you started on the path you’re on now, that was really the most unfashionable direction you could take, right?
CURRIN: I guess so, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. In some ways it felt like almost the opposite, like it was surprisingly easy to get attention and be different. This is sort of a glib way to put it, but it was sort of like doing conservative paintings with a straight face.
CURRIN: All of sudden everybody got worked up—which is far from being an unfashionable thing or bravery.
CURRIN: So it’s getting a reaction, you know? Part of it was just taking the people who I had liked a lot—David Salle and Schnabel and Polke and Kippenberger—and changing the format slightly. Instead of layered physical space, I kind of layered culture. You know, different languages battling on one painting. I thought an interesting thing would be to make it kind of authoritarian . . . [laughs] You know, one language, one image, one source of meaning—more of a boring thing. And I had seen an interesting
way to kind of hide the ball with my influences. I’d also seen -[Francis] Picabia, and Picabia made all these paintings of Spanish ladies—which I thought were totally fascinating, weird things. And I was always fascinated with Neue Sachlichkeit [the New Objectivity] and Christian Schad, this German realist from the ’20s and ’30s. I loved the weird, out-of-step-ness of what they were doing, and you couldn’t figure out where they stood politically and whether they were modernists at all—whether they were some sort of right-wing modernists . . . I also read this book around that time by [Percy] Wyndham Lewis. He was a Vorticist . . .
O’BRIEN: I’m sort of a Wyndham Lewis nut. I love his writing and his painting.
CURRIN: So you know who I’m talking about. I read this book . . .
O’BRIEN: The Demon of Progress in the Arts?
CURRIN: No, I read, uh, Tarr, and it just blew my mind.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. It’s amazing. We’re supposed to think only of Joyce as modernism. Lewis isn’t in the canon.
CURRIN: And because of it, I realized that there was another half of modernism that was completely hidden, because it had sort of lost—
O’BRIEN: The struggle for art history, because it had some fascist associations . . . Wyndham Lewis shouldn’t have said those things about Hitler. [laughs]
CURRIN: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] He was misquoted.
O’BRIEN: Lewis took it back. Hindsight is 20–20.
CURRIN: Hitler was what Europe needed. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: Or vice versa. But that was pretty early. Lewis took it all back.
CURRIN: He had to go to Canada, right?
CURRIN: But just to see modernism through a fascist lens, and that sort of social good, the progressive social good that’s always laid on LeCorbusier and modernism, and just on modernism. You realize that it was superfluous. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: Well, Le Corbusier is represented as an idealist, but he was invited by Mussolini in ’34.
CURRIN: There is a fascination with violence and power in all modernism, and I sort of saw classic modernism as being more similar toWyndham Lewis than to the Renaissance. It’s not about flow and the presence of humanism and all those things. People like Picabia became much more important to me when the perversity of the whole 20th century started to become prominent to me.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, I think that history hasn’t really been settled.
CURRIN: And so the rearguard feeling of figurative painting—the unprogressiveness ofmaking a figurative painting—didn’t bother me anymore. It’s not like I got enabled by a fascist, but much the same way that I stopped structuring my paintings as abstract paintings, I realized that subject matter does not matter. Or it matters the least. And especially interesting subject matter—that’s the worst. So that was kind of another way to stand out, to play it straight. Or if you do something interesting, then make it ham-fisted, try to fool the smart people—you know, fool the priests. That’s a long way of answering. It wasn’t unfashionable in any kind of daring way. It was just exactly what I was dying to find.
O’BRIEN: I think it was daring to take up the genres that had been made taboo by the success of minimalism and conceptual art that dominated the critical establishment. When Warhol was doing portraits, it was really unfashionable to do a portrait.
O’BRIEN: Especially a commissioned portrait. The still life was completely out until some brave souls started doing it again at the end of the ’80s. Wyndham Lewis’s book The Demon of Progress in the Arts is basically a very reasoned rant against modernism and how extremism was leading to the end of art. The idea that there is progress in the arts in the same way that there is progress in science is absurd. You get to what he called “the point beyond which there is nothing.” Art is evolutionary, in that it responds to the times but it doesn’t improve.