LIFTING THE VEIL
Old Masters, pornography, and the work of John Currin.
Currin with a work in progress, “The Women of Franklin Street.” “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it,” he says. Photograph by Elinor Carucci.
The painting shows three young women standing close together in a room. The woman in the middle faces us directly, head held high; her dress is falling open, and her bra has been pulled down to expose both breasts. On either side of her, the other two—one nude, one wearing a chic cocktail dress unzipped in back—touch her erotically. The canvas is eighty-eight inches high by sixty-eight wide. It has the scale and pyramidal structure of a Renaissance altarpiece, but, according to John Currin, who began work on it four days ago, the immediate source was an Internet porn site. What struck him about the image, he explains, was “this completely archaic pose, like the three witches or something. I think of them as Danish, because of the thinning blond hair and the gaps between the teeth. They’re not pretty enough to be Swedes. Oh, and I want to do a still-life down there in the lower right corner. I don’t really know where this picture is going yet, but I think it’s going to work.”
Eight or nine smaller canvases are hanging in Currin’s studio, on the ground floor of a building in lower Manhattan; north light comes from a row of high windows on the street side. The other paintings are in various stages of completion, and all but one show naked or semi-naked people engaged in sex acts. (The exception is an exquisitely painted still-life of porcelain plates and cups.) Currin himself is somewhat conflicted about the persistence of these images in his work in the past two years. Paintings derived from porn sites, some of them decidedly hard-core, were prominent in his solo show at the Gagosian gallery last winter, along with a pair of wonderfully sensitive portraits of his young son and a few other, non-erotic oils. “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it,” he tells me now. “You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.” The new paintings will be shown in March at the Sadie Coles gallery, in London. What strikes me about them now is their beauty. Most pornography today is photographic, and it has a coldness that suggests (to me, anyway) an underlying contempt for adult sexuality. Currin uses the motif, but by taking it into another medium he changes the temperature—the sensual pleasures of oil painting evoke what’s absent in the photographs. “There’s a kind of comedy in making paintings of this,” he tells me. “Pornography is so associated with photography, and so dependent on the idea that the camera doesn’t intercede between you and the subject. One motive of mine is to see if I could make this clearly debased and unbeautiful thing become beautiful in a painting.”
More than any artist I know, John Currin exemplifies the productive struggle between self-confidence and self-doubt. Forty-five years old, tall (six feet three), and good-looking in the open-faced American way, he currently rides a wave of success that has drowned out most (but not all) of his early detractors, and brought him international acclaim. His technical skills, which include elements of Old Master paint application and high-Mannerist composition, have been put to use on some of the most seductive and rivetingly weird figurative paintings of our era—an era when figurative painting has gradually returned from the periphery to the mainstream. Portraits, nudes, and genre scenes have occupied most of his attention so far, and several critics have noted Currin’s increasing mastery of these antique forms. Arthur C. Danto, writing in The Nation in 2004, called him “a virtuoso of a style and manner that would have been admired in Ferrara or Parma in the 1550s,” and went on to describe him as “one of the brightest art stars of the early twenty-first century.” Not every critic would agree with this assessment, but few have been harder on Currin than he tends to be on himself. “I’ve always felt insecure about being a figurative artist, and about being an American painter,” he told me last fall. “To me, oil painting is inherently European. My technique is in no way comparable with that of a mid-level European painter of the nineteenth century. They had way more ability and technical assurance. It’s like learning to play tennis when you’re four or five years old—you know things you don’t even know you know. I suppose in the end what I do is my version of being progressive—that I thought my only chance was to regress in the face of everything. I wanted my paintings to be difficult—I just didn’t think they’d be difficult in this way.”
The basic design of the new painting, his largest to date, was sketched out first in a grisaille undercoat of white, raw umber, and a binding agent of sun-thickened linseed oil, and Currin has just begun to build up the flesh tones. The faces of the women have very little detail as yet. To give me an idea of where he’s going, he brings over a printout of a photograph of the painting, which he has altered with Photoshop, a method he finds more convenient than drawing. Hanging just to the right of the new painting is a small oil-on-canvas study, fairly rough but with more detail and in color. “Actually, I posed for the body,” he says, indicating the left-hand figure in the painting. He often uses his own hands, arms, or face (viewed in a mirror) for the initial image, in preference to hiring live models. “When I get people to pose for me, it almost never works,” he explains. (This does not apply to his wife, Rachel, whose wide-set hazel eyes, pearly skin, and heart-shaped face he has used again and again in his paintings.) “Not many people are good at modelling, and I always change things around anyway. I made up the face on the right. The middle figure might become less realistic and more ideal, with wind blowing her hair.” The central figure’s face came from an advertisement for housecoats in a nineteen-seventies Montgomery Ward catalogue, which he has torn out and taped to the wall. “She shows up in other catalogues,” he says. “She’s got something special.” In the Internet photograph, the middle figure is swooning in sexual transport, eyes closed and lips parted, but the model in the catalogue looks right at you and smiles broadly, and why not? Her housecoat is priced at $29.90, and never needs ironing. “At one point, I thought of using Rachel’s face there, but I decided against it,” Currin says. “The humiliation of the narrative is not something I want to put her face into. I’ll keep myself the only person humiliated by this painting.”
A few days before this first studio visit, my wife and I had had dinner at an uptown restaurant with Currin and Rachel Feinstein, his wife, who is also an artist. Their marriage, which is now in its tenth year, has been a dovetailing of contrary qualities whose symbiosis fascinates and occasionally irritates their less ecstatically married friends. Rachel’s work—wildly fanciful laminated-plywood sculpture is her current focus—holds such compelling interest for John that last spring, when she was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of raising their two young boys (Francis is four, Hollis is two) and thought maybe she should take a year off from making art, he argued her out of it. “He said, ‘I think you’re a great artist, and it really means something to me that you make things,’ ” Rachel told me, a week or so later. (Her new work goes on view at the Marianne Boesky gallery on April 24th.) “One reason John chose me was because I’m a loudmouth,” Rachel had also said, but at dinner that night she chose to let John do most of the talking. Sitting on the banquette with my wife, she listened with amusement to his increasingly convoluted explanation of the origins of his porno paintings, and eventually deposited one of her long, bare legs in his lap, where he stroked it with unflagging ardor.
The origins were pretty complicated. Currin speaks rapidly and volubly, with a lot of self-corrections and asides, and sorting out the various elements took several subsequent interviews. But the gist of it that night seemed to be that he had gone through a long dry spell after his 2003 retrospective at the Whitney Museum, painting very few pictures and worrying about losing his way. One day in 2005, in the studio, he picked up a cartoon that a friend had torn out of a porn magazine and sent to him sometime earlier. “On the back of it, there was this faded-out picture of a woman in a corset, spreading her legs, and up in the corner was a crazy little text saying, ‘I am a nuclear physicist,’ ” he said. Something about the image led him to start a painting based on it. “About ten minutes into that painting, I realized it was going to be good,” he said. “It had no relation to my work at all. I disliked that it was pornographic. I’d never done that, lifted the veil completely. It had been a vibe in my paintings, but never something explicit, and I worried that if I made it explicit I was going to kill the painting.”
Pornography has a long history in art—from Greek vases and Pompeian wall paintings to Jeff Koons’s nineteen-nineties evocations of his sex life with Ilona Staller (La Cicciolina), the Italian porn star and politician—but for the most part, as Currin was well aware, the art it has inspired is bad art. “In art school, there’s always a guy doing porno,” he told me. “It’s such an obvious idea, and that bothered me, but at the same time I kind of liked it, because this picture was going to be good. If there was a way to make good work out of something that’s been responsible for a lot of surefire bad art, that was doubly appealing. People came into my studio and said, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful painting.’ It had a strange life I hadn’t gotten before. But at first it didn’t have much meaning for me. I liked it a lot, but I didn’t know why I was making it.”
A reason presented itself soon enough, in the headlines about riots in the Islamic world over twelve Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. “The response to that totally shocked me,” Currin said at dinner that night. “That the Times decided that it was not going to show the cartoons—O.K., they’re terrible-ass cartoons from a quality standpoint, but the idea that those thugs get offended and we just acquiesce, that was the most astonishing display of cowardice. And also the killing of Theo van Gogh, the film director, by some jihadist in Amsterdam—all of a sudden the most liberal societies in the world were having intimidation murders happen. That’s when it occurred to me that we might lose this thing—not the Iraq war but the larger struggle.” When I asked how this tied into his making pornographic paintings, Currin talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without having babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture, at which point I lost the thread. “I know how right wing this sounds,” I recall him saying, “but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race.”
At any rate, as he told me in a later conversation, when the cartoon controversy was at its height he started a second painting derived from another Internet porn site. (He was still working on the one of the woman in the corset.) The new one showed a standing nude woman and a clothed woman kneeling beside her, and it occurred to him to call it “The Dane.” “Like, when they’re not involved in cartoon controversies, this is what they’re doing,” he explained, with a laugh. “If all your freedoms are taken away, even sleazy porn becomes valuable. There are a lot of levels for me here—a parody of what I imagine Europe to be, a parody of my life before September 11th, of my life before I had children, and also a picture of a sunset, this failing light of liberty. I know that seems like bullshit, but I’ve always liked to impose meanings on paintings that can’t quite bear them. Anyway, calling that picture ‘The Dane’ and linking it up with the Muhammad cartoon thing was very exciting for me. It gave me a direction.”
When Currin’s porn paintings went on view at the Gagosian gallery, in November, 2006, the reactions were surprisingly muted. It was as though nobody quite wanted to deal with the subject matter, for fear of sounding prudish. The people whose reactions to the show Currin had worried about the most were his parents. James Currin, his father, is a retired physics professor whose dry wit and barbed, offbeat opinions have influenced John’s own thinking on many subjects. A month or so before the opening of his show at Gagosian, he and Rachel had dinner at his parents’ house, in Stamford, Connecticut, and when his mother was driving them to the train station afterward he finally got up the nerve to tell her that some of his new work was pornographic. Anita Currin, a gifted musician who teaches piano at her home, remembers saying, “Is it really bad?,” and then thinking, when Rachel said that it showed penetration, “Oh, good grief.” When she got home, Anita went into Jim’s den and told him. “I always knew he’d do something like this” was Jim’s response. They both went to the opening. Anita steered a quick course around the room, avoiding the worst examples. Jim headed for the gallery’s terrace—it was a warm night for November—and shared nips of bourbon from his hip flask with Larry Gagosian until almost everyone else had left, before making his own tour. On his way out, he was overheard to say, “People who like this sort of thing will like this a lot.” Recently, when I asked him about the show, Jim mentioned John’s “screwy idea that he’s backing up the people in Denmark who published those cartoons, but I think he did it because he could. I think he said, ‘I can do this, and make people like it,’ which is pretty much what happened. He made everybody but me like it.”
The house in Stamford is where John spent his teen-age years. After what he remembers as an idyllic California childhood, the family moved East in 1972, when his father switched from the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California to the physics department at suny Purchase. John was ten at the time, the third of four siblings: Jeff, eight years his senior, who stayed behind in California to enter U.C. Berkeley, and who is now a computer engineer in the Bay Area; Sarah, his older sister, who lives in Arizona; and Rachel, two years younger, who lives on the Upper West Side. John and Rachel were very close throughout their childhood. “John always made me laugh,” Rachel remembers. “The strongest thing about John, for me, was his sense of humor.”
Growing up in the Currin household was a rigorous experience. All four kids were expected to master a musical instrument. Sarah and Rachel chose the piano, and Rachel now teaches it professionally. “I took about five lessons on piano,” John said, “but it was sort of hopeless in comparison with Rachel, who was playing adult stuff before her feet touched the pedals. My brother had taken violin, so I did that. I took it for years and years, but never got tremendously good.” He studied with a Russian-born woman named Asya Meshberg, who lived in nearby Darien. Her husband, Lev, who came from Odessa, was an artist, a painter, whose studio upstairs John loved to visit. John had won prizes for art at the public schools he and Rachel went to, and eventually Anita Currin arranged for him to take painting lessons with Lev. He did so for three years, absorbing the nineteenth-century methods and techniques that Meshberg had learned in Odessa, and almost immediately he knew that this was what he wanted to do. “Lev told me he thought I was going to be a good artist, a famous artist,” he recalls. “At that time, I thought art was something that had sort of petered out. I knew about de Kooning and Pollock, but it seemed like after that it was all performance art and things like the ‘Spiral Jetty,’ and that completely didn’t interest me. It was the romantic thing with Lev that appealed, the studio with oil paints and birds in cages and old books and blotted still-lifes. The idea that you would be yearning to cast all that off, the shackles of ossified European culture, never took with me.”
John’s wanting to be an artist was all right with his parents, as long as it didn’t interfere with schoolwork, but dating was something else. “Our kids were popular,” his mother recalls. “Girls were calling John all the time, and nobody would have got anything done.” Most nights, instead of going out, John would watch late-night movies on TV with his father. “My father didn’t have buddies, and my mother worked until ten o’clock at night, teaching piano,” he said. “I think I was the person he talked to the most.” Jim Currin was an old-style political liberal (“Nixon was the enemy in our house,” John says), but he liked to challenge received opinion, and John picked up on this. “I didn’t rebel,” he told me. “I think this has echoes in my artistic career—that my supposed conservatism as an artist was a carryover of my consciously not rebelling against my parents.”
At Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, which he attended from 1980 to 1984, he took a few general, parent-pleasing courses while majoring in fine arts. It was here that he found out what David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and the other hot young eighties artists were doing—“I ripped off both Salle and Schnabel,” he said—but his idol then was Willem de Kooning. Currin made “fake de Koonings to get into Yale,” whose graduate art school was the best in the country. He kept on doing de Kooningesque paintings at Yale, with turbulent abstract brushwork, and overlaying them with angry-looking slashes of black paint. “I remember him telling me he wanted to do something beautiful and ugly in the same painting,” his mother recalls, “but I didn’t understand the anger in them. We never saw that here.” John burst out laughing when I relayed this to him. According to his sister Rachel, the backlash from all that non-rebellion continued for several years after he left college. She remembers calling him on the phone once, when he was about twenty-five, and saying he just had to stop being so angry.
One of his best friends at Yale was his classmate Lisa Yuskavage, an earthy, fearless young painter whose work even then was largely figurative. “If I didn’t paint the figure, I’d probably become a nurse,” she told him one day, shocking him to the bone. Even though Abstract Expressionism was the default direction at Yale, as it was at most other art schools around the country, painting the figure was an acceptable thing to do. Currin took several drawing classes with live models, and he’d secretly begun filling sketchbooks with quick drawings of idealized pretty girls. He continued to do this after graduation, as a kind of escape from his turgid abstractions. He stayed on in New Haven for another year, doing odd jobs, then moved into a loft in Hoboken with Yuskavage and her husband, Matvey Levenstein, and supported himself by working construction and housepainting jobs. His own painting wasn’t going well, and he says that he felt like “a loser.”
“That’s when I broke away from what I was doing at Yale,” he said. “I read ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ by Joyce Cary, which had a big effect on me—also Kenneth Clark’s book ‘The Nude,’ and William Blake’s poems. Those poems, together with Cary’s descriptions of an artist painting figuratively, just made me think, God, I want to do that.” He spent several weeks painting a large canvas of a female nude, which he claims was terrible. Soon after that, he answered an ad in the Village Voice and sublet space in a storefront on Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which happened to be across the street from where two of his Yale classmates, Sean Landers and Richard Phillips, were living. “I hadn’t stopped being a loser, but I had company,” he said.
In 1989, he and Landers took a studio together on Houston Street, and it was there that Currin started painting a series of portrait heads of young girls, derived from photographs in a high-school yearbook. “They were naïve images,” he said. “I didn’t know how to paint figuratively.” Centered on canvas against monochrome backgrounds, Currin’s bland, characterless head-and-shoulders portraits somehow turned the insipid yearbook cliché into something arrestingly strange. White Columns, a nonprofit downtown gallery, showed five of these in December, 1989—Currin’s first solo show—and they sold well. “All of a sudden, I had seven thousand dollars, which represented half a year of housepainting,” Currin said. The bottom fell out of the art market at this moment, though, and none of the commercial galleries took him on, so he continued to paint apartments and do construction work.
In 1991, he began a series of much less ingratiating pictures, of middle-aged, upper-middle-class women whose drab clothes and ravaged features gave grim notice of what the yearbook damsels could look forward to. When they were shown, at the Andrea Rosen gallery in 1992, the new pictures struck many observers as sexist and meanspirited. Kim Levin, in the Voice, called them “awful paintings,” and advised her readers to “boycott this show.” Currin himself once described his subjects as “old women at the end of the cycle of sexual potential, between the object of desire and the object of loathing,” but to him they also mirrored his own situation as a figurative painter whose work lacked validity in the market of ideas. “I was a pretty depressed person,” he told me. “Not about the paintings, because I thought they were good. I don’t know what I was depressed about.” He was dating Andrea Rosen, who had opened her gallery in 1990. Currin was reluctant to join his girlfriend’s gallery, but Rosen put him in group exhibitions in 1990 and 1991, and early in 1992 she did the solo show of his middle-aged women. (Their romantic relationship had ended by then, but they remained friends, and he continued to show at her galley for ten years.) The show sold out. “I only made about nine thousand dollars,” Currin said, “but thank God there was that really bad review in the Village Voice”—Kim Levin’s diatribe—“which got me some attention.”
Although Levin eventually changed her mind about Currin (“I was wrong, of course,” she wrote in 2003. “Currin’s subsequent oeuvre reveals an artist whose work is something other than merely misogynist, sexist, and ageist”), his subject matter continued to be a problem for critics. It included innumerable images of young women weighed down by basketball-size breasts; of very young women with much older men whose ridiculous beards and absurd clothing nudged them over the line into caricature; of two gay men in their kitchen extruding homemade pasta; of voluptuously painted female nudes whose elongated hands, necks, and legs channelled Lucas Cranach and Hans Baldung; of three young suburban housewives on a sofa drinking Martinis and smoking cigars. “Mr. Currin mixes leering, lightheaded kitsch with old-masterish weight as if there were no distinction,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the Times in 1999, “a dizzying feat that makes every picture seem wholesome and evil at the same time.”
The artist’s technical ambitions since then have provoked furious disdain (his “mousy imitations of old-master portrait styles would not earn him a freelance gig as a magazine illustrator,” Jed Perl, in The New Republic) and helpless admiration (“Currin’s skills, now enhanced with positively Venetian color, insure that if it’s too late in your life to stop liking painting you’re sunk; he has you,” Peter Schjeldahl, in this magazine). His offbeat but highly recognizable subjects and the increasing skill with which he painted them set his work apart from the contemporary art scene, with its glut of video and performance art, random scatter, sculptural megoliths, and homeless abstraction, and also from the new wave of figurative painting that emerged in the nineteen-nineties. The Museum of Modern Art put him in one of its Projects (new talent) shows in 1997, along with two other figurative artists (Luc Tuymans and Elizabeth Peyton), and from then on he had no trouble selling his work. Currin’s prices rose rapidly in the boom market of the mid-to-late nineties. By 2003, when his first major career retrospective went from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to the Serpentine, in London, and the Whitney Museum, in New York, collectors were lining up to pay three or four hundred thousand dollars for one of his new paintings. That same year, in a move that prompted feature stories in the Times and elsewhere, he left the Andrea Rosen gallery, which had introduced and nurtured him, for the big-time operation of Larry Gagosian, who felt that his prices were “ridiculously low” and boosted them accordingly. Currin thinks that his move to Gagosian might have helped defuse the potential controversy over the porno paintings, but it could just as easily have done the opposite. His work had not been seen in New York since the Whitney retrospective in 2003, a lot was riding on his Gagosian début, and his reputation seemed ripe for bashing. Instead, the critical consensus was cautious. The Times’ Roberta Smith discerned “a kind of innocent lightness and ease that is open and vulnerable, even joyful, but also a little too easily pleased.” Eleanor Heartney, in Art in America, compared Currin to John Singer Sargent in his “remarkable virtuosity in technique” and his “unflagging ability to produce imagery that generates comment and publicity.” All twenty paintings in the show sold on or before the opening, several of them to important collectors, for prices in the high six figures.
The new painting, which Currin has decided, somewhat apologetically, to call “The Women of Franklin Street,” in homage to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” looks slightly more advanced on my next visit to Currin’s studio, two weeks after the first one. The middle figure’s features are clearly defined, and her reddish-blond hair flows down and back in undulant waves. Her companion on the left (our left, her right) has platinum-blond hair, carefully coiffed, which stays in place as she bends to lick one of the succulently exposed breasts. She is more dynamic than the other two; she has one knee on what seems to be a bed, and she touches the central figure’s vagina with her slender, manneristically elongated hand. Is there an echo here of art-historical sources? “I’ve always liked that thing of a figure coming in from the side who doesn’t quite obey the spatial rules of the rest of the painting,” Currin tells me. “The thing with angels and Annunciations.”
Currin has been building up the central figure’s face with white paint. “The goal is to get the white up pretty high,” he explains. “Then, when it’s time for color, you can paint more transparently. White is by far the most important color. It’s what oil painting is about.” Until a year ago, Currin worried that the lead white he uses would soon be unavailable. It wasn’t being made anymore, and he had heard rumors (unfounded) that they were banning it in some art schools. “The idea that artists’ materials should be banned for environmental reasons is completely crazy,” he said. “I was told that most of the new stuff comes from China, and the quality is very different. I used to get so furious about this.” Then, he said, he “found out that this guy in Brooklyn, Robert Doak, probably the best color guy in the world, had discovered a cache of the really good lead white. I bought enough from him to last me a lifetime.”
Currin’s methods insure that he works slowly. He completes no more than ten pictures in a good year, and some years it’s more like two or three. Today, he takes me up the stairs to the platform he uses as an office and storage space—it was his and Rachel’s bedroom during the eight years they lived here—and pulls out a large unfinished painting of two women against a yellow background, a picture he worked on for seven months in 2004 and finally abandoned. This was during the bad period after his Whitney retrospective, when he felt upended by events—fatherhood, leaving Andrea Rosen’s gallery for Gagosian’s, giving up the studio he had shared for ten years with Sean Landers, losing his momentum as a painter. “The worst thing was not feeling any joy coming from the brush,” he says now. For the first time since he met Rachel Feinstein, he had slipped into one of his low-grade depressions.
Currin’s artist friends all agree that meeting Rachel was the answer to his unformulated prayers. “Rachel brings him out into the world in a way he can’t do for himself,” Lisa Yuskavage said. “I think he always wanted to be exactly who he is now.” Someone who was not even a close friend told him, one day in 1994, that he should go to Exit Art, the alternative art space, to see the girl who was doing a performance piece there—he said she looked just like the girls in some of his recent paintings. Currin, who had had a succession of unsatisfactory relationships since his amicable breakup with Andrea Rosen, went to Exit Art the same day and knew almost instantly that this was it. Rachel’s performance involved her sleeping for several hours a day in a sort of mock gingerbread house that she had built in the gallery. When he arrived, she had just woken up. Currin introduced himself, and Rachel asked if he wanted to go out with her that night.
“He was sort of taken aback, and said no,” she remembers. “We ended up going out a week later. I went to see him in his studio first. He had placed two chairs so we could look at his paintings, but I turned mine around so it was facing his. ‘I’m not interested in the paintings,’ I said, ‘I’m interested in you.’ ” A week later, he invited her to Paris, where he was having a show, and they’ve been together ever since.
“Meeting Rachel changed everything,” Currin told me. “I came to the conclusion that there is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making. I just became overwhelmingly happy.”
Their backgrounds could hardly have been more different. The daughter of a Miami dermatologist, Rachel grew up in a boisterous Jewish household where she and her younger sister were allowed to do whatever they liked. “For a while, being with John was hard for me,” Rachel confided, “because he sees women as different beings, some kind of embodiment of creativity, of life and beauty, all these strange emotions. The malefemale issue is a constant battle for John and me.” As battles go, this one seems to have been unusually stimulating for both parties, and it certainly changed the direction of Currin’s work.
His palette got brighter. He did paintings of wavy-haired blond girls (like Rachel) on grassy hillsides, the landscapes he remembered from his California childhood. “With Rachel, I realized I could be different from everyone else just by being cheerful in my work,” he said. “In art school, I wanted to be intense, like Francis Bacon, but I’m not—I’m better when I’m jokey and cheerful.”
What surfaced was the absurdist, ironic humor that his younger sister had found so endearing, and which the other Rachel (Feinstein) helped to release. It cropped up aggressively in his paintings of huge-breasted women, which were parodies of sexism, and of provocative painting in general. “I liked the idea of a beautiful painting that has this big problem,” as he put it, “like a lead ball chained to its ankle. A heavy weight that keeps it from ever being good”—something beautiful and ugly at the same time. He was experimenting with different techniques, such as using the palette knife to rough up the faces of his big-breasted women—this idea came from Courbet, who liked to impose jarring contrasts between smoothly painted figures and crusty landscapes. Courbet, no slouch in the depiction of erotica, had replaced late Picabia as Currin’s aesthetic guide. “Picabia couldn’t get rid of his European elegance, the way I can’t get rid of my vulgarity,” he said. “With Courbet, there’s no glamour to the style. He’s what saves me when I get fussy about ways of making color.”
Currin spent many hours at the Metropolitan Museum, and he read a lot of art history, but for years he resisted trying Old Master techniques. “It was like those dragon caves with old bones lying around the entrance—you don’t go in there,” he said. After meeting Rachel, though, the inhibition lost its hold. “I went to the Met one day in 1997,” he said, “and I was looking at that painting by Velázquez, of the little girl with the butterfly things in her hair”—a portrait of the Infanta María Teresa. “I thought, That’s an odd color on the forehead, and I realized there was an underpainting, with a vermillion glaze over it. You could see the two layers, and it was magical. The skin color was not like paint, not an exact color, but a combination of layers that formed in your eye.”
This separation of form and color went out of fashion in the nineteenth century, when European artists began to paint alla prima, without glazes or underpainting, and only the most conservative art schools still offer instruction in the older techniques. Currin certainly hadn’t heard about them at Yale, but now, studying the Velázquez, he was tempted. He tried underpainting for the first time in a 1997 painting, called “Heartless,” of a girl with Rachel’s features, wearing a dress that has a heart-shaped cutout in front. “I painted her flesh in blue-black and white, which looked very weird,” he said. “When it was dry, I painted an orangey flesh tone over it, and thought, Oh, my God, it works! The color was different from anything in my paintings before. I remember thinking, This is a really big deal.”
He and Rachel got married soon after that—he had wanted to do so two years earlier, but she was in no hurry. The ceremony took place at the Parrot Jungle in Miami (Rachel’s choice) on Valentine’s Day, 1998, and afterward the newlyweds flew straight to Florence, where neither of them had been before. “It was a fantastic trip,” Currin said. “I was looking for underpainting in every picture in the Uffizi, but it was in Venice that I really saw it. The Accademia puts paintings out on easels, under natural light, and you can get right up close to them and see how some parts were glazed and other parts were not.” When they got home, what he had learned went into an unprecedented (for him) outpouring of technically ambitious paintings—voluptuous nudes, genre scenes, Mannerist compositions echoing Old Masters from Baldung to Parmigianino, and over-the-top inventions like his 2003 “Thanksgiving,” a virtuoso rendering of three Rachels in a Gothic interior, presiding over the largest and sexiest uncooked turkey in Western art. (The Whitney should have bought this picture, which was finished just in time for his three-museum retrospective; the Tate Gallery got there first, and it went to London instead.) He was teaching himself painting techniques that had been out of fashion for more than a hundred and fifty years. Currin is probably right when he says that his skill level doesn’t match that of a mid-level nineteenth-century painter, but he was improving all the time, and this put him ahead of just about every American painter in sight. The two-year dry period stopped him in his tracks in 2003. What got him out of it was the birth of Hollis, their second son, who arrived in 2005. “I suddenly felt better,” he said. “It made having kids feel normal. Being with Larry Gagosian also meant that we had more money, so we could have help.” He started a bunch of new paintings, among them the nude torso and “The Dane.”
“The Dane” hangs in the living room of John and Rachel’s spacious loft apartment in SoHo, which they moved into in 2004. They debated for some time before hanging it, because of the boys, but the picture isn’t all that racy (two women, one of them clothed), and it marked a new direction in Currin’s work. When three-year-old Francis saw it, he said, “What’s that?” Rachel, who believes in being direct with children, said it was a vagina, and Francis went, “Ewww,” and hasn’t paid any attention to it since.
These days, the Currins try to go out no more than three evenings a week. This isn’t always possible, because they are extremely popular, and the art world is ruthlessly demanding. Both of them get up at eight each morning and walk the children to their preschool. Rachel’s studio is in the same building as John’s, on the eighth floor, which means that she uses a different entrance and takes the elevator; this makes for what John calls a “prophylactic” separation, but they share a studio assistant and tend to drop in on each other frequently. At the forty-fifth-birthday party that Rachel threw for John in his studio last fall, the guests included Mick Jagger, Larry Gagosian, and most of the couple’s artist friends, who pitched in after dinner to sketch the nude odalisque that their hostess had thoughtfully provided.
In November, they took the boys on a four-day trip to Disney World, in Orlando, and got back in time to spend Thanksgiving, as usual, with John’s parents in Stamford. The elder Currins had also invited my wife and me. We got there around five in the afternoon. The Currin boys ran in and out of the cozy, lowceilinged living room, with its two grand pianos and comfortable sixties-era furniture. (One of the pianos and the picture window turned up in Currin’s painting of the three suburban housewives smoking cigars.) John’s sister Rachel was in charge of the turkey. There was a lot of contentious but good-humored talk and banter, Wasp style, with frequent interruptions. John announced that Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday, because it didn’t involve religion or conquering some other country. Rachel Feinstein, who loves to cook and does it so robustly that John has to work out at the gym every day to stay in shape, had brought the dessert—three pies from the Balthazar bakery.
During dessert, Rachel Currin went to one of the pianos and played, from memory, a Chopin mazurka that their mother used to practice late at night, when she and John were upstairs in bed. John remembered it vividly, but what really set him off was the ballade she played next, another familiar piece, whose general mood of depression is interrupted by a sudden hopeful chord. “It’s, it’s like the Chinese are not going to stop supporting the dollar after all,” John called out, to much laughter. “But then the mood of depression returns. The candles are lit, the family is drinking champagne, but in the morning they’re coming to take the furniture away.”
“I told you,” his sister Rachel said. “He always cracks me up.”
Throughout the fall, I visited Currin’s studio nearly every week to see how the big painting was progressing. Sometimes I would see no change, but then I’d notice that he had redrawn the position of a leg or put down a grid of lines in the foreground, where he planned to paint a tile floor, “maybe delft blue-and-white tile, with the kind of tilted perspective that you see in Quentin Massys or Rogier van der Weyden.” One day, the face of the middle figure sang out to me from across the room—he’d painted in the flesh tones. “When you put the color on, things become less realistic but more alive,” he said. This time, it hadn’t worked. He hadn’t built up the white underpainting enough, he said, so the color made her face look masklike and artificial. He would have to redo it, building up the yellow and white undercoat, and, when that dried, going back in with red and gray. A week later, this had been done, and he had changed the background, reverting to a reddish-gray undercoat. “It doesn’t look good now,” he said, “but a big part of painting is getting used to things not looking good while you work on them.”
“I’ve been pulling away from transparency lately, and trying to paint more directly,” he said on another occasion. A few minutes later, though, he was talking about the “nineteenth-century bias, where color and form are one, and painting becomes a kind of performance.” This was fine if you’re a good enough painter, he said, “but I’m not good enough to do that, and I don’t know anybody else who is, either.” When I asked which nineteenth-century artist had achieved the best results with direct painting, he said van Gogh, without question. “Van Gogh had absolute pitch in color, to a degree I’ve never seen in another artist. He could work in a key of green and find the full spectrum in that color. Nobody painting today has anything like it. In Vermeer, you feel light coming out of the dark parts, which is something you don’t see in other artists. The angels of painting—Titian, and the Venetians, and especially Velázquez—always painted with a wonderful combination of opacity and transparency. I’m luckyif I can get some transparency in my paintings, but if I try to get too much of that it becomes sentimental—I really mean effeminate.”
By early December, the interaction of the figures and their setting in the “Women of Franklin Street” painting was much more defined. The background had gone dark, with a red curtain sweeping across most of it. The face of the middle figure looked finished to me, and full of life. “Midway through the process, I decided she would be sort of an idealized figure, like a goddess,” Currin said. “I find myself-—with some of these new paintings—trying to move out of the porn thing. I know my dealers would like that—there’s a limited market for this stuff. And it bothers me that I can’t let the children come in here.” He described a terrifying dream he’d had, about deformed people having sex, and his children being somehow involved or endangered by it. “But it’s not so big a problem that I want to stop doing it,” he added. I asked him whether his parents knew he was still doing pornographic paintings. “They must know, because they haven’t asked me about it,” he said, and laughed. “Everybody’s going to breathe a sigh of relief when I move on.”
A week before Christmas, the painting suddenly came together. The body of the right-hand figure, indistinct until now, looked fully three-dimensional, with luscious flesh tones and a sensuous play of light and shadow on her belly. Currin had sketched in grisaille a still-life of bone-china cups and plates at the lower right, and he had turned the bed behind the three figures into a distinct presence, with a rumpled sheet and a curvy leg copied from his and Rachel’s flamboyantly rococo bed at home. Right now, he planned to concentrate on the three figures. “There’s not enough depth in them,” he said. The painting, he said, would not be in his upcoming show in London. Larry Gagosian had told me earlier that he would like to have this one himself—something dealers are inclined to say when they want to establish a record price.
Currin had agreed sometime earlier, rather reluctantly, to let me watch him paint, but somehow this had not happened. Today it did. He set up a palette, choosing three tubes of Robert Doak oil paint from a worktable piled high with several dozen others, and squeezing out small dollops from each. The colors were yellow ochre, vermillion, and Turkey umber, which registers as blackish green. From a lineup of liquid mediums in glass bottles, each of which had a different consistency and drying time, he selected a mixture of stand oil and balsam and poured a little of it into a small cup that was affixed to the palette. “And here’s the white I’m so excited about,” he said, squeezing from a larger tube of lead white. He went to work right away, dabbing a rather large bristle brush first into the white, and then the umber and the other two colors, mixing them quickly with a little of the oil medium on the palette, remixing until he had the brownish tone he was after, and then applying it to the leg of the central figure with quick, deft strokes. He walked back ten or twelve paces, looking, then added more vermillion and went over the section again, making it darker at the outside edge of the leg and lighter toward the middle.
I was surprised to see how fast he worked. After about ten minutes, the brownish pigment, applied over the white ground, had made its magical transition into live flesh. “I have about an hour before it gets sticky and becomes unworkable,” he explained. Now and then, he used his index finger to blur or blend the paint. “Say I want a sort of purply knee, slightly bruised or something,” he said. “I go in with black and red, maybe a little yellow.” He did so. He switched to a sable brush, much softer than the one he had been using, to work around the knee. “It starts to multiply, the grading of tones, until it becomes thousands of tones,” he reflected. “Some are accidental and some are intentional. It’s great when the accidental becomes indistinguishable from the intentional. That’s when it begins to seem like a living thing.” Watching him, it occurred to me that every brushstroke, every gradation in tone reflected a body of knowledge and a capacity for intuitive decisions that reached backward and forward in time. Also, that the art of figurative painting, which has been around for twenty thousand years or so, retains enough challenges to keep us enthralled for an additional millennium or two.
Currin stood back to look at what he’d done, then picked up a soft cloth and began wiping it off. The central figure’s legs, he said, would eventually be sheathed in green stockings. He had just been showing me how he worked.
The demonstration made me think of three other things he had said during our talks:
“The meaning of the painting is what you do with your hands.”
“The way things are painted trumps everything else.”
“So much art now doesn’t want to look like art, but painting can’t help it.” ♦
Link to Web Article – http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/01/28/080128fa_fact_tomkins?currentPage=all