Old Masters, pornography, and the work of John Currin.
by Calvin Tomkins January 28, 2008
Calvin Tomkins, Profiles, "Lifting the Veil," The New Yorker, January 28, 2008, p. 58
PROFILE of painter John Currin. Writer describes a work-in-progress by Currin, a large canvas featuring an image whose immediate source was Internet pornography. Eight or nine other canvases were hanging in the studio. All but one showed naked or semi-naked people engaged in sex acts. Paintings derived from porn sites were prominent in Currin’s solo show at the Gagosian gallery last winter. “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it,” Currin said. Currin exemplifies the productive struggle between self-confidence and self-doubt. He is forty-five years old. His technical skills 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 to the mainstream. Writer has dinner with Currin and his wife, Rachel Feinstein, who is also an artist. Currin discusses how the porn-inspired paintings have helped him get out of the dry spell he went through after his 2003 retrospective at the Whitney. In his discussion, he relates his recent pictures to the controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (one of his recent paintings is called “The Dane”). Tells about Currin’s childhood. His family moved from California to Stamford, Connecticut when he was young. Currin took painting lessons from a Russian immigrant named Lev Meshberg, absorbing nineteenth-century techniques from him. He went to Carnegie Mellon University and then Yale. After Yale, he moved to Hoboken with his classmate Lisa Yuskavage and supported his art with handyman work. Though his paintings were primarily in the Abstract Expressionist mode, he became increasingly interested in figurative painting. Mentions a series of pictures based on yearbook photos. Also discusses a series of pictures of middle-aged, upper-middle-class women, which some critics thought mean-spirited. He was dating Andrea Rosen, who had opened her own gallery in 1990. Rosen put Currin in group shows. In 1997, his work was included in a show at MOMA. By 2003, collectors were lining up to buy his paintings. Writer describes Currin’s work on his large, porn-inspired painting, which he decided to call “The Women of Franklin Street.” He works slowly, completing no more than ten pictures in a good year. Describes how he met his wife, Rachel, and the effect meeting her had on his art. Tells about Currin’s interest in and use of Old Master techniques, especially underpainting. Writer visits Currin in his studio and watches him work. Currin tells him, “It’s great when the accidental becomes indistinguishable from the intentional. That’s when it seems like a living thing.”