I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Born in 1962, with solo exhibitions beginning in 1989, John Currin has pinpointed many surprising new directions of the 1990s. For one, he revived conventional art-school techniques of old-fashioned modeling, the kind familiar to long-ago American magazine illustration. For another, he depicted with this archaic, populist style equally old-fashioned American dreams of busty, smiling blondes. Yet he made this simpleminded material go awry, producing strange mutations of anatomy, emotion, and sex that turned into a personal world at once comic and grotesque. His source for these mutant creatures kept expanding and he began to borrow, for instance from the artificial anatomies of 16th century painting, as seen especially in the nudes of Lucas Cranach and the mannerists. A trip to “Currinland” is like science-fiction, in which most familiar things—old master paintings, girly photos, cheery ads for wholesome American products—are uncannily transformed into new kinds of humanoids. In his eerie universe, everything looks both commonplace and fantastic.
Robert Rosenblum When I first started looking at your work some 10 years ago, what particularly fascinated me was its weird relationship to American popular illustration from the ’30s and ’40s.
John Currin Like advertising?
RR Yes, advertising. Gorgeous blond girls with big tits and smiles—that period style. Is this part of your source material?
JC You know, I’ve noticed it, too, although it’s actually not part of my source material. American figurative painters by default end up with an exaggerated … It’s an American symptom to look like popular illustration.
RR The images seem like parodies of a typical ad for Wheaties, or …
JC If I make genre scenes, I almost always take the scenario, the tableau, from advertising.
RR But you use a very specific look that reminds me of old Saturday Evening Posts or Colliers, a lost world before 1945.
JC Right, Norman Rockwell.
RR Norman Rockwell.
JC I don’t consciously do it, but I guess it must happen. I don’t look at Rockwell that much. I did a painting of a doctor in his office and I noticed that it looked a lot like a Rockwell situation—a side view, flattened, modern space. The Rockwell paintings are modern in spite of themselves, and not for any progressive modernist reason, but to look good on a magazine cover. So, maybe some of my more modernist impulses are coming out of that sort of thing rather than Picasso and Braque.
RR What’s eerie about what you do, especially in the paintings that look like Pleasantville, is that the happy people come out so grotesque; the anatomy, the emotions, get warped. How do you approach the paintings?
JC It’s not intentional. I find things get weirder and more cartoony the more normal I try to make them look. It boils down to figuration as a kind of unnatural thing, against the grain of contemporary art. You already feel like you’re doing something silly, and maybe that puts you in a silly frame of mind. The worst thing, in my mind, anyway, is serious figuration. When I was in grad school that was always the domain of the married grad students or Christians who would be painting Hopper-esque psychological tableaus that always looked awful to me. At that time I was trying to be an abstract painter. As I later came to figuration, it was the whole enterprise of being nerdy and out of it that attracted me. Ten years ago, what would be taken seriously and considered smart, contemporary New York art was not figurative work. So I was already in a state of mind where nothing mattered; no one was going to take it seriously.
RR It’s funny, because when I hear what you say I think about certain parallels with Lichtenstein’s early works. One of the shocks of his early cartoon blow-ups was that the people in them—which you normally passed over because they were part of everyday life—were totally bizarre when looked at blown up and up close in his paintings. The anatomies were weird; the expressions were synthetic.
JC Lichtenstein always maintained a very clever irony. People in his paintings are acting out a modernist situation. You know, “I can see the room and there is no one in it,” its bubble caption commenting about it not being a proper, modernist painting. He saw that making figurative painting was basically a damned state, or an ironic state, banished from modernity. He was pretty dead on: the future of American figuration is this kind of damned state.
RR I’m glad you say that, because obviously your work looks totally different on the surface. His is built of flat color and benday dots, and yours uses more traditional modeling, but the feel of it—of looking at “Americana” fresh, and in quotation marks, really scrutinizing how creepy the emotions, the anatomies and the narratives are—this is something that you seem to be updating some 30 years later.
JC Americans back in the ’40s and ’50s were looking at the Italian Renaissance: that was the way you were taught to draw. I think that Lichtenstein saw that comics had that kind of Florentine perfection. The drawing was everything. Think about his black-and-white curtain paintings, or the ones of flowers—they are perfect and they are irreducible. I wasn’t drawn to that type of hard perfection. I am sort of now, but when I was trying to change myself into a figurative painter, I was more drawn to the rococo and the other damned souls of art history.
RR Getting back to American fantasies, I’m curious—were you ever involved with looking at the traditional pinup girls of the ’40s—like Petty girls or Vargas girls?
JC I never liked those much.
RR If you look at them afresh today, they have the same kind of strangeness as your figures do in terms of synthetic anatomy.
JC I never liked the way they were done. As a kid I had Frank Frazetta’s book. I did like that a great deal. I don’t know if you know him, but he did Conan the Barbarian-comic based, muscular women with really big breasts. They are painted in this French manner. The Vargas stuff I just never liked. I never liked the way they looked, I never liked the technique. I’m much more into the girly photographs from the ’60s magazines—the best one was Modern Man—just before Playboy wiped out that entire group. They’re not hardcore magazines. They had immensely beautiful photographs. The women were not as pretty as in Playboy but the photographs were absolutely gorgeous, old-fashioned looking color photographs. And they were beautifully done, the skin tones. I have a whole bunch of those and I look at them a lot. I don’t know whether I look at them because I like looking at naked ladies or because I want to get color ideas, or both.
RR This whole new ball game of sources and directions is such a complete flip-flop from the standard of Puritan beauty that was current when you were in art school. Speaking of girly photos, am I right in thinking that your distortions are far more common in your rendering of women than of men?
JC I mostly paint women. I’m more interested in looking at women than men in real life. But I paint distorted men probably more than distorted women. I think of men more as clowns and monsters than I do women.
RR Well, you follow Picasso in that 99 percent of his mutations are of women, but when he does his thing to a man, it usually comes out looking like some joker from a freak show.
JC Well, Picasso has trouble with men, and they are really weak. Actually, a lot of my favorite artists, Boucher and Fragonard—their men are terrible and their women are great. Especially Boucher, he had a real hard time with men. All of the 18th-century had a hard time with men.
RR I love hearing that you are a fan of Boucher and Fragonard because 20 years ago they were very low in the pecking order of which artists of the past were venerated.
JC Well, that was for political reasons, too. A lot of Marxists had influential positions in art history departments and they don’t like luxury; it seems immoral to them.
RR Looked at today, from the angle of vision you offer in your recreations of women, nude or clothed, Boucher is someone new. What becomes so fascinating about him are these weirdly erotic bodies, with their tiny heads and long legs—previews of Barbie dolls.
JC And everything being habitual. That’s the part that I can’t imitate, the utterly habitual positioning of the third finger, that kind of stuff. There are so many different systems that work in tandem automatically on the canvas. That’s why Lichtenstein was attracted to comics, that’s the only contemporary place you find that type of complicated machinery moving forward in unison in a picture. For some reason, I’ve never liked comics that much; they don’t entertain me. I think of drawing as an isolated, anxiety-ridden thing rather than the professional, sporting attitude of comic book drawing.
RR You seem to have a much wider range of anatomical possibility in the way you stretch and contract your figures compared with comics or even Boucher.
JC I used to really like Boucher and the rococo, but lately I’ve been thinking more about Northern art, and also Italian mannerism.
RR That brings up a question close to everybody’s heart today, especially mine, which is your relationship to old art history. People have noticed again and again, quite rightly, that many of your latest pictures look as though they are retakes on 16th-century painting, especially German painting, Cranach and the mannerists in particular. When did you come to that? If I’m not mistaken, originally these references were not there, they crept in.
JC Normally, I would have been reluctant to paint something so close to an old artist because people can easily compare what I do with them. Obviously my stuff isn’t going to be as good as Cranach’s, or rather, it wouldn’t be able to compete on his terms. And perhaps I hope that Cranach’s can’t compete on my terms. But in terms of sheer loveliness and beauty—I got married. It’s a lame excuse, but I got married and ever since I met my wife I’ve fallen off balance. Before I met my wife, I thought of myself as an expressionist artist who worked on negative expressionist impulses—anger, depression, and misery. Which is why I’ve always thought people were wrong to think that I was an ironic artist; repressed anger is different from irony. After I met my wife I no longer had the raw material of an expressionist artist. I just didn’t know how to paint for a while, and then once we got married, a kind of neutrality descended on me. I really just wanted to make things beautiful. I had no interest in constructing a painting out of its references or its ideas or out of its grudges. Grudge is a good word because I used to total up my grudges and think of pictorial allegories for them. That kind of resentment in my painting used to come naturally, and it doesn’t anymore. I went to Florence and Venice on my honeymoon, and when I came back I was so empty and so happy. I thought, Okay, I’ll paint a nude woman. I’ll make her body the way I want it and give it a black background. I don’t care if it’s old fashioned. So I did that for about two years and hardly ever got tired of it.
RR I hate to sound like a shrink but it sounds like the logical and happy progression from being a teenager to a grown-up.
JC Maybe. In a way it has this feeling—which is why I’m a little leery of it—of a rock-and-roll person who gets interested in orchestral arrangements. And that sucks. They decide to get grand and it turns horrible, like jazz fusion. On the other hand, you get better at painting as you do it. You can’t preserve the violence and freshness of your ignorance. I couldn’t do those middle-aged women now. They have a kind of concentrated energy that I can’t duplicate because I know how to paint so much better.
RR It’s true that they look as though they’re about to explode, even though every single thing is so tightly corseted.
JC I like those a lot, but I can’t do them over again because now I would be so distracted by other concerns that I am able to address. I hate to think that I can’t take a look at my older work. So in other words, I’ve realized my own fear and I have turned into a reprehensible jazz fusion Don Henley guy, but you can’t help that. There’s no way to get around it. In fact, it’s the most fascinating artistic problem—how real emotions survive in spite of, and because of, all the fakery.
RR I couldn’t help noticing as I was prowling around your studio that you seem to be doing a work that looks vaguely like contemporary American women but is a reference, a retake of a Courbet painting of a tavern scene called Game of Draughts.
JC Oh, I did that before you came over. It actually isn’t a retake of a Courbet, but as I was painting it I thought, Isn’t there a Courbet with card players? On the other hand, I do think about Courbet constantly, he’s a big artist for me.
RR I’m just wondering about the degree of old master recycling that your work has these days. Is it almost always a retake of something from the museums?
JC Honestly, it’s always me remembering an old master and combining it with contemporary ad images. Those are the two things that compel me. The misery and the damnation of the images that got into your head without your permission, the PC imagery and all these tableaus that are planted in your head about the way things should look: children, women, men, white people, black people, rich people, good people, evil people … I look at movies and these ubiquitous images and then combine that with—I hope it’s not just nostalgia, maybe it’s just because I paint—but the old paintings are really present in my head. So in other words, if I paint this daytime-TV image of women drinking, I naturally remember that Courbet painting. Courbet was on to something, if he can project forward and create a relevant picture for me.
RR Well, that’s a little more predictable to derive from Courbet—as he’s within our time zone—than you making something out of Cranach, who is the last artist one would think of.
JC I didn’t really derive physical things from Cranach. A nude woman on a black background is Cranach, but my style is different. What I got from Cranach is the unexpected replacing of lust with love. Look at the face and you’ll realize that it’s not a sexual painting; it’s a love painting. It’s not a lustful, carnal image at all. And it’s not psychological either. It’s celestial sweetness. That to me is what I admire about all of Cranach’s paintings. It’s a penetration into this incredible sympathy that is not psychological but is a guilelessness. And it has a kind of terror about it at the same time, some darkness; it’s a strange emotion.
RR Sounds very German to me. As a matter of fact, every now and then I see floating through your work an after-image of Grunewald—the smiling blond angels. But this reminds me, you seem to have created primarily an Aryan world of blondes with blue eyes. How do you explain this? Does it have to do with your connections to German painting, or to an American ideal?
JC No. My wife is blond and blue eyed; I am, my sisters, my entire family is. It’s a default. If I were to pick another version of myself in female form—which is partly what you do in painting—when I was with women before my wife, I would tend to paint their particular hair color.
RR From the point of view of an outsider your world is a completely Scandinavian, Germanic race. It has about it a kind of exotic, other-planet feeling.
JC It’s not meant to be a specific ethnicity. Sometimes I think, What ethnicity should the woman in the middle be in this painting? Should she be black? Should she have dark hair, pink skin, brownish or olive skin? It’s awful to say this, but it’s what color is going to look best for the painting. You think about how we are supposed to respond to ethnicity—but I find it more and more difficult to think in that social way for the work. My art got better when I got dumber and I started thinking in terms of colors and shapes and what would look good rather than a complicated arrangement of second guessing a social response. I used to think about what class the middle-aged women were. I just don’t think about that stuff anymore. Hair color has more to do with what looks good on the painting. It’s always the dumbest reasons.
RR To make it look better is the best of all possible reasons. I’m curious to know if there are any artists working today whom you feel a particular kinship with, who are doing similar things, who are on your wavelength?
JC Well, my friends.
RR Can you name names?
JC Sean Landers and Richard Phillips are people I talk to and have known for 15 years and even if our work doesn’t look alike, it is more the attitude—what to be serious about, what not to be serious about. George Condo is a wonderful artist. I always love how he’s unfashionable but really good. He makes silly paintings that when you look at them you realize how cool they are. They inspire me. My wife, Rachel Feinstein, is my biggest visual influence—her sculpture, her art, her attitude.
RR I love hearing you say this because as singular as you are—after all, one recognizes your work instantly—it’s always good to think about how you belong to a group of artists who share things.
JC Sean Landers and I have shared studios since the late ’80s. You have a compulsion to be in the studio, but you can’t work all day—so you talk. The basic tenet was to follow our pleasure in art rather than having a big intention about what to make with art. What do you want to do? What’s fun to do? What’s the lowest common denominator rather than your highest, noblest intentions? What’s your shameful tendency—that’s the real engine of your art. In my case, drawing girls constantly …
RR With enormous tits, in some cases.
JC Whatever lustful or low urges, but that’s what’s going to give you the most energy. Specifically it was, Don’t make so-called contemporary art. Be yourself. Give yourself the most pleasure. That’s the reason to be an artist. You don’t have a job. You don’t have to show up anywhere on time. It stands to reason that you can do anything you want to. It’s such an obvious point, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know that and make art for somebody else.
RR That’s a terrific wrap-up. It explains you, and may also set other artists on a better career path than they have at the moment. Be true to yourself; and it worked. That’s the bottom line.
Robert Rosenblum is a Professor of Fine Arts at New York University and curator at the Guggenheim Museum. His latest book is On Modern American Art: Selected Essays (1999); his latest exhibition, 1900: Art at the Crossroads (2000).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee