Lot 39: JOHN CURRIN
Contemporary Art Evening Auction
November 11, 2009
New York, NY, USA
signed and dated 93 on the overlap
There are few painters today that revere the figure more than John Currin. His true genius lies in his ability to re-convert contemporary viewers to the luscious spectacle and grand tradition of painting through various reconsiderations of gender, particularly the female. Currin truly revived hyper-realist painting in the 1990s as he combined influences from Old Master painters with pedestrian contemporary commercial portraitists to achieve macabre and discomforting compositions. One of the artist's first paintings of couples and one of his few paintings of heterosexual couples, Old Couple from 1993 is an excellent example of Currin's desire to challenge just how viewers should look at a painting. There is a distinct eccentricity in the present work that is both mysterious and captivating. The two figures engage in an embrace yet seem to barely interact with each other or with the viewer. Currin is one of the most painterly figurative artists of his generation and truly draws on an anthology of portraiture styles as he establishes his own place in the canon of figure painting.
Currin was born in the same year as Roy Lichtenstein's first show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Lichenstein's career would change traditional perceptions of the American ideal of beauty, pulling sources from advertisements and comics and enlarging them in controlled, graphic renderings. The female, as subject, in the history of painting has consistently been refined and explored. Like Lichtenstein, Currin explored innovative ways to depict women in the context of his own time, also relying on accepted forms only to subvert them. His earliest paintings were based on portrait heads as in a high school yearbook, silent faces frozen in expression. Currin's 1992 one person show at Andrea Rosen Gallery consisted of small format paintings of mostly older women. These women were not the glamorized objects of desire that viewers were so accustomed toseeing as female archetypes.
Currin's career is driven by an interest in women and sexual desires. Even as the body ages and slips from life, Currin portrays women in a sexual manner. In the present work the old woman is in a short white nightgown that is being uncomfortably and seemingly unintentionally pulled up by her male companion. There is still a pin-up fantasy strangely lurking in the composition of this aging couple and a distinct focus on the woman rather than the man. In 1993 Currin asserted that "painting has always been essentially about women, about looking at things in the same way that a straight man looks at a woman...When I hold a brush, it's a weird object...as if part of the female sex has been taken and put on the end of this thing that is my male sex to connect with a yielding surface." (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, John Currin, 2003, p. 15) This painting is a direct precursor to Currin's pin-up paintings that would follow the next year, and it is clear that he is already thinking in that direction in Old Couple.
Culled from image banks of Renaissance art and American portraiture from earlier in the 20 (th) century, Currin found anatomical inventions that could translate successfully into modernity. Despite their coupling, the two figures in this painting are each immersed in their own world. Unlike other couples from Currin's body of work, this couple is age appropriate ? forcing the viewer to search even deeper for any incongruities. The characters in Currin's paintings invite amusement while also being sympathetic. Currin subverts the impulse to tell a story as. As objects of satire, the old couple in the present work also share elements with Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic from 1930; these paintings force the viewer to look at the depiction of an older couple in an awkwardly uncomfortable portrait that focuses on oddities rather than vanity or factual representation.
Currin's genius lies in his ability to create a window into an intimate moment while still keeping the viewer at a distance. Our vantage point here is oddly positioned below the figures, separating us in a filmic manner from any interaction with them. The figures are not contextualized in the composition ? rather they are pressed together in the center of the canvas against a blank background allowing the viewer to invent whatever narrative they wish. Currin often chooses to center his figures to create well balanced compositions. In his essay ``Boomerang'' from 1995, Keith Seward notes, "even when Currin began to paint couples, they tended to coalesce in a sort of black hole in the center of the canvas." (Exh. Cat., Limousin, Fonds-Regional-d'Art-Contemporain, John Currin, 1995, p. 44) The blank canvases are a stubborn silence forcing attention onto the figure. There are unresolved questions for the viewer: is the woman's forced expression delight or pain? She hugs the man while he stares blankly forward with little to no expression. This ambiguity of interpretation is exactly Currin's objective with the present work. Old Couple incorporates rare subject matter for the artist but brilliantly demonstrates essential elements of the thematic progression of Currin's oeuvre.
Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris
Giraud Pissarro Segalot, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Dimensions: 46 1/4 x 38 1/4 in. 117.5 x 97.2 cm.
Artist or Maker: JOHN CURRIN b. 1962
Exhibited: Paris, Galerie Jennifer Flay, Just What is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?, June - July 1993
Frédéric Paul and Keith Seward, John Currin: Oeuvres/Works 1989 - 1995, Limoges, 1995, p. 42, illustrated in color
Kara Vander Weg ed., John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 107, illustrated in color
Medium: oil on canvas