Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

John Currin

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

March 22, 2009
The greatest advantage to a blog is that I can write about a show I haven’t seen and don’t intend to see (I’ll use my broken foot, now mending nicely, thank you, as an excuse, although I’ve probably seen all the Lisa Yuskavage paintings I need to in one lifetime). But I will use it as an opportunity to rail against the idea that an artist’s gender, or his/her intention or surmised intention, political or otherwise, has anything to do with the aesthetic value of a work of art. What if we suddenly found out that all of Yuskavage’s paintings had been done by Russ Meyer? Or the seven dwarfs? What if they weren’t on exhibition at David Zwirner, but some of the “unique images” offered by Arcadia Fine Arts? What if Yuskavage had been trained, not at Yale, but by a Bob Ross certified instructor? What would that change, really?

I found a Washington Post interview from 2007 that delineates thought pro and con about Yuskavage, and then this, from Jerry Saltz’s latest piece in New York:

The same bogus arguments come up every time there’s a Lisa Yuskavage show. Is her work feminist? Is she, oy, “critiquing the male gaze?” At the opening of Yuskavage’s current solo outing, I was standing between two paintings: Figure in Interior, a picture of an anorexic nude on her knees with her legs akimbo, shaved vulva exposed, white cream/semen dripping from her face onto her breasts; and Reclining Nude, a picture of a recumbent girl in a glowing green glen, her breasts pointing in two directions, legs splayed to expose pink genitalia protruding from blonde pubic hair. A well-known museum curator sidled up and swooned, “Lisa’s paintings are as rich as Vermeer’s and Boucher’s. They’re as sumptuous as the background of the Mona Lisa.” I blinked silently until she mentioned Courbet. Then I bitchily snipped, “If you think these paintings have that kind of mojo, you’ve either never looked at those paintings or you know nothing about painting—which I’ve written about you.” We smiled at each other and parted. I love the art world.

While I don’t necessarily draw the same conclusions as Saltz about what is important now, we agree, that with the social and economic changes of the last few months, the era of forced cynicism, as evidenced by Murakami, Hirst, Koons, Prince and others, including Yuskavage (and perhaps Currin), may have come to a close. It’s not enough to make work that comments on art; we want the real thing.
January 28, 2008
This week in The New Yorker (January 28, 2008) Calvin Tomkins writes about John Currin and his pornographic paintings, a new group to be exhibited in London at the Sadie Coles gallery in March. It made me think of Currin’s show around this time last year at Gagosian uptown, which I went to see only at the last minute. While many people I respect, including Peter Schjeldahl, have long thought that Currin is an important artist, I never got it. When once, in conversation, Schjeldahl mentioned how much he admired Currin’s technical ability, I began wonder have we, in the art world, such low expectations that ability comes as a surprise? In the field of illustration it’s a given—you can’t get in the door without it—and to compound the problem for me, Currin’s style has always seemed uncomfortably close to that of illustrator C.F. Payne who, having worked for TIME and Rolling Stone, is now doing the back covers of Reader’s Digest and threatening to turn into the Norman Rockwell of our time.

I believe execution is only one component of painting, and important only to the degree that it supports the content. God knows, painters with great technical ability have been using it in the service of poor image choices since the beginning of painting. Ideally, in painting or any form of art, execution and concept should merge so completely that we’re no longer aware of either; we’re not thinking, “How did he do that?” or “What a cool idea!” but are one with an experience that goes beyond words, beyond thinking.

Therefore Currin’s technique didn’t interest me because his content didn’t interest me; I found it cynical, mannered, and soul-less in the extreme. And when I read that this most recent show was “long on pornography,” getting on the Lex to see it began to seem even more like an effort not worth undertaking. Am I anti-porn? Not necessarily, although it’s not an active part of my life, and whatever prurient interest it may once have held has been dulled by the sheer amount of it in galleries. That, plus the waves of porn-derived art that seem to hit, every few years, the schools in which I occasionally teach, have left me pretty porn-ed out. I feel about porn the way I do about Christmas music, which is that over-exposure has rendered me incapable of mustering any response whatsoever.

So the Currin exhibition had three strikes against it—besides being Currin, it was uptown and pornographic—until I read a short panegyric by Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, accompanied by a tiny reproduction of a straight-forward portrait of the artist’s young son, one of two such paintings in the exhibition, which Schjeldahl described simply as “ravishing.” It was enough to get me on the subway.


And it was worth it. The two small paintings, interspersed inexplicably among graphically sexual ones (since I don’t believe in psychoanalyzing artists or attempting to guess their intentions, I’m not going to comment on this bizarre aspect of the exhibition), were painted with all the attention and tenderness of Chardin, and indescribably beautiful. Taking up the challenge in the artists’ adage that the hardest subjects to paint are sunsets and babies, Currin’s skill enabled him to avoid the obvious trap of sentimentality; far from sappy, these paintings are lovingly observed and alive with all of the aching delight of parenthood. They were enough to make me swallow my words and admit to myself (and now, finally, to Schjeldahl) that Currin is, or rather can be, a wonderful painter.
Time changes things in weird ways, so now the truly radical act is to paint something close to your heart—in this case, your infant son. I’m reminded of a conversation between Gerhard Richter and Rob Storr, the curator of Richter’s 2002 exhibition at MoMA, as it was recorded in Art in America:

RS: There is another body of work which is perhaps more surprising than the landscapes in certain ways—the paintings you made in 1995 of your wife and young child. These are very unexpected paintings.

GR: Maybe because there are so many of them.

RS: Both the number and the subject.

GR: The subject? Because there are children in the painting?

RS: Yes

GR: I can’t quite understand why this should be so extraordinary.

RS: It’s unexpected because it seems very private.

GR: Very private, yes. The only difference is that I have become more shameless. I am not as ashamed anymore, and I am not afraid anymore. My fears have abated somewhat. I don’t feel as if I have to behave properly. Somehow I finally understood that I am allowed to do what I want.


I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and start painting their kids—that would be awful. But I am saying that forms of art other than those recognized by the academicized avant garde may still be relevant, and that there are more possibilities for content than that derived from the media, a trend that has gone on at least twenty-five years too long. It just happens that I’m reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and came across a quote from composer Morton Feldman who said something like, “What looks radical may be conservative and what seems conservative may be radical” (I’ve lost the exact reference and will correct it when I find it). And this paragraph (p.354):

“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” wrote the French poet Charles Peguy in 1910. Morton Feldman, the maverick modernist who loved Sibelius, applied this epigram to twentieth century music, describing how grandiose ideas are made ordinary with the passage of time and become fodder for a power struggle among ideologues and pedants. “Unfortunately for most people who pursue art, ideas become their opium,” Feldman said, “There’s no security to be one’s self.”