Drawings of a New ‘Old Master’

“I know Warhol is a great artist,” John Currin has said, “but I don’t like him. It’s the kind of art that advertises that he knows the doorman at the club.”

John Currin has also said, of his career, “It’s not a quest for money.”

Mr. Currin’s work is back at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, where he got his start, but these are not the paintings that have made him famous and rich. Those are now dealt exclusively by Larry Gagosian, the gallery to which Mr. Currin jumped as his traveling mid-career retrospective in 2003-04 raised his prices tenfold.

This is instead a mostly loaned show of Mr. Currin’s works on paper; at a time of widespread gallery closings, there is some obvious wisdom in reattaching the gallery to one of its most famous artists. The show is titled, as if to court some of the controversy that surrounded Mr. Currin’s work almost two decades ago, “A Fifteen Year Survey of Women.”

Yes, there was a time (arguably a simpler one) when John Currin was thought to be antipathetic to women. In 1989, after getting his M.F.A. at Yale, he showed for the first time in New York, a series of paintings based on yearbook portraits; three years later, he had his first solo show, at Andrea Rosen. The paintings, nudes of middle-aged women, arrived like a spitball from the back of the class in an era of political correctness and culture warfare. Kim Levin in The Village Voice famously declared, “Boycott this show,” and a star was born, a star which burned more brightly with each critic’s invocation of Mr. Currin’s “misogyny.”

But 2009 is, to say the least, not 1992. His work is now more lauded for its tireless references to art history—from the Old Masters to 1950s pinups—than derided for any misogynistic undertones. By now, even Ms. Levin is on board, having reversed herself on the occasion of his 2003 retrospective. “Our premier mannerist,” she called him, and “the most profound observer of the follies, foibles, and deformations of our shallow times.” So thorough was Mr. Currin’s success by 2003 that she had to exaggerate the self-evidence of her “Boycott this show” error: “I was wrong, of course.”

This new selection of drawings concentrates on the ’90s and has no work from after the retrospective; the show culminates in five studies for Currin’s 2003 masterpiece, Thanksgiving. Indeed, the works on paper are overwhelmingly directly related, and subordinate, to Mr. Currin’s paintings. This is one way in which he’s indisputably more an Old Master than a contemporary artist; perhaps he’s also a canny businessman, loath to glut the secondary market with stand-alone drawings when the paintings are the real draw.

The show contains memorable drawings of the two extraordinary images Mr. Currin has created: an ineffably sad, beautiful picture of a girl gesturing to her shirt, which has a large heart-shaped cutout; and Thanksgiving, an end-of-empire trio of emaciated women, the center figure with her mouth gaping open, ready to receive a piece of uncooked turkey offered by one of the others. The drawings don’t add appreciably to our understanding of his work or practice, but, with softer lines and gentler, sketchier imagery than the sometimes hyperrealistic paintings, they do participate in a general smoothing-over of Mr. Currin’s reputation that might make him easier to take for some collectors. As the catalog for Sotheby’s November 2008 contemporary art auction stated, “[Currin’s] paintings are less about socio-political commentary and more about the beauty and form of the female body.” Far from the artist you boycott, he’s now the one you go home with.

Mr. Currin was born in 1962. In that catalog last November, Sotheby’s reminded us that this was “the same year as Roy Lichtenstein’s first show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.” This seems an odd and irrelevant coincidence until you are reminded that Sotheby’s at the time was trying to sell paintings by both. There is no other artist as completely a creation of the New York art world as John Currin. He has the flawless technique. He has the content, edgy enough to be heard over the din but studiously silent on any real “socio-political” question. He has the dizzying roster of art-historical references, the identification of which has metastasized into a parlor game. No one’s work more perfectly reflects the mores and aesthetics of the gallery set, and there’s no one for whom a show at Castelli serves better as a sort of astrological marker of his birth.

And the best evidence of that: His is surely one of the most financially successful non-quests for money on record. The Currin being sold by Sotheby’s ended up going for $5.5 million, within spitting distance of one of those Lichtensteins.


  Drawings of a New ‘Old Master’