John Currin Revisited


I feel betrayed by John Currin. I went to his show, I enjoyed it, I gave it a positive review. I was willing to give John that much, which so many people -- aside, I guess, from high-end gallery directors -- haven't been willing to give him. And then he went and ruined it. Some anonymous person -- I'd like to think it was Currin himself -- commented on my review that they'd found John's source material for a number of the paintings in his show. And it was online Danish porn scanned from magazines from the 1970s. (Amusingly, such images, once fairly mainstream hardcore pornography, are now relegated to the "hairy" niche.)

I spent a while trying to figure out why I felt betrayed by this. Clearly it's not because Currin used photos as a painting reference; I've reviewed painters who lean much more heavily on photos -- Denis Peterson and Mary Henderson -- and not only did I like their work, I absolutely adored it. It's not that he didn't take the photos himself or that he found them online; Mary found all of her photos online and doesn't even personally know the photographers. It's not that Currin was a slave to the photos; just like Denis and Mary, John changed details around and modified compositions as he saw fit.

And yet still I feel betrayed. Almost as betrayed as I did when I found out that Roy Lichtenstein was a thief, fraud, and shameless huckster. He not only borrowed the images of his most famous paintings from the work of better, more accomplished craftsmen, but he copied them almost precisely. I never had a whole lot of respect for Lichtenstein, but learning about this pretty much wiped out the rest.

Clearly what John Currin has done is not in this league. So it took me a little bit of thought to determine what bothered me so much about his copying. And then I realized: It's about intent. It's about depth. It's about soul.

Both Denis and Mary do what they do in an attempt to elevate their subject matter. Denis works with the photographs and tries to empathize with their subjects, to use his painting to somehow change the very fabric of the universe so he can transmit his care and love and attention to the people and places he portrays. He is trying, the way only an artist can, to suspend and rewrite mundane physics to change the world. Mary, meanwhile, is finding the glowing center of being human, energizing and enriching simple, banal, meaningless photographic moments until they are imbued with the power of lives as they are being lived.

Meanwhile John Currin is copying pornography. And not particularly well, either. As one commenter wrote after my review, now that we know he worked from photos, Currin has no excuse for how badly he drew the hand. Or any of the other piss-poor passages.

I don't know if I would mind quite as much if Currin were using the photos as references. We've all done that. I can even point you to a painting of mine online where I used online porn as a guide. But there's a difference between referencing a photo and copying it.

Danish Porn from John Currin, The Dane, 2006, oil on canvas, 48x32 inches

The second one is less obviously a copy because Currin made two copies, one shown here and a second painting, not available online, which is more directly a copy, with the hairy open vulva and all. But you can see he copied over the guy's gold chain, the woman's glove and bracelet, their rather frighteningly organic tongues. You can see he shifted the guy's hand over, too, and really, really badly, like maybe he'd never seen a real human hand before, but heard about them somewhere.

Danish Porn from John Currin, Kissers, 2006, oil on canvas, 23x25 inches

There's also a matter of resources: It seems to me that a painter of the stature of John Currin could have found himself some real models to work from, or had his own photos taken at the very least. Maybe part of the point he's trying to make required that he repurpose ancient pornography -- it's almost as old as I am! -- but, if so, I'd say that's even more asinine and worthless. What point is there worth making about old porn?

Maybe I'm taking this too personally. Maybe I feel invested in Currin's work because I stepped up and wrote positively about it. Maybe it's because, back in the fur behind those two society women, I saw in his swirling brushwork echoes of my own drawing and it scares me to think I could end up like an unfamous John Currin myself. Maybe I'm just jealous that he can get all this attention simply for copying online porn and people like me can't get a break.

Or maybe, ultimately, John Currin really is just a bad painter. And he duped me. Thank you, you anonymous browser of online pornography, for opening my eyes.


These are some of the worst reviews I've ever read. I know High School students with a better understanding of art that this clown.

Last night's weatherperson on NBC gave me a great idea for my clown name: Patchy Ice Pockets.

"Hey, kids, I'm Patchy Ice Pockets! Who wants a balloon hat?"

I nearly shocked with my morning coffee. Waiting for a moment alone in the house to have a proper look later!

What are the chances of someone stumbling across those images online and recognizing that they were the images that John Currin used. Maybe this anonymous post was from an insider, someone close to Currin, or maybe Currin was googling his own name, reading his reviews, and he decided to reveal his dirty little secret.

When I went to the show, I was a bit surprised at some of the subject matter. I'm not talking about technique, just subject matter. I asked myself, "Why is he painting porn? Is the artist trying to shock the art world?" I don't know, it just seems like there wasn't much to be gained by choosing that imagery.

I've heard from the person who found the images. At least, I think I have. It's hard to be certain. I wish it was Currin -- that'd be really amusing -- but it isn't.

I'm the person who found these.
I did not have an agenda; I was not looking for them, which is why I think it happened. It was happenstance that I found them while cruising some porn sites. I like a lot of people look at online porn from time to time, and I also know Currin's work. I came across the page at random, which happens a lot when you ogo to porn sites as they all link to other ones in an arbitrary way.
I saw the thumbnails and thought that they looked like I had seen them somewhere before. I did and I gave the link to Chris.

Has John currin made any reply or public acknowledgement about his source material? Is this written about anywhere?

not to my knowledge. I don't think it matters. He can do what he wants to.
The issue for me is that these paintings are just like everyday illustration. His gallery sells them to rich idiots and everyone is happy.

A friend sent me an e-mail message with a pointer to Currin's concurrent show in Detroit at the Museum of New Art. He claims "Actually the figures in my New York show are painted from many of these photographs," which is kind of amusing, since we found at least four of his paintings (and I strongly suspect at least two more) out of maybe twenty in the show are from thirty-year-old published photos. The authors of which, I should note, are not credited in any way. If Currin at least stepped up and acknowledged his sources -- and maybe paid a royalty -- I'd probably be less angered.

Hans Bieterling, as hopeless a suck-up as I've ever read, actually has the nerve to write, " other recent attempts in this new millennium have so clearly lionized sexual transgression to such an elegant degree."

Sexual transgression? Hetero pornography from 1977 is transgressive? It wasn't even transgressive when it was made. About the only thing up there you can't get for a small fee at your local 7-11 or over your satellite or cable TV -- provided by such blue chip companies as AT&T -- the only thing that isn't beamed into millions of American homes is the luxurious pubic hair of the women.

I expected the security guard to be shocked and scandalized by the show when I spoke to him. In my effete snobbery, I thought the rubes would balk at such obvious hardcore porn being presented as high art. What an idiot I was -- I forgot that porn is mainstream now. It's an over $11 billion a year business in the Puritan United States.

You know, I think I'm going to have to stop discussing this. It's just making me nuts.


Currin openly admits to this, not that it matters....

do your homework.

I hardly think that, in this day, porn is "shocking". It has beem used in art for a long time and is such a part of our society that convention seems to be more appropriate.

whats up with the washed up quasi-Greenbergian crit?

Who cares the thing is this guys work is completely devoid of anything interesting. Who cares what he ripped off to make these paintings. The paintings are just banal, and sarcastic and seem to point to the fact that Currin just lacks anything relevant to say.

The link to the NY times says nothing on the sources. That they are form 70's porn and he merely copied them just backs up my assertion that this artist lacks any original thought.

I'm not going to discuss John Currin any more, but I wanted to respond to this anonymous comment:

whats up with the washed up quasi-Greenbergian crit?

I've never read a word of Greenberg, but I'm prepared to take any comparison with him as an insult.

Wow Chris! I'm glad you outed this shit.

But let's not forget that art is always a mirror of current times and standards, and Currin's reflection is an excellent window into the toxic brew of contempt for women.

A discussion of the formal qualities and successes of Currin's painting skill does seem a little weird, given that it seems almost irrelevant to his conceptual ideation -- which in itself is a total failure.

But you gotta give the guy this much, he's been very successful at pissing everyone off, which seems to be his intention. So he get's an A for that.

Slightly off topic, at least he left in the public hair of old (based on the images here; I didn't see the show). I'm tired of the currently fashionable pre-adolescent hairless pussy look. And I'm not just talking about porn (which I don't peruse much of). I'm talking about all the waxing going on in the real world. Ouch!


Oriane sez:
I'm tired of the currently fashionable pre-adolescent hairless pussy look.

I don't entirely understand why some women seem to associate "hairless pussy" with "pre-adolescent" or "pre-pubescent." Seems to me it could just as easily be "reduced surface area for harboring odor-causing bacteria" or "decreased chance of pubic-hair flossing following vigorous oral sex."

Also, some women seem to think that if women were left entirely to themselves, they'd all happily grow pubic hair down to their knees. This is incorrect. Some women remove their pubic hair because they don't like it, not because the men in their lives give a crap. It's infantilzing the female gender to say that all of their personal hygiene choices are due to the patriarchy.

Not, Oriane, that you said any of these things. You just triggered a mini-rant I've been percolating for a while.

And as far as the goose/gander issue, let me tell you: If I didn't have so damned much body hair -- to the extent that it's infeasible to remove it all (I have enough trouble keeping my face shaved) -- I'd get rid of it all, too.

"to the extent that it's infeasible to remove it all" Yes, it is hard to remove, and painful! I didn't say it, but I'll say it now. The hair removal thing IS due in large part to the patriarchy (although there are always other factors, and in individual cases, personal preferences). But even these personal preferences come largely from the culture. We have internalized what is considered beautiful and what is considered ugly, vulgar, course, unfeminine in our culture, so naturally we ourselves want to get of that hair. I have actually heard men (more than one) say that they would not have sex with a woman who was "au naturel" as one put it. Granted, a lot of men don't care, but the beauty standard is out there.

"to the extent that it's infeasible to remove it all" Yes, it is hard to remove, and painful! I didn't say it, but I'll say it now. The hair removal thing IS due in large part to the patriarchy (although there are always other factors, and in individual cases, personal preferences). But even these personal preferences come largely from the culture. We have internalized what is considered beautiful and what is considered ugly, vulgar, course, unfeminine in our culture, so naturally we ourselves want to get of that hair. I have actually heard men (more than one) say that they would not have sex with a woman who was "au naturel" as one put it. Granted, a lot of men don't care, but the beauty standard is out there.

Oops, double post monster in action.

ps between your post and mine, I was removing some hair before my date tonight because yes, I'm a brainwashed pawn of the patriarchy.

NYT: You also like to work from old photographic sources. Where do you find some of this stuff?

JC: It first happened by accident. Somebody gave me three boxes of old Playboys from the seventies. The ads in those days were just better. Lately I’ve pulled some things off the Internet, old Danish porn. The crappier my source material, the more it frees me up.

NYT: In this show, there are a few paintings based on hard-core pornography.

JC: It’s not a shock tactic. In every art school in the world there’s a guy doing porn. As a failed shock tactic, that’s kind of interesting to me.

So he does it not as a shock tactic, but as quoting a failed shock tactic? That sounds like a sneaky way to deflect criticism, to say I know it's bad; that's why I did it, or it's ironically bad; that's why it's good.

Anonymous 11:30: A) It's not the New York Times you're quoting, but New York magazine. The New York Times is a respected publication; New York magazine is a rag. B) The link to the interview was already posted. We didn't need the reprint.

For those of you unable to cut and paste, here's the New York magazine interview with John Currin. It was conducted by Karen Rosenberg.

hey guys...gals...let's acknowledge both sides of the hair issue. I know a lot of men who have gone through the "hair plug" process, which I guess is an improvement over the comb the hair from the back over to the front and around the side fashion still common among some. I did know some men who were balding and could not go out in public without a hairpiece. And what has this to do with (pubic) art? Well....I guess we are slaves to the total recollection of what culture has installed in us. The prehistoric amoeba and paramecium lived nice simple lives. Eat, eat, eat, and be eaten.( I am not sure why I bothered to say any of this).

Currin's work is DOA. Lets move on please.

What is the big deal about copying these images from the internet? Except for someone who has never studied contemporary art, everyone knows things are swiped, copied and stolen. Just because there are some aspects of Currin's work that you think you could have done better, the point is HE DID IT. You are sitting at home criticizing him. If you have such a great desire to be a famous artist and you think Currin is such a bad painter, why don't you get off your ass and make some paintings. It's so easy! Just take your slide sheet to Gagosian...I'm sure they'll give you a show.

As far as about beating a dead horse. The guy did something different for his time and he did it well. Yes, the original comic book source material was great to begin with, but there's something about artistic intent. The comic book artists who he copied were not making huge paintings. The context of the work is very important. I'm a huge comic book fan and I would love to see the original art of comics getting more respect and museum surveys, which it is starting to. But Lichtenstein still did something interesting.

Getting back to Currin, he never claimed to be an artist who drew anatomically correct, and as far as I can tell, he goes out of his way to make things look weird. Are we going to criticize Ingre's for painting too many spine bones in "La Grande Odalisque". This isn't photography and it isn't anatomical drawing.

Anonymous Coward 11:07 sez:
Except for someone who has never studied contemporary art, everyone knows things are swiped, copied and stolen.

Everyone knows things are swiped, copied, and stolen. You don't need to study contemporary art -- as if it was worthy of study in any case -- to know this. Everyone knows this, but not everyone accepts this. There's a difference. You, apparently, accept theft. I do not.

...the point is HE DID IT. You are sitting at home criticizing him. If you have such a great desire to be a famous artist...why don't you get off your ass and make some paintings.

Clearly you haven't been reading along. I do make paintings. I'm not just sitting at home criticizing Currin; I'm painting, I'm showing my work to people, I'm working my way up. In fact, moron, every non-anonymous person who has commented on this post -- Jim Wolanin, Nancy Baker, Jeff Freedner, Oriane Stender, Angela Ferreira, and Danny -- is a working artist. At least three of them have had real live gallery shows.

The context of the work is very important.

Ah, the cry of the pathetic, talentless idiot excusing theft and fraud to explain their "art."

Its not a debate about abstraction versus realism or modern versus traditional. These terms are loaded and ambiguous. Moreover, I cannot refute what someone likes or dislikes. We are all moved by different things. Taste can be naive or informed; it is a product of both nature and nurture. Yet why we like certain things can be a mystery. Taste is interesting but it is not enough.

For example, classical painting inspires me and I can look at an Ingres for hours. I am bored to tears by Ellesworth Kelley. My taste, here, is irrelevant to the debate, though. Moreover, I can't imply that I am virtuous, that I "see" more deeply than another. That is the domain of the oracle, the charlatan and the soothsayer. Also, the domain of great hubris. Instead, I have to support my position with complete examples. There has to be evidence beyond consensus or personal feelings.

One must think critically about art. Asking whether or not a piece of art communicates effectively is one important question. The term effective must be defined so that it is consistent. Another, yes, asks if the artwork is well designed, well painted etc. We understand these things through experience, our own skills and our two lying eyes, as Rob would say. If we rely on mysticism, pretending there is a subtext when nothing suggests such a thing in the image itself or rely on instinct alone rather than critical judgment and reason, we are treading dangerous waters. Then, art is nothing more than an ersatz religion and our museums, the Branch-Davidian compound.

I advocate instead for a return to reason, knowledge, skill and complexity. I advocate for the finished picture instead of endless experiments. This can be applied to any direction in art. Think about the elaborate yet abstract designs of Persian Rugs or Islamic enamel. Then think about Vermeer's paintings. These are products of skill, thought and experience. How can one then say that the artists who create such wares didn't "feel" deeply, that feeling was only a modern invention. Beauty, I think, implies profound feeling. It certainly suggests respect for others, a sense of community. Moreover, completion, finish, implies courage, the fortitude to see something to its end.

Finally, I cannot equate progress with novelty. Art certainly changes, new ideas arrive and are proffered; but who but the most diehard modernist would suggest that Picasso eclipsed or improved on Michelangelo? Progress fits comfortably well with empirical and the scientific. After all, science is testable. By contrast, Art can give no such certainty. Today's artistic theories rarely offer anything more than obscurity engendering more obscurity ad absurdum. They too far afield of experience. To progress, we must have transparency and applicability. By applying the wisdom of the past, we can arrive at new conclusions, which, by contrast to modern theories, edify, enlighten and ennoble. Wisdom creates wisdom and we are noticeable better off than before.

Graydon Parrish.

The above was writen in responce to a person asking a question on Modernism and Post-modernism.

I thought it would be good to post as it does a real good job of explaining my views and is writen so well.

Count me in for another non-anonymous painter who thinks that Currin is garbage, and not particularly worthy of discussion beyond that.

Is Painterdog's previous posting a valid expression or is he a thief?

Hey, that no talent Michelangelo made that dumb statue with a really big left hand. Artist my ass!!! And whats up with the Ingres and the super-long necks?

I'm done feeding the troll. I suggest everyone else stop, too.

awww...whats the matter chrissy-poo? Can't take any more NEGATIVE CRITICISM?

How am I a thief? Graydon's words are from a forum that I am a member of and I know him. I would be a thief if I took credit.

You should grow up get a life.

Read the words, they are an intelligent viewpoint that I think is worth putting into this discussion.

I can't write as well as him and I think what he says is how I feel and think on this subject. Is that OK wiwth you, or are you so ingnorant that you can't deal with the idea of people using other sorces.

However anonymous 9:50 your juvenile response is what I would expect. Please try to grow up or maybe do everyone a favor and find a nice bridge and jump.

Your viewpoints on art and art history are guided by what I perceive as an uneducated buffoon.

If you knew anything about the David it was desiged that way, as the statue was to be on a high pedestal and viewed from below, thus giving the impression of being colossal and in proper proportions.

The Ingres was also meant to hang up above eye level. You should read more it might help your arguments.

awww...whats the matter chrissy-poo? Can't take any more NEGATIVE CRITICISM?
Now you are proving yourself to be an idiot.

This is not personal, why are you trying to lower this to the level of a bar fight.

In my quoting Mr. Parrish I am merely using his words to expand on my own viewpoints.

I happen to think most of Currin's work is based on a hatred of humanity, much like yourself.
Maybe that is why you like his work, you are incapable of standing before an Ingres and enjoying not only his command of his medium, bit of his command of humanity and the ability to express it through the people he paints.

A true product of the post-modern world, you’re rude, unable to use critical thinking and seem to be an un-educated rube, how original.

Hey man, I was just asking a pretty legitimate question based on the conversation about artists "copying" or using source material.

That's what a blog is for, conversation right?

I don't think I need to off myself anymore than you need to.

-Jennifer Anoupoulus
Astoria, Queens, NY


Hey Painterdog, if I bend over and fart in front of you will you ravenously sniff my ass?

Sorry Jennifer Anoupoulus I was thinking that you where the same anon as the one who thinks being a rude ass is interesting and funny.

My appologies but it is hard to tell who is saying what when one is anonymous.

Hey Painterdog, if I bend over and fart in front of you will you ravenously sniff my ass?

Now you’re showing everyone that not only are you a complete un-educated fool but that you also have the mind and intelligence of a six year old with learning disabilities.

What's your problem, your mommy not tuck you in at night when you where little? Did she not breast feed you or something?

Geez, I turn my back for like half a day and you people go batshit all over my blog. I'm going to start deleting comments if all we're going to do is call each other names.

Painterdog, I have a lot of patience for you, but for the record: My mommy didn't breastfeed me, I personally know a six-year-old with learning disabilities, and, most importantly, you're feeding the troll. Not a recommended activity. See "troll" in the Jargon File and "Troll (Internet) on Wikipedia.

Note that I am replying to you, PD, not the troll.

Hey Painterdog...why do you reply to idiots in their own language?
Methinks the idiot gave you a rise.

hmmm Ok Chris.
I'm done. Have a good life.

Hey I'm no idiot.
I know logic: If you are PainterDOG then that makes your moms a bitch.

Just a started with the name calling

Hey Chris how can you put with this? I know I wouldn't tolerate this in my blog , set up a filter so we can only read relevant constructive comments to the subject you post.

I wouldn't want to close down anonymous commenting because I don't want to limit who can join the discussion. Likewise I don't want to moderate the discussion (that is, approve all comments before they're posted) because I don't like the idea of throttling the information.

Maybe I could set something up like Salon, where they have Editor's Picks in the comments, and you can choose to see only those. (I pride myself on getting picked almost every time I comment on Salon. Which is stupid, I know.)

Is it just me,or does that woman(standing up)have a really weird labial situation?This porn is certainly most unarousing-and not b/b of pubes..

Vulvas come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and configurations. And I, for one, consider all vulvas to be wonderful.Penises can be pretty wonderful, too, in their own way.

ok,mr rogers-and why do they have so much crappy jewelry on?Would you like warts with your vulvae?Wuold that be wonderful,too?Not ALL of anything is wonderful-

Hey, listen, I didn't say all people were wonderful, or that they had great taste in jewelry. And as far as warts go, they're caused by viruses, and disease is yucky. Vulvas are great, but pathogens are not.

no,my point is,not ALL babies are cute,not ALL bugs are disgusting,perhaps SOMe vulvae are gross,what if they are black and curl up,and have grey sludge,and bla

the only thing i take offense to in any of this is that there actually was a time where anyone liked John Currin's painting at all. John Currin is a belch and a scratch away from being Thomas Kinkade, and a forrest gump away from Rockwell. There is nothing "traditional", compassionate, vulnerable, or anything else that makes his painting even near worthy of being in the same sentences with other names i hear mentioned. His painting is crap. It is the illusion he has pulled off to this point that is masterfully painted. honestly, i find the fact that he stumbled upon some crappy porn online and chose to paint it the most human and vulnerable thing he has done in his career thus far. and then he painted it like crap.good times.

Hey, man, don't be picking on Rockwell. Rockwell rules.

Ha... i know i know. I was having my man period last week. I can't tell you how many times i have defended Rockwell to art snobs around the globe. ("he was just a squirrel trying to get a nut like the rest of us... leave him alone") And he rules Currin any day, i'll give you that. When i was 12 and i had no exposure to "art" whatsoever, and he was my granddad's fav... yeah, he held a place for me. And in some respects he is still there. To prove it, and this is a secret between me an you, i still have a small print of his on the wall of my closet. don't we all?

seriously? wow. reviewer and commenters all have such a shallow, knee jerk reaction!!

I'm delighted by the way Currin has grown and how his works have gotten more accomplished while they are still "out there." They're fun yet have depths one continues to discover when viewing repeated times. The incongruity of classic forms and structure against the subject matter is shocking and draws one to it (perhaps like watching a train wreck).I love this fucking shit. It turns me on and makes me laugh.

It's not Danish, it's French and the only good thing about this is Marilyn Jess, although he even managed to screw her up in the shitty painting.

What gave us the idea that it was Danish? I forget now.For the record, Marilyn Jess is apparently the blonde on the left in the first photo.

wrong reference photo- he drew the hand pretty well, if you compare it with this one.
i therefore feel most of your argument is invalid.

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