December 2006 Archives

John Currin, Andrew Wyeth


I'm sitting here trying to figure out how to start this piece. I'm thinking, on the one hand, of saying that the Internet has now officially justified its existence, because I asked for a reminder and I got one, from the ever redoubtable Tracy Helgeson. On the other hand, I'm considering wandering off into a discussion of the Upper East Side of Manhattan and how I like going there. The trouble is neither of these provide a very good introduction for either of the shows I saw today, but I can't think of any other way of writing one.

I guess I can do both.

The Internet has now officially justified its existence. I posted a piece titled "Reminders" without actually expecting to be reminded of anything. But the ever redoubtable Tracy Helgeson dropped me a line actually reminding me, and not a moment too soon, because two of the three shows I mentioned end tomorrow. The Internet has done many wonderful things for me -- allowed me to type to my wife while she's at work; helped me to surprise a friend with an Asia Carrera action figure; allowed me to make something of a living at times without resorting to actual manual labor; and other things too numerous (and sometimes quite frightening) to mention. But the best of all certainly is having someone you've only met once write specifically to tell you to check your to-do list.

So it was that I threw myself together this morning and zipped into Manhattan to see the two shows Tracy reminded me to see. Both galleries are of the uptown variety, so I could easily walk between the two of them on Madison Avenue. I admit to missing Manhattan in general and the Upper East Side in particular; the fact is, I'm an uptown guy. When I think of New York, I think mainly between 14th and 92nd Streets. I have nothing against the rest of Manhattan; I have quite a few grudges against the other boroughs (Staten Island comes to mind) but nothing against the distant ends of New York County. It's just that my life has not, for whatever reason, taken me to those places. I went to high school on 15th Street; when I worked as a messenger I covered mostly 14th to 92nd; I've had jobs in various places around town, East Side and West; I'm just at home in the nice rectangular blocks in the middle.

I haven't had many reasons to be uptown lately. It was nice, then, to get back to the Upper East Side with its beautiful women and evanescent little stores in which you can never afford to shop. The Upper East Side is all whispered promises and never any nookie, but that may be why I like visiting so much.

I was surprised to discover that I recognized Gagosian's uptown space. I went to an opening there way back when I first tentatively started going to openings, maybe four or five years ago. Whose show it was I don't remember -- some woman who painted abstract smears resembling rabbits on unprimed linen canvas -- but what I do remember was showing up so early I was the only one in the gallery for at least ten minutes. And the walls between the paintings were so open and newly painted white and inviting, and I had a stick of Conté in my pocket; and I was at the peak of my drawing phase where I was cranking out five to ten drawings a day; and it took a great effort of will (and a glance at the security camera) to keep from doodling all over the walls. (A few years later I heard about Banksy and his museum adventures and realized I was just too weak for a true art career.)

Today that space was occupied by John Currin and his latest show. I've rarely read anything unqualified about John Currin's work. There always seems to be some need to leaven the compliments with criticism, as if simply saying you like his paintings singles you out as a deviant or weirdo. I'm no exception, either. Right here up front I'll tell you that I really like John's paintings, but next I'm going to undermine myself by picking on him. Still, let me get this out of the way first: The man sure can paint.

While there I asked the security guard what he thought, and in between colorful evocations of brontosauruses crossed with pterodactyls and rendered in such a way that you could actually believe such creatures really existed -- can you imagine it? -- he said, "I think the guy wants to show that he got the goods, that he got the skills. He can paint anything. He's not just about one thing."

And, yes, that about sums it up. John is showing a few canvases depicting sexual intercourse in a manner often described as "hardcore" (i.e. penises inserted into vaginas); perfect Renaissance portraits of children; perfect Renaissance portraits undercut with irony and hipness; vaguely absurd figures; not so vaguely absurd figures; still lifes; and one portrait with a still life of fruit including a large melon carefully placed as if it's the sitter's left breast. The only things missing, in fact, are landscapes and flying dinosaurs, which will probably be his next show.

I have here in my possession a book titled How to Paint Like the Old Masters by Joseph Sheppard. Everything I know about oil painting -- not much, admittedly, through no fault of the author -- I learned from this book. I feel certain, however, that if I actually did what the book says -- if I had that kind of patience -- and I practiced regularly, in a few short years I would be able to paint every bit as well as John Currin. Looking at John's work you can see all of the techniques developed over the 16th through 19th centuries, literally three hundred years of painting technology, and how he makes it work. To look closely at his paintings is to remember any number of museum visits looking closely at Rembrandt, Hals, Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, Ingres, David, Bouguereau. There's the transparent shadow areas, the opaque highlights. There's the mix of alizarin crimson, white, and yellow ochre for caucasian skin tone. It's like a tour of academic painting.

And being academic painting, there are literally thousands of artists who can paint exactly the same way. So what's special about John?

John Currin, Kissers, 2006, oil on canvas, 23x25 inches I find that hard to say. I like his paintings but I'm not sure I'd like any other pile of academic paintings any less. Clearly some of his subject matter is meant to be shocking, but since one of the paintings in the show is a nearly exact copy of Courbet's L'Origine du monde -- albeit slightly less furry -- it's hard to be really scandalized about it. (I was amused to see a notice on the gallery wall, before you reached the actual exhibition, warning of the explicit content ahead, especially since outside, the street-level poster was of a guy vigorously tongue-kissing a woman while groping her left boob.) His serious portraits are excellent, but excellent portraits aren't exactly rare; and when he's fooling around, his tone of ironic detachment edges over into outright contempt and malice, which makes me dislike him intensely. But some of his figure studies-slash-portraits, when he's serious, when he's not being hip, give off a strong sense of understanding and intimacy. And beyond that, I must admit it's kind of neat to see an Old Masters-style enormous glistening cock.

So, okay, I really like John Currin's paintings.

Gagosian's uptown space is huge, empty, and blank, like a museum room somehow detached and floating free on Madison Avenue. By way of contrast, Adelson Galleries is a gallerist's dream of what an art gallery should be: Heavy cast iron and glass front door, marble steps with brass handrails, live plants and fresh flowers all around, and the most staggeringly beautiful gallerina of all time. The space was positively filled with works on paper by Andrew Wyeth, all of the well-known Helga except for a couple of her daughter, all done in the 1970s and '80s.

Andrew Wyeth, Her Daughter, 1972, pencil on paper, 19.75x30.75 inches It really was amazing to walk around and peer closely at the drawings, many of which were studies for larger works. The papers have been handled and spattered with paint. One watercolor has an autumn leaf still stuck to it in the corner.

Some drawings are quick sketches, others more refined drawings. I found it absorbing to look at Andrew's pencil lines, so much like my own and yet so different. I'm entranced by the sight of graphite on paper, the way the dark grey brings out the texture, while the artist's hand's movements are recorded in fluid grace or halting scrabble. Andrew has an incredibly subtle touch with pencil -- sometimes he leaves marks so light they might be effaced by the slightest brush of a moth's wing.

His true mastery comes through, though, in drybrush. Andrew's drybrush paintings are impossibly nuanced. I cannot even begin to imagine how he does what he does. Always he has an exact sense of what should be painted in and, more importantly, what should be left out.

Through all of the drawings and paintings, we're in Helga's world. It's always winter. Outside Helga is dressed warmly. Indoors the watery sunlight filters in through clouds and hazy windows onto her cool skin. The real Helga probably smiled and laughed, but Andrew Wyeth's Helga moves through her world with solemnity, possibly stoicism. Her mouth is always set in a tight line. She is always slightly slumped, slightly tired.

It's not always the most pleasant world, but it has a stark beauty like Helga's own: Strong, cold, stern, glacial.

Sadly, this collection is due to be broken up -- already is broken up among various buyers -- and won't be seen like this again for some time. It's not the worst thing of all, not like William Blake's watercolors being split up, because there are, admittedly, a few more drawings than strictly necessary in the show; and yet seeing them all together like this does focus the viewer more strongly on Andrew and Helga, and how much time he spent with her, indoors, outdoors, clothed and unclothed, sketching all the while.

On my way home I had one of those quintessential New York experiences, the kind of thing that makes me happy to live here. In the subway station at Grand Central two men were playing African drums and shakers and they'd brought a bunch of hula hoops with them, and a group of eight or so young women, maybe 14 to 16 years old, had spontaneously started dancing, clapping, doing the hula with the hoops, and singing along with the beat. I watched entranced for a few minutes before the girls broke off and went away laughing, leaving the audience and the drummers smiling.


I may ask for more from you than you ask from yourself, but I'm telling you, if I ask for it, you can do it.


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