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.


Hi Chris, so glad that you dragged your butt out of the house to catch some shows.

Redoubtable. I like that. Usually I hear annoying, nagging, bitch. Redoubtable makes me sound respectable:-)

Thanks, dear.

And I am totally with you concerning "Old masters-style enormous glistening cock". That is why I rather like Currin's work-the contrast of style and content is delicious.

I can't stand all the pretense in his work.
He's full of BS to me.
All these post-modern head games, and I always get the feeling that he's so so smug about it.
The paintings reek of smugness.

Its not that he can't paint well, he can, its just the whole idea behind it is a complete waste of time to me.

I saw a few images of the portraits and they are the best things I have seen of his.

The porno stuff is a little to, oh this will schock and piss them off.

Did you go to the Freud show?

Painterdog, I absolutely agree with you about a lot of Currin's work I've seen. But like I wrote in the review, the few paintings in this show where he dropped the attitude were really, really good. Even the sex paintings lacked a lot of the smugness -- they're just depictions of sex, not anything debased or twisted or ironic. They're actually sweet, in a way, because they're sort of naive. In person they seem less designed to shock and more innocent, like Currin didn't realize it was a bit odd to paint people fucking.

I missed the Freud show. I have this knack for reading about really interesting shows in the New Yorker two or three days after they've closed.

I take it back, sorry I think he is a mediocre painter at best when you put him up against other contempory figurative painters.

Here is what another really good academic painter had to say:

"The craft is mediocre at best with a few nice passages. The hands are crude without bones; the paint, rough and amature. Then, comes the subjects...all are trivial and sarcastic...a real contempt for humanity. The only saving grace was an over life-sized portrait of his son, which was quite moving. It was roughly painted, yet it had something of a Coreggio in effect."

Graydon Parrish.

He sums it for me.
There was a painter you liked,Costa Vavagiakis, now that is good solid figurative painting.

Sorry to be so obtuse but I am not into this the more I think about it.
Lisa Yuskavage can be added to the list as well, I'm becoming a reactionary...

Painterdog sez:
The hands are crude without bones...

Argh! Flashback to art class in high school!

As I've mentioned before, I've had virtually zero training in art, and none past high school. Of course up to high school I had all the usual public school art education, mostly involving Cray-Pas and oak tag. My freshman year of high school I ended up in an art class taught by Mr. Schneider, whose son I used to hang out with at their store, the King of Arts. Daniel was a few years older than I was. He introduced me to Discordianism, Aleister Crowley, all that good stuff. Mr. Schneider taught me about complementary color mixing and nothing more. The kid who sat next to me would bring in a skull from his collection -- raccoon, squirrel, cat, dog, possum -- and carefully and perfectly render it using millions of tiny black dots.

My last formal art course was two years later under Mr. Rosen. Mr. Rosen and I did not get along in the least. My impression at the time was that he hated me because I had talent I was unwilling to apply in any serious way; shortly after I left his class, before we graduated, he died of AIDS. So maybe he had a lot on his mind at the time.

I was working on this one drawing I called "Long Live the King." It was of a skeleton, with its head in its lap, wearing Henry VIII-era finery, sitting on a throne. It was very detailed, very carefully drafted, with a lot -- a LOT -- of cross-hatching. One class Mr. Rosen stood over my shoulder and expressed dissatisfation with the drawing. I asked him what he thought was wrong.

"There are no bones," he replied.

Which I thought was absurd. At the time, I thought he was picking on my shaping of the lower legs, specifically the calves, which I had rendered somewhat heroically, I'll admit, but which were still realistic. I was very angry with him and his critique.

I never finished the drawing; back in those days I didn't own a Rapidograph or anything like it, and the marker I'd been using ran out of ink, and the replacement marker was absolutely terrible -- it bled and made an entirely different, rather bluish, shade of black -- and I abandoned it in exasperation. Also I got tired of cross-hatching.

The drawing is still around somewhere. I have it rolled up in a tube in some closet or other. Every so often, while cleaning, I find it and look at it again. Years after Mr. Rosen's class -- literally albout twenty years later -- I realized what he meant when he said "There are no bones." I had, without paying attention, drawn the legs in hose, as was the fashion for Henry VIII (I'd researched the costume) and had drawn the hose as if there were fully-fleshed legs inside instead of a skeleton.

This still bothers me. I can't go back and apologize because the man is dead. The whole thing is just totally gone, and totally stupid, but I can't let it go. Past is past, man.


Moving on to Painterdog's other comments:

Currin is certainly not the best academic painter around. As I wrote, there are thousands who can paint as well or better than he can in the academic style. That doesn't mean, to me, that Currin is bad -- or even mediocre. He's still good. Just not as good as some others. He's way better than a lot of people.

But of course technique isn't everything. Costa Vavagiakis has the most incredibly fantastic technique of all time, but if I had to pick which one I'd hang in my living room -- well, it'd be a tough call. But I think I'd pick one of the Currins from this show over a Vavagiakis. Costa has great technique but almost no feeling. Currin has feeling -- often contempt, or sarcasm, true. But feeling.

Lisa Yuskavage is another one. I like her technique -- she's not as good as Currin, even, but she's good. And I like her subjects sometimes. But other times she has similar issues with irony and contempt. Which is unfortunate.

I definitely prefer sincerity. But naked women usually trump anything else.

And, wow, Graydon Parrish looks INCREDIBLE. And he's almost exactly my age.

I'm going to go be depressed now. And wrap Xmas presents.

yeah well he works like 10 hours a day on his work and studies all the time.

He spent 10 years traing to get to where he is.
I'm older than him and I can't paint like that.

But that's life.

Currin...enough said about him, I'm sure he's having a nice Christmas with all the money he made selling the rubes those sarcastic paintings about, what, sex and aging and being a wanker?

Perhaps, in the spirirt of Xmas, we should all just admit we're at least a little jealous of John Currin.

Regarding Graydon: Wow. I mean, really. I'm thinking of making a pilgrimage to the New Britain Museum of Art where his The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001 lives.

I'm not jealous of him at all.
I would not want to be him for a day.

Graydon is a very nice chap as well, he e-malied me, we both use the same painting blog, I did not know ir was him. Anyway he's very down to earth chap.

Intense painting chops.

That painting got panned in the NY times by Grace Gluck, man is she mean.

Merry Xmas

Gluck also calls Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema hacks, so she's clearly a bozo.

I definitely want to see the John Currin show, another show on my list is Boyce Cummings @ Winkleman / Plus Ultra.

It's probably not cool to admit it, but I really like the work of Andrew Wyeth.

I was going to say that you missed Currin's show, except apparently it's been extended until January 27. Lucky you! Boy am I glad I rushed out to see it since it was going to be there ANOTHER WHOLE MONTH. Curse you, Gagosian!

It's probably not cool to admit to liking any Wyeth, actually. Good ole N.C. was, after all, a lowly illustrator, and Jamie Wyeth is practically Bob Ross. N.C. made some awesome illustrations, though -- I have The Boy's King Arthur around here somewhere, stolen from the library no doubt -- and Andrew, well, what can you say about Andrew? He's so haunted and austere.

If I had to pick an original Jasper Johns or an original from any Wyeth, I'd probably take Wyeth in a heartbeat. Maybe not from Jamie.

I forgot about the Currin show until I read your post. Bless you Gagosian!

Johns or Wyeth? I'd probably take the Wyeth too. Probably a poor choice financially, but money isn't everything!

I saw the Boyce Cummings exhibition at Winkleman, I must admit Im a bit burned out by alot of stuff i see out there, but I was pleasantly surprised by Cummings stark and wierdly benign paintings. They seemed , i dont' know, for lack of a better word, ....honest. They look very subtle and sweet at first glance but then i found myself on the train days later thinking about them. They have this sort of creepy impending finality to them that I found very moving. I figure if a painter can make you miss your stop he must be doing somthing right.

I haven't made it to Winkleman to see the latest show. Maybe I'll try to get there tomorrow (Thursday) since I'm going in for a couple of openings.

If a painter makes you miss your train stop they're either doing something right or you're too sensitive to the horror of the art market.

The art world is a horror,LOL! I did'nt actually miss my stop, that was just for flare. So many galleries , so many artists, and so many differant tastes, I like stuff that makes you think a bit. I get bored with all of the calculated "made to shock" stuff, I also get worn down by the purely conceptual stuff.
i guess Im into work that feels human and honest. I want to have a sense of an artist giving somthing of themselves.

I not a big online prno fan, but I was indulging the other night and what you know I found the pics for Currin's new paintings. He just copied the pictures, not very original or interesting. It is porno.

Take a look folks this is interesting:

Holy crap! The guy's even wearing the same gold chain in the photos and paintings, and the girl's got the same jewelry on and....

This is almost as bad as finding out that Roy Lichtenstein totally copied all of his comic paintings.

I hereby revise my review: John Currin is a wanker.

He may have used a projector to trace the images.

I can't beleve this BS. It's not that he has copied 70's porno off the web it's that he drew the hand so badly.

You see Chris I was right he's a faker.

I will be scribbling up an angry post soon. Or, as the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons would say, "Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world."

I'm waiting for your new review. I'm not surprised that he didn't use live models in this body of work. That would have put him too close to the essential truth of porn. It is not beautiful, it is not romantic, it is not transcendental, unless you consider getting your rocks off while watching other people do it is a growth experience.

The distance he has created by removing himself from the action seems a bit cowardly. I think that's why it's so annoying. I don't like the reinvention of a subject that is basically exploitative of women into something romantic. But it's all part of Currin's agit prop shtick.

Rebel Belle sez:
I don't like the reinvention of a subject that is basically exploitative of women into something romantic.

I don't think pornography is necessarily exploitative of women. Since Currin used European porn from the 1970s, too, I'd say the photo shoot was probably very sex-positive. Those wacky Danes!

I still need to explore my thoughts and feelings a bit before I can write my re-review. Soon.

I don't like the reinvention of a subject that is basically exploitative of women into something romantic. But it's all part of Currin's agit prop shtick.

He didn't reinvent a damn thing, he just copied the porno pics off his computer. He's a wanker. Chris if a woman says porn is exploitative of women than it is.

Guys just don't have a leg to stand on with that one.

Painterdog sez:
Chris if a woman says porn is exploitative of women than it is.

I think you're wrong. I'm allowed to have an opinion.

I happen to think pornography is a complex subject incapable of being covered by any single blanket statement.

What I meant is, it's pointless to argue with a woman who thinks that way about porno.

Of course you’re allowed to have as many opinions as you want to but if she finds it offensive why debate about it.

Almost all the porno out there objectifies woman on some level.

I am of course excluding gay porn, and S&M as that's a different genre.

YEs it is complex on how we as a society relate to it and all, but I just don't see the point of debate Nancy on the finer points on the subject.

Unless of course she is game to.
But in my experience when a woamn says something like that it's better to drop it.

You've got a good point there. I wasn't looking to engage Nancy particularly, though. Still, you're right. I'll drop it.

RE: Duchamp won. It's not that Duchamp won as much as that the big battle of the Twentieth Century was over before the start of the first world war. Cubism is the big deal invention of the 20th century and it is but a clever distillation of Cezanne so you could say the big battle was between Cezanne and Duchamp and since nobody likes to pick on old men - even Duchamp and since most of Cezanne's work was done in the 19th C. One could say that there really was no battle for the 20th Century - Duchamp just reached over and took it. Picasso is a footnote albeit the biggest, longest one of the Century. Cezanne was the last painter who was also a cutting edge artist.

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