A MODERN MASTER. John Currin is a New York based artist whose paintings portray highly charged social and sexual taboos. With inspirations as diverse as Old Master portraits, pinups, pornography, and B movies, his painting is the search for the point at which the beautiful and the grotesque are held in perfect balance.

John Currin, two of your children work next to you in your studio. How is it to be a family of artists?  

My mother was a piano teacher and my two sisters are both musicians. My younger sister is a professional pianist. I grew up in a musical family. My father was a physicist, but he respected art a great deal, especially music. They always encouraged me to be an artist, so I feel the same way about my sons. My daughter is 13. She has talent but doesn’t want to be an artist. My boys have fairly dramatic and obvious talent so I think it’s fine. I don’t know if they’re going to get rich on it.

You studied painting at Yale Graduate School for two years. Did you also study literature?

No. At Yale the best things were the art history courses. I basically have no education. I went to Carnegie Mellon college, which was really an art school. Most of my other education happened in high school.

Now you are famous. Was it in fashion to be a painter when you were younger? 

In the early 1980s there was a lot of exciting painting happening; artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger, all the German painters. It might have been different had I been in art school in the 1970s, when there was – on a very stupid level – hostility toward painting.  I didn’t feel the hostility.

“It’s very important that you have a tight circle of friends who want to be artists.”

John Currin

Installation view: John Currin New Paintings. Sadie Coles HQ, Bury Street, London. 12 October – 26 November 2022.

John Currin, did you feel hostility later, because of what you painted?

Only a little bit, and to be honest I enjoyed that hostility. It was the same as being noticed. One realisation I had was I should not try to be smart; either smart in general or smarter than I actually am. In the 60s, 70s and 80s the idea had taken hold that you had to read stultifying French socialist philosophy in order to make art, in order to critique the society you’re in.

Nevertheless there is a French conjugation in your work with 18th century French painters like Fragonard, but at the same time you looked at popular culture?

Popular culture, advertising, trashy things. Initially I was attracted to the so-called dumber forms of art, Rococo art, unfashionable things, pretty art and, in general, figurative art. When I was in school I was trying to be more like De Kooning or Richter and his abstractions, or Schnabel and his abstractions. It gave me a feeling of superiority over the other students.

And then what happened?

After I got out of school and I was alone and I didn’t have this audience and I didn’t have enemies and I didn’t have friends. It was just myself. Suddenly I realised I was doing this all for reasons of self-image rather than artistic reasons. It took me a couple of years to get an idea of how I wanted to be a public artist in New York City. At first I made very stupid, goofy looking paintings of rock and roll girls or cute animals. It wasn’t that those weren’t serious, it was just that I realised I needed to simplify and so I initially made placid paintings of girls from high school – high school portraits. They didn’t look boring, but they were pastel colours, not sophisticated in a way that, in my view, sophisticated artists in New York City would not be able to understand.

At that time were you alone in New York City and without a gallery?  

I had a small circle of friends from school who were ambitious and wanted to be artists. Nobody in my circle of friends read philosophy. We’d all read the same novels. We all read Wyndham Lewis, an oddball British painter and writer, and I had a studio mate for many years, Sean Landers, and he liked John Updike. So I read all those books and we watched the same TV shows. It wasn’t an intellectual struggle.

Did your group have a political idea?

No, it was more like going against what we thought of as the grain of New York City, against being really smart. I figured out my direction pretty conclusively in 1992, after I did these high school girls. I had met Andrea Rosen before she started her gallery and then she became my gallery for over ten years. She was showing my friend Sean Landers and she was showing Félix González-Torres. 

When did women become this repetitive obsession of yours?

It had always been there, since I was in high school. I was uncomfortable painting men, it just seemed a bit weird. Not the same reverie or fantasy as painting a woman. This is before I met my wife, Rachel Feinstein, in ’94. She’s a model for me in general. She was 22 or 23 and doing a living performance as a sleeping beauty and I was told to go meet her, that she looked like my paintings already. And she did. We fell in love immediately. I proposed marriage to her after about a week and finally she said yes. We were definitely in love, but she wasn’t ready to be a married woman.

Since then, and still today, she is your favourite model. Why?

It might just be that she’s easier to draw for me. When I draw a face, it tends to look like Rachel; in the same way that a kid draws a car and it looks like a Porsche 911. That’s the car kids draw. The woman that I draw tends to look like Rachel, even before I met her. She’s a little strange looking. She’s unusual. Very long nose. Painting her gives motion to the painting. I love her gigantic eyes. She has very lovely skin. She has very beautiful hair. I’ve always liked her forehead. I change it in paintings; the features are a little bit jiggled around, a little bit like a Picasso I suppose.

How long does it take you to do a painting?

It depends. Sometimes it’s very short. Some good paintings I’ve made have been very quick. Deauville did not take me very long. I like this particular genre of 1980s Scandinavian pornography because the people weren’t very perfect looking and they were always in these incredible European interiors with crazy wallpaper.

The interior is not sexy at all, but the painting is very!

The goal of that particular painting and the reason I called it Deauville was I’d always been obsessed with the colour in a particular period of Courbet‘s career, seaside paintings, and they have this black, green, pink, grey violet, grey orange, Cobalt blue, this particular sense of the colour. I was able to emulate it pretty well in that painting.

“I used to enjoy upsetting other people, and now I don’t enjoy upsetting anybody.”

John Currin, when I look at your work I see a lot of interest in French 18th century paintings.

Yes, and I have different enthusiasms. In a series of paintings of Rachel the poses are from a drawing of three heads by Hans Baldung Grien, a German artist who has been a very important artist to me for my whole life.

Has Frans Hals been important to you?

Less so. I did a show at the Frans Hals Museum in Holland and they had this big room with paintings of the Financial Guild in Haarlem, big groups of businessmen. They’re astonishingly good paintings, unbelievably good.  I’ve always thought that there are certain painters you should stay away from.

Which ones?

Frans Hals is one. I don’t know how much I can learn from him.  If you’re starting out to play tennis and Roger Federer is there to teach you how to play, he’s so good that you’re not going to learn.

Who else do you stay away from for this reason?  

I stay away from Dürer. Hans Baldung is his student and I can understand and it’s somewhat simpler than Dürer. He’s also a genius; like Dürer, but it’s not so terrifying.

In other words, you would prefer to learn from Giulio Romano than Raphael?

Yes. Sebastiano del Piombo instead of Michelangelo; or Rosso Fiorentino instead of Pontormo. Dosso Dossi is more important to me in terms of learning than Titian. Titian, obviously, is a greater painter, but I can learn more from Dosso Dossi, how to make a painting, how to make something yellow, how to make something red.

Are colours very important to you?

I don’t think I’m the best colour person in the world. I went to the Cezanne show in London at the Tate and it made me sad he’s so good. The colour is so astonishing, the unbelievable mastery of colour; and then he doesn’t care about anything else, rightly lets other things slide. The only equal is van Gogh, who may be the greatest artist. I don’t think anybody is better.

Who do you love most? 

Poussin is one of my favourites. His drawings are ugly in my view, but they’re amazing. He needs to make a painting. In terms of a total artist, van Gogh and Botticelli I love, but then there’s Dosso Dossi or Hans Baldung Grien or Courbet or Manet. Manet I’ve started to move away from. He’s dangerous. There’s much more mystery than you think. For this reason I don’t much like John Singer Sargent.

Now you are 60. How did your art change and develop over the years?  

I was much more interest in paintings being funny when I was younger, I’m less and less drawn to that now. Initially it was a way to make my work look different because art was so serious. It would be nice to make something funny, especially an oil painting, which isn’t considered a vehicle for comedy. Over the years I guess life in general got more serious. I have children, and the 90s was an easier, happier time; certainly than now.

Did 911 change you?

Yes, it happened right in front of us. It changed me. It changed a lot of people. I’m not alone in that. In the 1990s New York City had suddenly gotten a lot safer and more pleasant and less depressing, and one morning this happened. And now we see that New York definitely can slide back. It is sliding back. We’ve had the virus. We’ve had these shitty mayors forever. Also, I’m just getting older. It’s fun to be young.

Why do you paint these large breasts? Is it a sexual obsession of yours?

It’s been a symbol to me for a long time, as well as a sort of response, a kind of a revenge. It wrecks the form of the painting. It’s an easy way to completely make it impossible to make an elegant classical work. The temptation is to refine form, keep refining, make something elegant; and you end up with the worst painting in the whole world. And it’s entitled The Truth. It’s in the Musée d’Orsay. One of these French academic guys, Jules Lefebvre, made this terrible painting.

They accused you of being a misogynist in the past and now everything has to be politically correct. How do you feel about this?

I used to enjoy upsetting other people, and now I don’t enjoy upsetting anybody. That’s one thing that’s changed a lot with getting older.  It was a way to get attention that I didn’t feel like I had enough of.  It’s a way to enter this world so at least people notice you. Provocation. I wanted to be famous.

John Currin
John Currin
John Currin
John Currin

Installation view: John Currin New Paintings. Sadie Coles HQ, Bury Street, London. 12 October – 26 November 2022.

John Currin

Installation view: John Currin New Paintings. Sadie Coles HQ, Bury Street, London. 12 October – 26 November 2022.

John Currin

John Currin and Alain Elkann in John Currin’s New York studio. October 17th 2022. Image © Osanna Visconti di Modrone.

“I find it hard to look at art by somebody who’s committed suicide.”

John Currin, did you ever imagine that your paintings would reach such huge prices?  

No, I didn’t think anybody’s would. That happened across the board, that didn’t just happen to me, but I had reasonable confidence that I was going to be a well-known artist. I thought about money a lot when I didn’t have it. I didn’t also realise that especially when you have children it takes gigantic amounts of money if you want to live comfortably in this city.

Did you have moments when the market for your work was slow?  

It slowed down noticeably around 2016 when Trump was elected. That’s when things in America started to get unstable. Now it is much more unstable and my career is coming back. It never really went. It meant that instead of making gigantic amounts of money, I was merely making a lot of money. Things didn’t just automatically sell the first day of the show.

You recently had three paintings on show in London. I don’t know why but I personally felt these paintings had to do with Max Ernst?

Yes. You’re totally right. It’s very observant of you. It’s called Europe After the Rain. There was that particular group of Max Ernst paintings which he smashed together and then made landscapes out of them. They’re very silhouetted against these almost pretty skies. I thought about that with these paintings, those backgrounds that do a rainbow, a little bit synthetic looking, or a little bit illustrative, or a little bit like Maxfield Parrish the American illustrator, or inappropriate to the mood of the figure also was intentional.

Sometimes the face you paint is beautiful in a strange body; sometimes you make an older face. Your wife sometimes is beautiful and young, but some other times old?

I also used two other women in the last show, both beautiful women but they’re very different. One is a friend of ours, and she has something a little bit like Rachel. I used her face for the old woman in the show. The other woman I’ve used in a couple of paintings. She has a very interesting face.

What is your relationship with museums?  

I don’t think they’re going to want me. I would have liked it if museums bought my last show in New York, but I understand that they can’t really buy work like that. They can’t have a painting of gigantic breasts and spread legs. I understand that they can’t spend their trustees’ money on that subject matter. They’re not puritan, the main reason is I’m too expensive; or they just don’t like me. Museums are not going to pay millions of dollars for a painting. Maybe someone will give it to them.

Do you think it right that the art market is so expensive compared to the past?

I can’t say because I’m a beneficiary of that. There are many older things that I would much rather have for the same amount of money. I buy paintings when I can. The most expensive thing I bought was a Cornelis van Haarlem. At first I thought these are goofy looking paintings, and then I began to look more and he is one of my favourite artists now. I was able to buy a silly painting with a sex joke in it, which is one of the reasons why I was able to afford it, but it was expensive. Rachel and I also bought a very expensive wooden polychrome statue by a German artist.

What do you think about black artists enjoying increasing prominence nowadays?

Some are mediocre some are great.  I enquired about a Kerry James Marshall, a painting that was incredible, a beautiful painting of a birdhouse. He’s a great artist, and if I could afford it I would buy it. He’s been around a long time. There might even be just a commercial thing, that good artists are more affordable because they’ve been neglected because they were black. It’s probably fair for mediocre black artists to have the same success as mediocre white artists. White males have had an advantage for a long time – and I mean forever. Great artists will find their way, and I could be wrong, but to me the biggest advantage white males have had everywhere is to get a certain level of success despite your mediocrity. You could be a fairly stupid executive for Clairol Corporation. Your female secretary, your black female secretary, could be much smarter than you are, but she will stay being the secretary and you will have Martini lunches and an office. That’s changing, and it probably should.

Even if many tragedies happen, do you think the world is going better?  

No, not at all, things are terrible right now. I was very unreasonably upset by the attack on the van Gogh painting in the National Gallery, partly because I was there the day before looking at that very painting with my sons. I find it obscene and terrifying. I’m shocked that The New York Times writes an almost approving article about this, and of course all the comments are, well, while I don’t condone this, they have no other way of getting their message out and the message is good. No. The message is terrible, whatever their religion is. In this case, it’s environmentalism, but in the case of the Taliban, it’s Islam. I imagine the woman suffragette that chopped up the Rokeby Venus had some reason to do it, but it just makes my blood boil when I see something like that. They should immediately lose all their front teeth, and that’s the end of it. Don’t arrest them. Punch them in the face. Kick them out of the museum. That’s it.

Do you think art is above politics? 

Absolutely, yes. Look inside yourself. Look inside myself. Look at the worst thing you’ve ever done that nobody knows about. It may not even be that bad, but the point is it’s absurd. It’s amazing to me that it needs to be said, but if an artist does something so horrible it spoils their art. I find it hard to listen to Kurt Cobain because he killed himself. I find it hard to listen to Elliott Smith because he committed suicide. I dislike suicide. Not that other people like it, but I find it very hard to listen to anything done by somebody who’s killed himself. I find it hard to look at art by somebody who’s committed suicide. If someone has hurt children or something like that I find it hard to look at their work.

Did you change your art since you had children because they could be shocked by it?

No. In fact, I began the pornographic things after I had children. It was done in spite of having children, but I wouldn’t be comfortable having this thing around with my children. I don’t want to make my children uncomfortable.

Why are you so interested in pornography?

I don’t know. Generally, you do things because you like them. That’s really the dumb answer: I like the way these things look. I had a philosophical reason. I had a political reason. It mattered to me at the time. These things began in 2005 and I was still upset about September 11th. I was upset about the school massacre in Russia, in Beslan. But mostly about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons making fun of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and the censorship of those and the attacks. There were riots in response to these cartoons. Most of the cartoons were not particularly great cartoons but I remember being horrified by the intimidation, where there would be none for the Christian faith. It was only with respect to Islam.

Are you a religious man who respects religions?

No, not particularly. I don’t mock them. I should be free to mock them, but I don’t. I’m not comfortable mocking religions, mostly because people for thousands of years who are way, way, way smarter than I am have believed in God, and the greatest paintings in the world have been made out of desire to celebrate God. Intellectually I’m humble. Religious people are generally smarter than I am and so I don’t have scorn for religion, what I didn’t like was the idea that in our society we have to obey their rules, whether it’s Christians or Muslims. For a while now it’s been officious Muslims yelling out the rules and so they’re the focus of my scorn and anger.

Are you still painting every day, all day long?

Yes, I work all day. I’m not very disciplined. I get here late. But I was trying to explain my motive for starting the pornographic paintings. I came across this Danish pornography and it just seemed like a vanishing world, this idea of Europe as a sort of sex playground, post-Christian, post-religious, that it was changing back. It was that the Enlightenment was going backwards and this was an embarrassing high point of European culture. I can’t explain it much more than that, but that was why I got interested in the imagery.

And now you’re less? 

Yes. There’s so much more has happened now. It ran its course.

If you had to convey a message to a young artist in school what would you say?

One thing I would say is it’s very important that you have a tight circle of friends who want to be artists. That is the most helpful thing there is. Not to be alone. Have friends who are also committed. That was the most important thing to me when I was young.

John Currin, thank you very much.