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The Un-Private Collection: John Currin and James Cuno

In partnership with The Broad: In anticipation of its opening, The Broad has launched "The Un-Private Collection," a talk series featuring unexpected pairings of cultural leaders and influential artists in the Broad collections, taking place at venues around Los Angeles.

As part of The Broad Museum's The Un-Private Collection, artist John Currin joins James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to discuss how traditional portraiture influenced Currin's modern interpretation of the form.

What follows is a condensed transcript of their conversation.

 

James Cuno:
John, you were born in Boulder, Colorado. What was your childhood like there?

John Currin:
I have no recollection. I think my dad was in the Air Force there and then we moved to Palo Alto, but I grew up in Santa Cruz, California until I was 10.

James Cuno:
There wasn't an Air Force base in Santa Cruz, California was there?

John Currin:
No. It was more of a Khmer Rouge support group at UC Santa Cruz I think.

James Cuno:
My father was in the Air Force too so I spent my life on Air Force bases. Nothing quite as exotic as Santa Cruz, I must say. Mine was more like Moses Lake, Washington. So I was going to ask what your parents did for a living. What about your mother? We know what your father did or we know something of what your father did.

John Currin:
My mom has been a piano teacher. Basically, she's a piano teacher and furiously working and teaching piano from the time I was a baby until now. She still probably teaches a 60-hour week. But my dad is a physicist and my mom was a piano teacher. My family was mostly musical.

James Cuno:
Are you?

John Currin:
No. I think I have a good ear but my younger sister, Rachel, is very, very good. So it was always humiliating to share violin lessons and certainly piano lessons.

James Cuno:
You have one sister. Do you have other siblings?

John Currin:
I have a second sister, older sister, Sara and an older brother, Jeff.

James Cuno:
So you were more or less the middle of the family. You had the comfort of being preceded by other and succeeded by others.

John Currin:
In a way.

James Cuno:
Under what circumstances then did you first see what you thought of as art? It may not have been a work of art but you thought of it as such.

John Currin:
Well, I never went to a museum when I was a kid. But my parents, on their honeymoon I think, they had gotten framed Old Master and wonderful things in Italy. They were mostly...there's a Gerard van Honthorst painting, Dutch Caravaggism. And Van de Velde, you know the ships in the calm harbor. I think there was a Picasso, there was a Michelangelo. You know, a head from the Sistine Chapel. And really lovely, really nice things actually. And one painting, which was I think from Paris when you go on Montmartre and you get those pallet knife paintings, there was one of those of a horse when I was growing up.

James Cuno:
So these were interesting to you?

John Currin:
Yeah. First I thought they were photographs or something. I thought they were real paintings of course. It was wonderful growing up with those. I mean that was before I became a teenager and then was interested in album cover art and stuff. You know, that was my...

James Cuno:
What about Lev Meshberg, with whom you painted on weekends?

John Currin:
Yeah. That was after my family moved to Connecticut when I was 10. I took violin lessons. I wasn't very good but I persisted at it. We took from Russian émigrés who lived in the next town over. Lev was the husband of my violin teacher. My mom, in her way, pushed to get me lessons with him. He passed away but he was a wonderful, wonderful painter, very good painter.

James Cuno:
Figurative painter?

John Currin:
Yes. Had been from Odessa and left in the early-'70s when Jews were giving visas to leave.

James Cuno:
Under Carter I think.

John Currin:
Well, I believe was from like 1975 to whatever. Anyway, my whole high school years I painted on weekends with Lev.

James Cuno:
So he taught you how to make paint itself?

John Currin:
Yeah. I mean I don't speak for all art schools but you often don't get taught anything. Like, you go there and they don't show you...I've done a tiny bit of teaching in art schools and I'm just amazed that the kids don't know, they sort of squeeze out color and horrible colors too. The worst red, the worst yellow, the worst blue. It's kind of all over the place. Anyway, Lev had it's like you put your palate out like this. He didn't speak much English but he said don't use that red, that's a bad red. You know, so I learned...it's one of those things you kind of have to see somebody doing it to learn it. Certainly I learned more from Lev than anybody else.

James Cuno:
And you stayed in touch with him until he died?

John Currin:
From time to time. I started feeling like that he wouldn't approve of what I was painting and he wouldn't like what I was...he thought I was good. When I was a teenager he thought I was good but I had good color and I was going to be a real painter. He said, "You're going to be the first American colorist." There's no American colorists. You know, we went to museums from time to time. Anyway, it was a real gift. I mean it was a total weird privilege to have Lev.

James Cuno:
You once said that you read every David Sylvester interview with Francis Bacon and in high school that you loved Bacon's work. How did you come to know about Sylvester and Bacon in high school? That's not a common experience for most people.

John Currin:
How would I have known about Bacon? You know, I don't recall the first time I saw those but I mean, they were just the coolest thing. The funny thing is, is then he was considered kind of borderline schlock, at least when I went to art school in the early-'80s. I don't think he had the reputation in the art world then that he has now. I may have seen...

James Cuno:
At Yale maybe? Were you anywhere near Yale?

John Currin:
No, I was doing Bacon rip-offs in undergraduate school.

James Cuno:
But I mean were you close enough to Yale to see it at the Yale Art Gallery?

John Currin:
No, not until I went there for grad school. I guess I must have just checked him out at the library or something like that. I started doing pastel versions of Bacon paintings. You know, I think I might have seen actually Last Tango in Paris. Last Tango in Paris, the credits they have Bacon paintings. Anyway, I was reading the Sylvester interviews. It was clear to me that he's gay and he's an alcoholic and he has this weird, rough life. I just thought I'm so boring compared to Bacon. You know, I'm totally not intense like Bacon. It was an important thing to realize that I'm not going to be that kind of an artist, that my angst doesn't present the same way, you know.

James Cuno:
Not with screaming Popes and things like that.

John Currin:
I guess I was content with smiling girls.

James Cuno:
So you finished high school in Connecticut?

John Currin:
Yes.

James Cuno:
What made you want to seek advanced training in art among all the other things you might have done?

John Currin:
Well, you say all the other things you might have done as if there were things. I mean I was good at math I guess. Oh, I went Carnegie Mellon University partly to placate my father on that score, although that said, both my parents, actually maybe especially my father, were supportive of my being an artist. It was really kind of a random decision to go to Carnegie Mellon. I got in there and apparently there was an art school there so I went there.

James Cuno:
Any particular teachers there that were important to you?

John Currin:
Yeah, a guy named Jim Denny who was very young. He was 28 when I was there. He still paints in New York City. I just ran into him again for the first time in like 25 years a year ago or so.

James Cuno:
They have an extraordinary museum, as does Yale, when you get to Yale, have both these great, wonderful museums. Did the museums play a part in developing your historical consciousness of the painting and painters?

John Currin:
Oh, yeah.

James Cuno:
As well as just being there. I mean you have such a clear historical sense of things and a curiosity about a range of things.

John Currin:
Well, when I went to college it was the first time I would just go to a museum over and over and over again and become, especially the Carnegie Institute. You know, you just know where the paintings are. I think that's important for any young artist. I don't know. Maybe not. But for me it's looking at paintings over, and over, and over, and over and over again is crucial.

James Cuno:
With whom did you study at Yale?

John Currin:
Mel Bachner, William Bailey, Jake Ritho those are the ones that are most important to me.

James Cuno:
Was there a cohort of students with whom you identified?

John Currin:
Yes.

James Cuno:
Who were they?

John Currin:
Lisa Yuskavage Richard Phillips, Sean Landers, Matthew ... yes, we were very lucky to have a tight circle and I think it was a lucky, lucky year to go there.

James Cuno:
Did you have a particular project as your sort of culminating project for you MFA? Is that how it works?

John Currin:
Yeah. It was ripping off de Kooning and Julian Schnabel I think was my thesis. I was making, or rather, I got into Yale making de Kooning rip-offs and then I finished out Yale making Schnabel rip-offs.

James Cuno:
Do you still have the pictures?

John Currin:
My parents have a couple of them. Sadly, there came the day where I had to get them out of their basement, so I got them out and I was going to store them and they're gone now.

James Cuno:
What did you do in the first years after Yale? Did you go right to New York?

John Currin:
Well, Lisa Yuskavage and Matthew Levinstein got this place in Hoboken where I slept in the hallway there in the studio. I really kind of hit bottom. That was when I think I hit bottom and that's when I realized I needed to change what I was doing, that the manner of my painting had to change and it wasn't me. It was in Hoboken with a tear rolling down my cheek that I decided I need to start a journey into figurative painting. Because it was like I had always had disdain for the figurative painters in grad school, you know, that that wasn't good painting. It was after being alone for the first time in my life, painting alone, that I realized the kind of New York school painting was not for me, that I wasn't the right kind of person to do it.

James Cuno:
It just didn't mean anything to you.

John Currin:
I think it meant something to me but it meant something to me as a persona, as the type of guy I'd like to be but I'm not that kind of guy.

James Cuno:
How many years was that Hoboken interval?

John Currin:
It was nine months and then I moved to the Lower East Side in New York, which was really fun because that was where all my friends from school had studios literally on the same hundred foot section of the same block. So, it was a real kind of wonderful Bohemia actually that lasted for two years.

James Cuno:
You once said that you aren't engaged with contemporary artists the way that Donald Judd was, for example. You raised the example of his rivalry with Robert Morris. Does it mean that you're more engaged with the work of earlier paintings and therefore not of your peers, especially early figurative paintings? That's one part of it. Then the other part of the question is you once said that there's so much figurative painting out there that you can't rival it and that, in your words, part of what makes figurative painting so interesting is that it's a losing proposition.

John Currin:
Okay. I think in Donald Judd's...you know, yeah, I guess it always kind of put me off, the idea of rivalries with contemporary artists. It just seems like petty and awful. You know, I hate when someone says they're ripping me off as if...if you're doing anything good you can't be ripped off. You know, I don't think there's such a thing as an idea that exists independent of the artwork. So, I guess in terms of contemporary art I think maybe one of the reasons I was drawn toward my genre or style or whatever is that it was somewhat different from what other people were doing and maybe I didn't have to compete therefore. I liked the idea of everybody thinking it was dumb and that smart people don't make those kind of paintings and that I wasn't under pressure then to prove my smartness. I think that storm may have hopefully passed, but I think at the time there was great pressure for artists to be smart in the late-'80s, early-'90s. It's always good to be smart but I don't think it's necessary if you're a painter, especially if you're dumb like a painter. It may be a liability.

I guess the second part of your question was what?

James Cuno:
You said part of what makes figurative painting so interesting is that it's a losing proposition.

John Currin:
Yeah, that's kind of what I mean. You know, you can't...I mean now we're about to show my work next to Old Master, so it'll demonstrate that proposition.

James Cuno:
So we're going to switch a little bit just as we anticipate you coming to talk about your pictures and talk about the technical aspect of things. How do you begin a painting?

John Currin:
You mean technically?

James Cuno:
Where do you start?

John Currin:
I have the canvas already done. Hopefully it's been drying for years. You were asking whether I get an idea and I do, but you know I have a whole bunch of canvases and then I just kind of go around and measure them and think this one's vaguely the right size for this. You know, then hopefully the kind of canvas that I stretched on will be the right texture, but it often isn't. I often have terrible problems because I picked the wrong thing. It's not methodical actually. I used to try to always work from drawings and then grid them on to my canvases. Now I'm working, I think, a little more. You'll see now I have a different method. I usually start a painting in a very optimistic frenzy.

James Cuno:
We talked a little bit backstage and I asked you then and I'll ask you now because your response was so interesting, do you prepare your canvases yourself?

John Currin:
As I was saying, I used to stretch them and then I hurt my thumb doing that. I was also too cheap to pay somebody to do it. Then I finally realized I maybe ought to. So, I have them stretch them and glue them and then I prime them because I make what I think is a wonderful primer and do it my way.

James Cuno:
We talked about the importance of priming and getting it right, that may not be understood by everyone here. So could you talk a little bit about the importance of priming?

John Currin:
Well, it's going to determine...I mean it's the first skin of the painting. It's how much are you going to fill the weave. How much chalk am I going to add to it? It's going to absorb in a different way. That said, I'm always screwing it up and it never turns out the way I wanted it to. I hate seeing somebody else's whatever it is on my painting, let me put it that way. Even if they did a perfect job it would drive me nuts seeing somebody else's personality in the priming.

James Cuno:
Is this something that Lev Meshberg introduced you to, this kind of care and precision?

John Currin:
As I remember, he kind of didn't care about that kind of stuff as much. You know, his paintings are like that thick, so it wasn't...you know, he wouldn't have been...he's like the kind of guy...he didn't use deodorant. I don't think he would be picky about that kind of thing. He had a huge beard. He looked like Rodin, you know?

James Cuno:
What kind of paints do you use? Do you make your own paint at all?

John Currin:
I tried and that was like two geeked out for me to actually start making my paint. Sometimes you get really into this kind of thing and then you just realize this is stupid. You know, it's like I'm going to spend three hours making yellow. I don't know. I was just actually looking at a Courbet still life. I've always had this thing about yellow. I don't like the cadmium yellow. I always like chrome yellow instead of cadmium, which are real bright, chemical looking yellows. They weren't really available to painters before 1870, 1850. So I thought it's tacky. It's like a polyester shirt or something to use those yellows.

Then I looked at a Courbet and it's filled with chrome yellow and chemical yellows. I'm starting to realize this whole thing about being genuine and authentic is ridiculous. I'm not conscientious and methodical enough to work that way.

John Currin, "Anna"

James Cuno:
What about brushes?

John Currin:
Well, we don't have enough time. You shouldn't have asked me that question. The idiots at Fish and Wildlife have banned the import of sable brushes. They're destroying...all I can say is if you have two hours I will rant about that, but that said I don't actually use sable brushes that much. But now that they're banned from import I want to use them. That's one indulgence of mine. I buy a lot of new brushes and I throw them away pretty quickly.

James Cuno:
Your surfaces are often so ravishing that the brush work is so important.

John Currin:
Thank you. One thing that's also changed is I've simplified my medium of what I use when I paint a lot. I only use linseed oil and turpentine now. I used to do this thing where I'd get balsam and different resins and try to make magic potions and stuff. Sometimes they'd work and sometimes they wouldn't. I never was able to make it do what I wanted.

James Cuno:
I think I asked you this earlier but I think the audience would like to hear this. What makes a painting a certain size?

John Currin:
Well, when I first started showing in New York, those high school girl pictures, the one consideration was I wanted them to be medium sized, not tiny, not huge but medium. You had seen a lot of very large paintings and you had seen a lot of teeny-weenie paintings, but it just seemed like nobody was making that...it was like 30 inches by 34 inches seemed to be this magical size. So, I was interested in that as a way of just they look different if they're that size. This is a big painting in real life, it's a fairly large painting but I've never been able to make a painting much bigger than that.

James Cuno:
Do you have thoughts about frames and how a picture should be framed?

John Currin:
Yeah, I like elaborate frames. I used to love the frame that was on the Demoiselles d'Avignon this ugly white enameled frame. For a while, I would always tell people to frame my paintings in ugly, white enamel frames. Then I just realized that everybody hated them. Now I like historical frames, I like Italian frames.

James Cuno:
Do you have thoughts about how your picture should be seen? With what other kinds of pictures or other kinds of things? When they go off out into the world do they take on another life because they're now in some other environment of which you don't have control. But would you like your pictures to be seen a certain way?

John Currin:
I mean I don't like them on white walls, I guess, as much. I enjoy seeing my pictures in people's houses. I like seeing it with furniture and junk around it and that kind of thing. I don't know if I love seeing them in a gallery. It always seems a bit harsh.

James Cuno:
Too antiseptic or something.

John Currin:
And also white isn't a very good background for oil paintings.

James Cuno:
You paint in different ways that is at the same time, in the same year pictures will look different one from the next. Some more finely finished and some more loosely finished, brushed and so forth. What determines the extent to which a painting is the more finished kind and the one that's more loosely?

John Currin:
That's something I've been thinking about in a specific way the last couple of years. I started realizing a lot of times when I would paint I'd have this voice in my head just berating myself. Just you suck, this sucks. Like you jerk. It's like you made some mark and it's like that sucks. I started hating myself. It kind of occurred to me that you need to love everything you do. You need to love your physical...you need to love your body, metaphorically speaking in a painting. I think I do a lot of times but then I'm terrifically critical of it at other times. So, I tried to make paintings in which I accepted the parts I couldn't finish, the ugly parts, the maybe poorly done, try to love them all like your children or something. Later, when we're showing, I'll explain that more clearly. It was about accepting the way I paint, because I think that's always been an emotionally fraught process for me.

James Cuno:
One last question before we then go into having you talk about your pictures. It has to do with the conservation of your paintings now that you've got paintings going out in the world for the last 25 years or so. Do you have thoughts about how you want them to age?

John Currin:
I have a good story about that. I had a painting...I was brought into a conservator to look at a damaged painting. It was a painting of a butt and it was all cracked up, these radial cracks around it and everything. It turns out that someone had stayed at the collector's house and spanked somebody with the painting. They spanked somebody with this butt painting. It had gotten all these radial characteristics.

James Cuno:
You've got to be more careful who you're sending pictures to.

John Currin:
Sort of a forensic files examination of it revealed that this had happened. But otherwise, you know, I haven't had many bad...there's one painting where I painted the lips in over...there's certain colors that if you paint it on you really shouldn't paint anything else on top of it. So, it was the lips and this girl in bed and they cracked along the thing. But it looks cool. I like it and it kind of looks good. But otherwise...I mean I will say this, when I show in a museum and they say we're very concerned about the candle power here and we have to put shades over the windows. I'm like that's stupid. Paintings will yellow without light. They actually look worse if they've been in the dark. Generally, don't spank anybody with them and treat them like human beings I think is the main thing.

John Currin, "Heartless" (1997)

James Cuno:
Tell us about the next pictures.

John Currin:
We'll come across that in a bit.

James Cuno:
Can we go forward to the next one?

John Currin:
This is called Heartless. I vaguely took the image from a Cosmopolitan magazine. Francesco Scavullo used to do the photographs for Cosmo. I had been making very angsty kind of paintings of middle-aged women that I thought of them as like Blue Period Picasso. They were desiccated and unpleasant. Then I was going to have a show in Los Angeles as it happened and I thought I should make something happy for Los Angeles.

James Cuno:
Desiccation doesn't play well here.

John Currin:
So, I came across these Cosmo images. This one is important to me because it was the first time that I had discovered a technique of underpainting, of painting the flesh in like blue-gray and figuring out the forms, the light and the forms and shapes and things like that and then letting that dry and painting flesh over that. It had the effect of hiding all the labor of finding the form. You know, it has an odd ease to it and it is in fact easier to paint that way. I was just amazed. You can't really see it but that shine on her forehead when I was doing it, I was weeping with joy because I had been trying to get that kind of temperature thing in a painting for a long time and it was just so easy when I did it this way.

James Cuno:
Tell us what about the temperature thing.

John Currin:
Like warm to cool. I remember I was looking at a Velasquez in New York, The Little Infanta head that they have at the Metropolitan. It just has this strangely colorless presence. I mean it looks real but it doesn't look like he had a color on his palate and he painted that color. You kind of can't identify it. I was looking at it and looking at it and then I realized he painted it in black and white and then just kind of swished on some pink over the flesh. So, it's just a combination of light and dark and also opacity and transparency that produces the color rather than a mixed color.

James Cuno:
That's true with skin as opposed to fabric because skin has color coming up through the skin and fabric is flatter.

John Currin:
I mean you can paint fabric that way but the flesh is...and there's wonderful examples of directly painted flesh all through art, but in this case it was a way of really constraining the color and not having red, yellow and blue all over the flesh but having it really narrow. Especially for me, it was the idea of not showing the labor, not showing the struggle for the form. It would look like it had always been there.

James Cuno:
How many layers of paint might there be on this canvas?

John Currin:
In the flesh, two. The demanding underpainting technique...no. It makes it way, way easier. It's funny, you paint these things in black and white and they appear to be...they have a kind of incredibly realistic presence then but weird. Then you put the color on and they look less realistic but they look alive. It's always a really joyous moment when I'm finally happy with this form and I can put the color on.

James Cuno:
This picture had a life in which it was just blues and blacks you were saying?

John Currin:
Yeah. It looked really weird too. It was like a bluish mannequin or something like that. Then I just painted some flesh. It took about an hour. It was like this magic presence.

James Cuno:
Do you know at the Met the grisaille painting?

John Currin:
Yeah.

James Cuno:
That's sort of what I understand you to be saying this picture once was in the sense before you put the color on top of it.

John Currin:
Yeah. It wasn't as good but it looked like that.

James Cuno:
Do you want to go to the next one?

John Currin:
Yeah, next. No. I've always loved Pontormo and I've always loved that group of mannerists of Pontormo, Bronzino. I think I was thinking a lot about paintings like this.

James Cuno:
The form or the figure?

John Currin:
In just the idea of using big circles that you then hang realistic form on. You know, big cones and spheres and things like that. Then I imagine he set that jacket up on a mannequin and made this lovely, incredibly vivid and realistic clothing rendition. But you know, I love that it's made out of...I mean the mannerism is spectacular and also that painting in particular has this wonderful geometry between the staff and the light and the forms.

James Cuno:
And a fantastic salmon color down there on those trousers.

John Currin:
Yeah. But I've always been impressed mostly with that cream of the shirt and that incredible elbow. Just this big, big slug coming out at you.

James Cuno:
Let's get back to your pictures. Next.

John Currin:
I think this one was directly...I was thinking about Pontormo with this one. It was a little picture in a Sears catalog or something of a model, so I just think I took...I mean literally like this big so I could barely see the face. I think those hands are my hands in the mirror and then just kind of made up drapery. Again, painted with this new way that I was very excited about.

James Cuno:
So you said your hands as you saw them in the mirror. So the model's right hand would be the sort of mirrored image of your painted...

John Currin:
Right. The hand that's on the pocket that was always the hard one to paint because you have your paint brush. The left hands are always really easy because I can go like that. Let's go to the next one.

James Cuno:
That's a leotard.

John Currin:
That was from...it does look kind of like a leotard, doesn't it. The blue. That was from a Sears catalog as well but I changed his jacket. It was like a hunting jacket but I changed it into this kind of luxurious King Louis kind of material.

James Cuno:
At least on the screen it has that sense, that's why leotard came to mind, of pastel. Does it in flesh have that sense of pastel?

John Currin:
You know, it's an odd color. In that case, you can't really see it up here but in that case I did actually paint that in layers, the blue. It was a weird color. It was a blue/black. Like an ultramarine and black. It's not a Prussian blue like it looks there.

James Cuno:
Does it have a softness of pastel and the furry bits?

John Currin:
I think I was trying for more Velasquez, Venetian kind of sparkle under the glaze kind of look.

James Cuno:
What about the subject of these things? These were single figure pictures, these are opportunities for form and for color.

John Currin:
Well, this was in a group of paintings of only men that I did actually in LA as well. This one's called The Producer. On one hand, it was like the gay show I guess, but I was interested in painting men. I've always had...I've always been uncomfortable painting men and thought it would be interesting to make various kinds of male couples and these mannerist, Pontormo or Bronzino things.

James Cuno:
So the sources other paintings or images in magazines.

John Currin:
It's a combination of my own...I take stuff from my own face. Those are my hands and that kind of thing. But let's see. The guy in the Sears catalog wasn't doing a Venus pose, but it was...the format came from the magazine.

James Cuno:
Do you ever work from models?

John Currin:
Yeah. Now I work mostly from models.

James Cuno:
Okay. Next. Aert de Gelder.

John Currin:
Oh, yeah. I always loved this guy but I always thought it was kind of only me. Actually, I was walking through the museum with my wife yesterday and she went right over to this and said, "Oh my God, that's a beautiful picture." He really is...and there's something to be said about him is that Aert de Gelder, it's very hard for a painter to look at somebody like Rembrandt. Like you go to a museum and look at the Rembrandt, like you have an insane Rembrandt here. But I just find myself so intimidated and you can't learn anything from the big geniuses but you can learn a whole lot from their students or from the next rung down. He's a student of Rembrandt. There I think you can take away a lot. Maybe you can't really see it here but the weird...there's a very strange color of that white. It's like red and white and black. He uses a lot of black, yet they look weirdly fresh and lovely, not so brown as they would appear here.

Anyway, I was happy to see you had an Aert de Gelder. I think I prefer approaching Rembrandt through this than through the actual Rembrandt. Rembrandts I like to look at of course, but I just feel so bad about myself after I've looked at them.

James Cuno:
Next.

John Currin:
This is my facile...also, I had been working almost exclusively in this mode of like a single figure and I got interested in the problems of two figures. In this case, I was also thinking about Boucher, the Rococo that would have the same face on every figure and the same kind of body. I thought it would be funny if I made my own sort of tribe of figures. In this case, they would have these enormous breasts and their faces were made with a palate knife, which I was also interested in for my enthusiasms about Courbet but also the idea that the face...the funny thing about palate knife is you can't perfect it. You can't...

James Cuno:
Blend it.

John Currin:
You can't blend it. The more you touch it the more it's going to get messed up. So, I thought that was an interesting metaphor for sort of loving something to death, ruining something by giving it too much affection. I just felt like I was damaging these the more I worked on them. So for me, the breast to the face was important...and the breasts would be painted like a Florentine mannerist. Like a Pontormo sleeve and the faces would be this disaster of palate knife.

James Cuno:
Other than a visual relationship, was there some conversation that occurred between these two women?

John Currin:
The truth is, it was from Hustler magazine I think. It was one of these things where they would have...you know, porn magazines in the '90s, half of that they would have their clothes on. So it would be this elaborate narrative setup of 'they're in the bra shop' and 'she has to measure her first.' I just thought it was compelling. It seemed to me a latter day version of these funny genre subjects that you see in Fragonard or reading the love letter, that kind of thing. I only made two of this particular bra shop stuff. They're out of order. The measuring and then paying for the bra. But it was also, they were important to me...it was the first time I really, really worked hard and long on a painting but had worked intensely for like six weeks on a painting.

James Cuno:
What about humor in your work? Do you see them as funny?

John Currin:
Of course. I mean that said, they get solemn. They can't stay funny but I did like the idea that the painting was kind of ruined from the outset by the breasts, that there's no mandate anymore to be like Francis Bacon or like Rembrandt. You kind of ruined any possibility for seriousness. Then the other things that are serious can sort of percolate. You know, it is one thing to have the jokey idea of it, but if you work on it for two months you're not sitting there laughing for two months. It becomes a...I thought they were actually rather solemn in the end. I mean that happens a lot. They go from being funny to being very sad in some cases.

James Cuno:
What about kitsch? Do you recognize them as having a relationship to kitsch? If so, is that some comment on the condition of our lives?

John Currin:
My parents had that famous book, kitsch. It was like a European, mostly Marxist essays on kitsch. You know, that it is capitalism is ruining our lives and ruining our culture. I guess I am interested in kitsch with the idea of it just being an oil painter in the midst of this garbage pile of contemporary life. It doesn't lend itself to oil painting. It doesn't seem to lend itself to oil painting. You know, I've been thinking about that a lot lately with respect to Poussin as well. It occurred to me...I mean I kind of got over my upset about this by thinking about Poussin. You realized Poussin looked around himself in 1620 and just thought this sucks. It's all been ruined. So, he would paint Arcadia from what he thought of Greece looking like. I love the idea that Poussin thought that his world had been ruined. That it was always the contemporary life is always a disappointment and that there was a golden thing from before.

I think that leads me to embrace the particular ugliness of kitsch in paintings. Also to sort of redeem it. I mean that's exciting to me.

James Cuno:
Do you expect your public to engage in the subjects of your paintings or do you want them to look at the forms and colors and paint?

John Currin:
Well, I think all of that. I mean I think that said, the painting from Aert de Gelder, it's like some unpronounceable name giving a sword, giving the sword to David.

James Cuno:
That's exactly what it is.

John Currin:
I looked up the subject on Wikipedia. It's like David was being pursued by somebody and he goes to this guy to get a...it doesn't matter. I don't need to know the story. To me, the story is making a painting of two people, one of whom has their face turned away from you and they're exchanging something. This insane sword, in real life it's beautifully done. To me, that is the subject. Now, that said, it's not just an abstract painting. I mean there's space, there's a narrative but I don't think it's important to know the specific narratives. It might deepen your understanding of the painting but that's not why you make a painting.

James Cuno:
Let's continue.

John Currin, "Daughter and Mother"

John Currin:
I mean partly you can approach that by just the title. This is called "Mother and Daughter." I thought mothers mess up their daughters. You know, so I think the combination of the title and just the obvious subject and that thing with the palate knife on the face. I don't know. I didn't do a good job on the irises. Anyway, that's as close as I would get to a narrative is in the title I think.

James Cuno:
Do people ever ask for particular subjects? Do they commission you for pictures?

John Currin:
They have before but I've rarely done it. In one case, a friend of mine who's a collector had asked for me to do a portrait of her. I did do a portrait but I did it in a very...I think she likes the painting but she's sideways and there's a still life on her head but that's the closest I've come to a portrait of somebody because I was asked.

James Cuno:
Are there always sources behind the paintings?

John Currin:
I don't remember what this one was. I think maybe I made this one up. I'm not sure. If there was a source it would have been ads in the back of Cosmo or that kind of thing.

James Cuno:
Mother's Day cards.

John Currin:
It would be like cosmetic ads.

James Cuno:
Next.

John Currin:
I mean obviously that's Lucas Cranach. I'd always love...there's a book I read. I read a book of The Nude by Kenneth Clark, which is just a masterpiece. Reading that book started getting me interested in painting nudes for their own sake. He has a lovely description of Cranach and sort of links Cranach to non-western traditions in the nude. Like one of these dancing girls from Cambodia or something. Anyway, after I got married I kind of came back and was in a state of bliss. I thought it would be nice to make these ethereal nudes out of my head, only from circles and lines. You know, not have models. If you go to the next one, please.

These paintings came about but they were also...I mean obviously Cranach was an influence but I think more than Cranach was Hans Baldung Grien In fact, the post of the right hand figure is taken from a small drawing of Hans Baldung Grien. Then the faces I think I got them mostly from models in magazines. Can we go to the next one?

The figure on the right is I think Leslie Anne Warren, who has this great, toothy smile. But I got very interested in making that sort of Michelin Man stomach on the right and these lovely breasts. I don't know, just making it all up out of my head.

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James Cuno:
Were these seen as pairs, these two paintings?

John Currin:
They were in the same show, yeah. I made them at the same time.

James Cuno:
Do you ever paint on ivory, on hard surfaces or is it always on stretched canvas?

John Currin:
Always on canvas. This one does have the feeling of like it was done on a piece of marble or something. But I really only paint on canvas and I usually stain it pretty dark.

James Cuno:
So you lighten.

John Currin:
I paint dark to light.

James Cuno:
What color is that dark?

John Currin:
It's usually a reddish brown.

James Cuno:
Why do you do that?

John Currin:
I always find it very difficult to paint on pale canvases because also whenever you paint dark on light it makes it hotter. It increases the saturation. A brown painted on white will look like bright orange. So, I find it easier to kind of come from coldness to warmth. By the same token, if you paint something light on something dark, no matter what it is it'll look cold. If it's yellow it will look bluish or greenish.

James Cuno:
Degas often painted dark to light. He couldn't understand his peers, Monet and so forth, painting...

John Currin:
Well, that started in David's Academy was painting dark on light, painting on white canvases. It's hard to do. I mean the impressionists were the best at that. I've just never been able to handle it. Next.

James Cuno:
Gentileschi.

John Currin:
This is one of my...I guess it's amazing that this painting is in this museum. He's one of my favorite painters and his daughter is one of my favorite painters. They had a show of Orazio and Artemisia in New York five or ten years ago, which totally blew my mind. The draperies and the weirdness of the realism. He's a magical painter and incredibly gifted. Technically, these are the best.

James Cuno:
But anchored by a clarity of composition.

John Currin:
Yeah. I guess this one is interesting also. These kind of almost dogmatic red, yellow, blue structures. You know, the subject of this, Lot and his Daughters, and Lot is such a pathetic...it really is a shameful figure. I always love Joseph in the rest on the flight to Egypt and various things. It's always the old man who has somehow been cuckolded by God. They always have his feet doing something awkward and I think that's true of this painting too. I like images of the humiliated old man, I guess. Let's go to the next one.

This is a humiliated young man. I'm fond of this with my own. A number of times I've tried to do these red, yellow, blue color structures, which sometimes is the easier way to do it. But somehow, when you're intending it, it's impossible. I always come across it by accident because I went through 100 different colors for his coat. Then actually I didn't have that knee. I couldn't figure out what to do in that corner and that's when I thought of bringing that knee up like that, which is pretty odd but I'm fond of it. That was me in the mirror with my knee up.

James Cuno:
This is beginning to introduce a fascination you've got with Courbet I think and the blondeness of that male figure.

John Currin:
He's like a Joe Heffernan impersonator or something.

James Cuno:
But there'll be more Courbet coming up but we should keep going. We've got a couple more minutes and then open it up to the audience.

John Currin, "Patch and Pearl"

John Currin:
Let's move it. This is another red, yellow, blue. You know, I had done a show of pornographic inspired paintings and I thought it would be good to have some pregnancy in the same show and do a kind of right wing, pro-life narrative with hardcore pornography in it. So, I had these pictures of Europeans having sex and then pregnant women and then kids in the show. Anyway, the pregnant women I thought it would be funny to just make them pregnant by adding this medicine ball in the center. I mean my wife was...it was also...you know, I was a father and my wife was basically constantly pregnant. We've got a lot of kids. I also wanted to get the feeling of the surprising aspect of pregnancy. This is really happening.

James Cuno:
No going back on this one.

John Currin:
And just how shocking it is actually.

James Cuno:
At first glance, it looks as though the torso has been turned so the bottom is looking to the left and the torso is looking to the right. As opposed to a stomach it looks like it could be a bottom.

John Currin:
These are models from a Sears catalogs with just a ball added in the middle. I also thought much like the big breast, I thought it would be funny to make paintings in which seemingly everyone in this strange land is pregnant. Everybody's pregnant. Next.

You know, this is another painting that was, after having seen the Gentileschi show and I also had a studio near the Chelsea Market, which sells flowers so I had an endless supply of roses. I got interested in painting things from life and introducing still life elements into my paintings and painting...I like using ads and that kind of thing and kind of remote sources. But I thought it would be interesting to combine that with something on the table that I paint from life.

That's Courbet. You don't have any figurative Courbet's I don't think. He's my biggest hero really I think in the end.

 

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