John Currin makes paintings that get people talking. In a time of widespread academic feminism, his paintings of voluptuous nudes came across as, perhaps, unexpectedly daring. And so was his masterful technique a breath of fresh and unconventional beauty in a time of bad painting fetching high prices. Currin has never been concerned with fashions or political correctness. From the beginning, he has set his own somewhat cantankerous course, and, fortunately for him, the world has come to appreciate his candor, his cleverness, and the talent that sometimes seems to afflict him. I interviewed him over lunch, the day after I did the same with his (very expecting) wife and muse,
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GLENN O’BRIEN: Is the baby overdue? Is there a date when the baby’s officially supposed to...
JOHN CURRIN: Yeah, like, now.
O’BRIEN: That’s what I figured.
CURRIN: Well, the actual date was either Hitler’s birthday or Larry Gagosian’s birthday. But Rachel’s never really done it on the day it’s supposed to be . . . I think it’s gonna happen, like, tomorrow. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: After the first one, they tend to get easier, no?
CURRIN: I don’t know. The second one was harder. He was, like, stuck up inside. Rachel probably told you the story. It had to do with this little, like . . .
O’BRIEN: Vacuum, yeah.
CURRIN: Yeah, like a suction yarmulka thing that goes on the kid’s head—which always blows my mind because everybody’s always yelling about how you have to support your child’s head because their necks are very weak. Well, it’s like, “Uh-uh!” [laughs]
O’BRIEN: I have a big ridge in my head from the forceps. They pulled me out with, like, pliers.
CURRIN: Rachel has that, too. Rachel was born on an Indian reservation—so it was pretty low-tech. Her dad was in the Army medical corps. Instead of going to Saigon, he went to Fort Defiance, and so she has this funny lump. [laughs]
O’BRIEN: So, when did you know that you wanted to be an artist?
CURRIN: Well, I guess when I was 11 or 12. I mean, that’s what I was good at. My uncles were doctors, so I had some vague idea that it would be cool to be a doctor, mostly because they had swimming pools. [laughs] I thought, Hey, if you’re a doctor, you can have a swimming pool. But as soon as I could think rationally about it, I wanted to be an artist. I guess I thought I was gonna be an illustrator or something, because I didn’t really know that art still existed. I think I had this idea that it had kind of turned into naked hippies hangin’ out in their lofts. [laughs] You’d see Christo or someone like that . . . When I was a kid, I was more interested in album covers and stuff like that. I was studying violin, and my violin teacher’s husband was an artist. They were from the Soviet Union, and I started taking lessons with him. He couldn’t really speak English, but I started painting with him on weekends. He was a very good painter. He did traditional still lifes. He had a garret studio with a parrot in a cage. It really looked like a 1930s movie-version of a studio. The first time I saw it I was like, “Wow! This is what I wanna do.” Aside from the old masters, I had never seen somebody making good paintings before. So I realized that maybe there’s an actual art world.
CURRIN: I think at around the same time I saw some Francis Bacons and [Willem] de Kooning stuff as well—you know, contemporary art.
O’BRIEN: I saw a documentary about Jack Levine and they asked him what made him want to become an artist, and he said that he found out you could draw naked women and get paid for it! [both laugh]
CURRIN: He’s pretty much right on the money there.
O’BRIEN: So what was your earliest work like?
CURRIN: Copies of my teacher’s stuff. And then I made some sort of Frank Frazetta naked girls that I didn’t show my teacher. I did still life and anatomy and copies of Degas that he would give me to copy—you know, drawings out of books.
O’BRIEN: Frank Frazetta—is he an illustrator?
CURRIN: Yeah, he’s like Conan the Barbarian. He’s the originator of the style that’s now sort of standard. Do you remember the Clint Eastwood movie The Gauntlet ?
CURRIN: The movie poster was done by Frank Frazetta. It’s the hero standing atop a hill of either corpses or tires or something, with a babe kind of collapsing onto him.
O’BRIEN: Sondra Locke collapsing, yeah.
CURRIN: But he’s actually very good. And when I went to college, and I went to art school, I started to realize that Warhol was cool and that pop art was fun. But it was kind of gradual, because in my high school, there was certainly no acknowledgement that you could become an artist or anything like that.
O’BRIEN: When I was in high school, the idea of becoming an artist was that you could go work for Mad magazine.
CURRIN: Oh, yeah. That would’ve been pretty great, actually! [laughs] There would have been no shame in that.
O’BRIEN: I was thinking about erotica in my youth, and I remember looking at nudes in the Encyclopedia Britannica—black-and-white plates of marble statues of nudes. What was your first experience of erotica?
CURRIN: My mom had a large collection of Coronet, which was kind of a general interest and art magazine.
O’BRIEN: It was a small size, right?
CURRIN: Yeah, and it changed radically at some point. It became family-ish. But before that, it had amazing Paul Outerbridge pictures and European art-photography, nude photography. And there were all kinds of general interest articles. There’d be, like, a pro-Mussolini article, like, “What an amazing man of action,” you know, “Pilots his own plane . . .” And then, “How to Have a Good Conversation”—sort of high-minded American stuff. There’d be an article on Meissen porcelain . . . that kind of thing. And so those had a lot of nude women in them.
O’BRIEN: It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of that since I was a teenager, but my parents got Coronet, too. I remember one particular photo with a nude girl in stockings with her legs crossed, holding, like, a champagne glass. But it was okay because the photographer was an important artist.
CURRIN: Yeah. We also had an Eadweard Muybridge book. Most of the women in the photographs are not so great-looking. But there are a few amazing-looking dancers. I used to look at that a lot, and I think my uncle the doctor had some Playboy magazines.
O’BRIEN: So when did you first paint a nude? When you were studying with the Russian?
CURRIN: No, I didn’t have a model then. I guess when I went to art school they had models. And they did their best to make it not something you look forward to. It’s, like, early in the morning, and it’s six hours long. And you fall asleep looking at this person, and it’s not very erotic.
O’BRIEN: And the models were probably pretty gnarly, right?
CURRIN: Sometimes there’d be surprisingly great-looking models. There was this one redhead at Carnegie Mellon who was great-looking, andat Yale there were fantastic-looking models. A lot of the acting students would do modeling in the arts school, so there were some gorgeous girls, but the cliché in our school was to get either the really emaciated person or the really obese person—which is stupid, you know? The idea is to get you to be able to draw. It’s better to have good-looking people. But you’d often have the semi-homeless guy—which would be awful, you know? Especially if they got erections while you were drawing them—which is just totally gross. But I didn’t start doing nudes until I was in art school, and I tried to do, like, de Kooning and Polke and Schnabel. I tried to work like that.
O’BRIEN: Rachel said that you did abstract painting for a while.