Yale professors are telling their students that John Currin paints as well as Botticelli. I heard this yesterday from a young painter who was sent my way for career advice. Yale has probably the most illustrious art school in America. Its alumni litter the firmament; Currin (who was born in 1962 and is the hottest ticket this season) is only the most recent ascendant star.
What does it portend if instructors at prestigious Ivy League Schools, and not a few cognoscenti elsewhere, genuinely extol the painterly technique of so disingenuous and meretricious a hack as John Currin? Recently, a solo exhibition of his work was staged at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York. The exhibition coincided with a blockbuster at the Guggenheim of Norman Rockwell, a more likely peer than Botticelli (or Dürer, Tiepolo, or Breughel, artists obliquely referenced in his smorgsbord of styles). *
Like Rockwell, Currin has facility in rendering and a propensity to please. His target audience, however, is not the mass consumer but the artworld insider. For Rockwell, vulgarity is merely a side effect of his hackneyed strategies, whereas for Currin, it is the strategy itself. “Bad Painting”, of course, is as well-worn within the (modernist as surely as postmodernist) avantgarde as illustrational exploitation of academic tropes is within Norman Rockwell’s unchallenging aesthetic. While Rockwell sought to console the million, Currin would probably be content to rake one in.
Disingenuous, I say? Am I not committing the classic critical blunder of confusing intentions with results (the Tolstoyan fallacy)? Is not the road to Paint Heaven paved with bad intentions? So what, one might ask, if the artist has confused or corrupted ideals, if at least on occasion – as in fact Currin does – he comes up trumps? Amidst the schlock horrors and gratuitous sillinesses at Rosen, Currin was able to offer a few roses among the many thorns. There were about three small pictures on show – unlikely to end up in museums (unlikely, in other words, to influence future Yalees and arbiters of taste) and more a sop to conservative taste among private collectors than public strategy art – and this handful included such throw-away gems as a little Tieopoloesque putto-head, compellingly sweet from thirty feet, and a couple of John Singer Sargent cum Adolf Menzel interiors. But the vast majority were Rockwellian romps of phoney narrative, rehashes of big busted illustration-book beauties, more Reginald Marsh than Rubens, and gaudily-framed beaux-art parades of dexterous caricature, in no wit superior to the dashed-off efforts of street portraitists at London’s Leicester Square or New York’s Central Park.
The late theorist and painter (and Yale professor) Louis Finkelstein developed an interesting concept of “split intentionality”. It was proferred as an educational tool rather than a critical one: to help explain to painters where they were going awry. Naturally, Finkelstein, despite flirting rampantly with many styles in his own painting, was a modernist: reconcilliation and wholeness were his goals. Current artists are entitled to want to orchestrate more complex projections of self and intention, to allow for artistic multi-personality. It seems to me, however, that Currin is not in the least bit schizophrenic. He veers, on the contrary, towards mono-mania. There is no dualism in his art, as there is in many of the greatest artists. His desire to have his cake and eat it, to exhibit painterly facility but all the while subscribe to fashionable anti-aesthetic postures, is not a split intention so much as one that is nauseatingly over-focused – on success.
For Currin is quite simply on a no-lose ticket (a good hiding to everything): Bad Painting with quality technique. Keep the theorists chattering and the buyers salivating. Conceptually, he adds nothing to near-century old Dadaism. He is a fashionable footnote to Picabia. And technically? It is here that one has to despair, because of what the warped prevailing taste for Currin says about actual sensibility for painting of the past. If sub-Rockwellism actually looks to taste makers and key educators to be on some kind of parity with the art from the raided image-bank of history, if old-master technique is merely an abstraction to be referenced, like a brand or celebrity’s name knowingly dropped, then we are in trouble. If you think this sounds like Tory hysteria, that the old masters can stand their own, that a bit of lighthearted iconophobic misreading won’t do them any lasting harm, just stand back and think through the practical consequences of such bad taste. Where are future picture conservators coming from? Museum curators? Art dealers? What degrees of nuance and sensibility are going to inform the people who decide what to put in national collections, and how to clean them, and what to hang them next to? Sure, past geniuses are robust plants, but they need a forest to live in, not a desert.
This student, meanwhile, wants advice. Should she do an MFA? Is there a future for figurative art? She has sent me jpegs of her work. She looks pretty talented. Most of her paintings are done from photographs. It transpires this is not from a Degas-Sickert-Warholian fascination with the implications of artifice, but for the above-mentioned prosaic reasons (no space or dollars for a model). Shoulders above these in quality are a couple of canvases done from life and a self-portrait. At least this appears so from her reproductions. Facility is seen giving way to freshness of vision. The right kind of ambiguity and awkwardness is creeping in, exactly the kind, in fact, that Sickert and Degas got from photography. It is not a matter of “Use photos or don’t”. Rather, it’s the magic of unlearning versus the conjury of knowingness.
Anyhow, this young Yalee wants to paint like the old masters, she says, but to do so as a feminist in the early twenty first century. And – oh, yes – without irony! If Lisa Yuskavage, Currin’s peer (sidekick would be unkind) who renders vintage soft-porn big busted girlie illustrations in lurid slippery paint in mammoth canvases doesn’t quite do it for her, where and how and with whom should she study, she wants to know.
Without irony, eh? Maybe we could substitute irony for just a little attitude, and then some possibilities open up. In fact, there are possibilites for figurative painting of the kind she is struggling to define for herself among contemporaries worth looking to who are remarkably close to the Currin camp. A painter most Currinists quite like, and who I really like, is Elizabeth Peyton. I withheld my thoughts on Currin from readers of my column at artcritical.com, but allow me to repeat what I said there about Peyton. One reason I do so, incidentally, is to discourage any suspicion that I am anti-Mannerism per se. I like authentic mannerism (please permit the oxymoron) as much as any po-mo in town. Thinking about Peyton here should have the same effect as citing the shade of Sickert (who of course was a great ironist and synthesist). The following is quoted from an article entitled “Thank Heaven for Little Pictures” which lead with a review of the Whitney’s exhibition, Alex Katz: Small Paintings:
There is a similar [to Katz] “authentic despite” quality to Elizabeth Peyton, the Watteau of Blah. Katz and Hockney are her most conspicuous contemporary artistic heroes, choices, when they were made a decade or so ago, that were almost poignantly retro in themselves. I mention Watteau because of an insouciant whimsicality underpinned by psychological substance. Another old master she recalls in this respect is Forain. It’s in drawing technique, specifically, that she resembles Hockney, whereas the kinship with Katz mostly has to do with brinkmanship. She constantly bids high in her wagers against naffness. In her case, the traffic between the synthetic and the perceptual runs in the opposite direction from Katz. With Peyton, falsity and mediation are the sine qua non alike of source and style: she starts with media images of pop stars and House of Windsor princelings, or with snapshots of downtown boho friends posing so nonchalantly they might as well be minor celebrities. Her painterly style proceeds to flirt rampantly with the fashion plate, as Katz seems to with the billboard and the cartoon. What makes her highly wrought images so tantalizing, in my opinion, is the exquisite correlation between emotional attitude and painterly investment. In Katz, a twist of poignancy gives edge to his high jinks with style. In Peyton, where sloppiness and feyness characterize so perfectly an alienated, narcissistic longing, it’s not a twist but the whole fruit that is thrown in.
And then, after quibbling about details in her technique and comparing her with Katz for a bit, I concluded:
But perhaps such technical issues come down to time as much as talent. Peyton gives us cause for great hope. As Bad Painting goes, she is as good as it gets.
* Of course, we are way beyond the point of bewailing the fact that an institution like the Guggenheim, and a reputed scholar like Robert Rosenblum, the curator of the Rockwell show, should commit themselves to anachronistic kitsch in so savvy a fusion of avantgardist posture and gate-swelling populism. Concurrent, incidentally, with the Currin and Rockwell exhibits was a retrospective of the modern academic painter John Koch (at the New York Historical Society) whose success ratio – painterly success that is, and to my eye – was about the same as Currin’s. But in terms of actual technique and honorable intentions the younger, artworld star cannot compete with this sedate old-world socialite.
This article was first published in Blunt Edge, the “underground” annual edited by Roy Oxlade in Great Britain, in December 2001 and was first posted at artcritical in January 2003.