Few of the good things that reward the rising–or risen–young artist have not fallen to John Currin in recent days. He is the subject of a widely celebrated midcareer retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ecstatic “I told you so” reviews appeared in the New York Times and in The New Yorker, the latter accompanied by a portrait of the artist by Richard Avedon. According to a headline in the Times, he has “startled” the art world by switching dealers, from Andrea Rosen to Gagosian, one of the toniest galleries in the hierarchy. In 2002 a 1995 painting, of the sort that once provoked critical rants, went for $427,000 at Sotheby’s; on the private resale market, his prices have shot up to $600,000. And he has achieved all this as much in spite of his work as because of it. Over the past decade, Currin’s paintings of startlingly busty young women in mini-skirts and tight blouses have aroused the ire of a dour and censorious art establishment, which had marginalized painting as a medium, vilified the “male gaze” and monitored political incorrectness with a near-Victorian zealousness. His earlier detractors have now joined the chorus of his admirers. But what particularly impresses me is that he has evolved from the role of Bad Boy of the art world into what very few contemporary painters have the gift, let alone the taste, to aspire to–a master of high Mannerist aesthetics. At a time when most of his contemporaries would cite Warhol, Duchamp and Nauman among their influences, Currin invokes Bruegel, Cranach and Parmigianino.
“Mannerist” has typically been used as a pejorative, ever since Mannerism was accepted as a genuine art-historical period of the sixteenth century, covering the art and architecture produced mainly in Italy from the High Renaissance till the advent of the Baroque. It is, according to The Grove Dictionary of Art, “the most willful and perverse of stylistic periods.” What I find astounding is that in little more than a decade, Currin should have outgrown the aggressive thrift-shop style of his early portraits to become a virtuoso of a style and manner that would have been admired in Ferrara or Parma in the 1550s–and that Mannerism, with its artifice and virtuosity, should of all things define one of the brightest art stars of the early twenty-first century!
Being photographed by Avedon is one of the ordeals of celebrity, but the portrait by Todd Eberle, which the Times, in announcing his ascension to the Gagosian Gallery, reprinted from Vanity Fair, is a wonderful study of the Mannerist in his studio, rather than a mere demonstration, as in Avedon’s case, of the photographer’s will to power. It was taken in 2000, and as it is almost a key to reading Currin’s pictures, the artist must have had a say in how he was to be shown. He stands between two easels, on one of which is a painting–the haunting Sno-Bo of 1999–and on the other is a mirror, which shows the artist from behind. The facial resemblance between Currin, with his boyish good looks and longish hair, and the delectable young woman in the painting, is remarkable. It confirms his claim, often made in interviews, that he uses his own face as a model. That does not mean that the painting is a Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman–but his placement between mirror and painting is certainly an allegory of painting as he conceives it. On the ledge of the easel that holds the mirror, Currin has placed the open-toed red platform shoe with rope soles and long laces that Sno-Bo is wearing in the painting–and the puddle of reddish pigment on the glass palette is meant to tell us that he has been at work. The floor is strewn with the carefully placed magazines that Currin uses for models when he does not resort to his own features–Cosmopolitan, a girlie magazine and two others I am unable to identify. Like everything in the photograph, they serve as signs. Currin’s pants are smeared with white paint, which could be explained with reference to the fat snowflakes in the painting. But Currin cannot be a sloppy painter, and the snowflakes are carefully dotted across the surface.
We know, moreover, that he wore paint-smeared pants on his first date with the artist Rachel Feinstein, whom he was to marry. “Whatever I wore,” he says in an interview, “I am sure it was calculated…. As the pretext of meeting her was that I was going to paint her, then that was the message.” Everything in the photograph–like everything in the paintings–is calculated. Standing in the studio, Currin points, like a figure in an allegory by Bronzino, to a clue. In this case, the clue is his wedding band. The photograph tells a story. The painting is to be explained with reference to his marriage.