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.

Let’s leave the photograph, which you can find on the Internet, and pay attention to the painting, which I adore. Sno-Bo is a pendant to Currin’s Hobo, the difference being mainly that in Sno-Bo, the charming vagrant stands daydreaming in the snow, her left foot resting on what would be a fork in a branch, except that it belongs to a shepherd’s crook, which Sno-Bo uses as a staff to help her over her life’s path. Her left elbow rests on her raised knee. Like her counterpart in Hobo, Sno-Bo is carrying a sack with what we presume are her worldly belongings. She is bent forward and to one side, so that her defenseless breasts hang softly down, above her vulnerable little belly. Despite the snow, she does not seem to suffer from the cold. She wears a bright smile, and her pensive eyes sparkle. She is clothed in the sheerest of pink intimate garments, something ordinarily to be worn in warm bedrooms. A tiny kerchief is tucked into a gold chain about her waist. Her sister figure Hobo also has a gold chain, with jewels, a blue ribbon tied gaily to her wrist, and her purse hangs from the fork in her walking stick. She wears a sheer sleeved blouse and panties so transparent that her pubic hair can plainly be seen.

The two figures are exceedingly mysterious. “I was interested in the silvers, the silvery-ness, and the see-through clothes,” Currin says. “That was the big joke: It’s a homeless person with beautiful see-through lingerie and bedecked in jewels.”Hobo and Sno-Bo could be panels–say summer and winter–in a Mannerist boudoir, the way Boucher’s paintings of the seasons decorate Madame Pompadour’s boudoir, now in the Frick. They are erotic paintings that imply larger meanings. The women are protected by their beauty against the harshness of the world. The images imply the world’s harshness by indirection. As paintings they have the power to hold us in front of them, contemplating meanings too fragile and remote for application to life, like the kinds of visions a wizard in Shakespeare is capable of summoning into momentary being for someone’s entertainment–interludes in life. There are certain things that belong to art alone.

One of Currin’s earlier paintings is called The Wizard. A man with cartoon features, looking something like a ventriloquist’s dummy with thick lips and false eyelashes, palpates a young woman’s immense breasts, wearing what look like tight black rubber gloves. His eyes are closed, her eyes are either downcast or gaze downward at her extraordinary bosom. It is difficult to tell whether the man is kneeling or the woman herself is gigantesque. There is a lingering question as to what exactly explains the title of the work, but I can think of a way of reading the work that does. If he is a wizard, then he has worked his magic on the woman, making her dream of large breasts come true. It may seem presumptuous, if not offensive to certain sensibilities, to suggest that it is her dream, not the Wizard’s. Yet the picture is part of a body of works that project a world where women are proud of such breasts, measure them, and admire other women who have them. After The Wizard, men all but disappear from this world.

The Wizard was painted in 1994. Within just a few years, Currin began showing the paintings that won him notoriety–The Bra Shop and Jaunty and Mame, both of 1997, show women with breasts like beach balls, which stretch their sweaters or blouses past the point of safety. The women measure one another’s bosoms or purchase the heavy-duty bras their amplitude demands. They look demurely pleased with the bodies nature bestowed upon them, but their faces are coarse and silly. It is a Mannerist touch that the paired females evoke a Visitation, a painting where two women–actually Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist–are shown meeting. It is easy to see how these paintings gave Currin a sexist reputation, and seemed in general misogynistic and meanspirited. They are aggressive paintings, and women often felt infuriated upon seeing them. Perhaps they were intended polemically, as a defense through offense against the charge that painting as such is sexist, and the province of machismo. They certainly could not be simple fantasies of a male fetishistically fixated on big boobs. Currin could not have been turned on by the women in his paintings. He is someone with a singularly refined sensibility, as is clear from his more recent work. But I am struck by the fact that his critics and commentators alike have used these grotesqueries, rather than the silvery Mannerist paintings, to define his project as an artist. That blurs the amazing shift in direction that his work took around 1999. The earlier work required a suppression of the painterly impulses that have emerged. To use a distinction framed by Hilton Kramer in deprecating Philip Guston, it is far easier for a mandarin to become a stumblebum than the other way around. Anyone can go to seed–but one cannot become a Mannerist as a matter of stylistic decision. One has to allow talents to show that have been held in check all along.

The catalogue places an exquisite portrait that Currin painted of his wife in 2002 as a marker, dividing the plates into two sets that could for the most part have been done by two different artists, so far at least as painterly touch and pictorial manner are concerned. It is called Rachel in Fur, and it has an almost porcelain translucency. Rachel looks calmly out from behind huge hexagonal sunglasses, her pale lips composed in a quiet smile. The fur looks deep, opulent and luxurious: One sees its warmth and softness. The proportions of the face have an ethereal oddness–the forehead is high and wide, the chin small, and the neck has been borrowed from Parmigianino. The plates that follow, though for the most part they reproduce paintings done slightly earlier, use another species of woman altogether, Mannerist creatures all, sprung from painting rather than copied from life, undeniably erotic, but made of something beyond flesh, and looking, as painting, more as if their habitat were the Wunderkammer–the cabinet of wonders where sixteenth-century princes displayed strange, rare and beautiful objects–than the museum of fine arts. They embody the aesthetics of miniatures, executed with the finest brushes on the smoothest surfaces.

A case in point is the astonishing Pink Tree of 1999. Two golden nude women are painted against a pair of bare trees, whose branches have been sawed short, as if pollarded. The background itself is black, as in a painting by Cranach of goddesses; and the blackness transforms the flesh into something effulgent with its own light, like a celestial substance. The Mannerist body was typically elongated, with unusually small heads. Currin’s women have these elongated figures, but he has given them disproportionately large heads on thin necks. They have luminous blond coiffures, and strange yet perfect features. The woman on the right is smiling, and has an ampler body than her partner. The two women touch, and there is in effect a choreography of hand gestures, but what is going on between them is anybody’s guess. It could be a lady and her handmaiden or confidante–Phaedra and her attendant, say. (If it were a real Mannerist work, it might be Electra and Clytemnestra.) Who would have expected to see artifice like this in an age like ours? Such painting implies a court, the murmur of poetry, the sound of lutes, the discourse of fine ladies and chivalric suitors.

Stamford After-Brunch, probably Currin’s masterpiece, brings us abruptly back to where we live. Three spoiled young women sit in their snug suburban living room, merrily clinking martini glasses and smoking big cigars. A wintry landscape, seen through the window, underscores the security of their lives. They have wonderful animated expressions, as if they have been sharing gossip or revealing naughty secrets. There is something comically wrong in the drawing of the figure to the right–the chief conspirator, one feels. Her butt goes back and back, straight out of the picture. It could make an erudite allusion to a Venus Callipygus–Venus with enlarged buttocks. Or it could mean something else. “The distortions of my figures do not originate from illustration. They come from my first drawing attempts whose inherent flaws and rhythms I try not to correct,” Currin once explained. “My main concern is shaped from, partly, an abstract point of view while keeping it believable and keeping the graphic rhythm. I also find it intriguing and humorous.” I don’t think the bosoms are believable in the controversial paintings of 1997, nor are they flaws in draftsmanship. They were willed. But here, the elongated butt serves as counterweight to the girl’s large head, enabling her to bend forward, toward her pals, without falling over, though it could, if intentional, make a moral comment. With her cigar, martini glass and head cloth covering her rollers, one supposes the young lady thinks she is pretty hot stuff. That tail carries away part of her sophistication while it enables her to keep her balance.

Currin is often compared to Norman Rockwell by critics who consider this the supreme put-down. I to the contrary think it shows how good Rockwell really was. But there is an edge to such paintings as Stamford After-Brunch that would be entirely foreign to Rockwell. This is nowhere more evident than in the strange Thanksgiving of 2003. Three festively dressed women are gathered around a table like a coven of witches, with some pieces of fruit, a few roses in a glass pitcher and an immense uncooked turkey. The turkey appears to be thawing–it sits in a puddle of pink juice. One of the women offers a spoonful of this exudate to another, whose mouth is wide open, as if about to receive the sacrament. The scene is set in a dark and opulent room, with columns, beams and an unlit chandelier. The two younger women are sisters, so to speak, of Parmigianino’s The Madonna of the Long Neck. The older woman has exactly the coiffure of the heroine in Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, which may be a clue to its meaning. The painting cries out for the kind of interpretation that Erwin Panofsky once gave of Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. It is an optimistic work in the sense that the artist evidently believes there exists an audience out there of the kind Bronzino could count on to enjoy unriddling allegories while admiring the craft. I find this confidence in the collaborative intelligence of the art world inspiring, if utopian.