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  • Provenance

    Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
    Susan and Lewis Manilow, Chicago
    Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
    Gagosian Gallery, New York
    Collection of David Hoberman, Los Angeles
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2013

  • Exhibited

    New York, Andrea Rosen Gallery, John Currin, January 21 - March 5, 1994
    Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Wild Walls, September 15 - October 29, 1995

  • Literature

    Wild Walls, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1995, p. 76 (illustrated)
    N. Bryson, A. M. Gingeras, D. Eggers, John Currin, Gagosian Gallery, New York: Rizzoli, 2006, p. 136, p.137 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “It’s the most fascinating artistic problem—how real emotions survive in spite of, and because of, all the fakery.” John Currin, 2000

    Awash with the epoch-spanning details that only an artist with one foot in the past and one foot in present could create, John Currin’s The Owens, 1994 is a marvelous and harrowing departure from his more explicit and notorious fare. Arriving at the beginning of his career in 1994—the same year in which he opened his first solo show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery—The Owens is alive with the energy of deep melancholy and simultaneous comfort. In perhaps the rarest of all artistic gifts, Currin has found a way to communicate true wisdom onto the canvas in the present lot, where a loving embrace symbolizes all that is sad, yet unequivocally good.

    Currin’s cross-country education, from the University of Colorado to Yale, provoked the development of a quintessentially American artist who entrusted the figures in his paintings with emotional truthfulness. While some such as the buxom women that fill many other canvases embody the shameless beauty of the exaggerated human figure—resplendent in their pride and sexuality—the figures in the present lot are introverted and self-involved, set against the backdrop of a bright California sky. Currin himself has testified to his nostalgic tendencies, namely those memories that conjure his childhood in Northern California, retrospectively set against the colors inherent to The Owens, 1994.

    Currin’s formal methods are only one of the most astonishing features of his oeuvre, but they are on full display in the present lot. After an initial sketch, Currin enlarges his drawing, filling in the details with layers upon layers of pigment until the flesh hues spring forward truthfully with liquid texture. Writing on his paintings in 1995, Roberta Smith indicates this sensual tenderness: “His images are beautifully and deliberately painted; their surface activity continually slows the eye and counters the ironic with the personal. There are all sorts of weird ambiguities to sort through here, but the main subject seems to be enthrallment and the defenselessness it causes.”(R. Smith, “Art in Review”, The New York Times, November 17, 1995)

    The Owens, 1994 is indeed a technical marvel. Ecstatically sprinkled in sunlight from the setting sun, the affectionate couple leans upon each other with a gentle touch—a pair immersed in surrender. Signs of virility and health—the deep golden hues of the man’s skin and the thick waves of his beard, the curve of the woman’s breast and her full red lips, are offset by their heavy eyelids and lowered heads. It is as if they are bowing to the sun itself, arbiter of all happy days in the Golden State. What’s more, the pale yellow of a wonderfully flamboyant shirt and the intense Matisse blue of the surrounding sky cannot lighten the weight of the sacred moment. As if to put an end to speculation as to whether the couple is simply enjoying a moment in the breeze, Currin’s paints a tiny flourish on the man’s cheek that one could mistake for a blemish had it not been painted in a tone light as the sky itself.

    Currin’s influences, especially in The Owens, 1994, are vast, but it is certainly useful to point to explore his relationship Renaissance art, specifically the Pieta in its many incarnations. This comparison lends a religious perspective to his two sun gazers, dependent upon the light for warmth and joy yet still tragically possessive of their own heavy humanity.

    This powerful effort of Currin against the preconceived notions of what was truly contemporary in the early 1990s can be seen as one of the most instrumental forces in repopularizing figurative painting. In fact, his choice to reintroduce the figure into contemporary painting was born of a precocious sense of intellectual freedom and anti-establishment exploration. Currin spoke in 2000 of the atmosphere of the early 1990s: “Ten years ago, what would be taken seriously and considered smart, contemporary New York art was not figurative work. So I was already in a state of mind where nothing mattered; no one was going to take it seriously.”( R. Rosenblum, “Artists in Conversation”, Bomb Magazine No. 71 [Spring 2000])

    And while his use of nudity in the female form specifically brought forth a neo-classical appreciation in contemporary art, he exhibited it alongside works such as the present lot: remarkably particular character studies of true Americana. Works such as the present lot make John Currin one of the most obvious successors to American portraitists such as Norman Rockwell—artists who place the hidden emotional life of their subjects in the same vein as their devotion to technical and formal innovation.

    But one of the most fantastic elements of The Owens, 1994—a picture of painful submission and quiet dependence—is an absolutely breathtaking display of the spirit of existence within. Though the plight of The Owens is at its core a very universal one, so is the joy that surrounds them: against a California sky, the generous sun bathes them in its immortal glow—just for a glorious second.


The Owens

oil on canvas
34 x 26 in. (86.4 x 66 cm)
Signed and dated “John Currin 94” along the overlap.

$1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $1,685,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm