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  • Provenance

    Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Ado Gallery, Antwerp; Ranbir Singh, New York

  • Exhibited

    Antwerp, Ado Gallery, Critical Distance: John Currin, August 5 – September 25, 1993

  • Literature

    Ado Gallery, ed. Critical Distance: John Currin, Antwerp, 1993, p. 33 (illustrated); U. Grosenick, ed., Art Now: Vol. 2, Cologne, 2005, p. 579 (illustrated); C. Mason, “She Can’t Be Bought,” New York Magazine, March 7, 2005, p. 32. (illustrated); Vanderweg, ed., John Currin, NewYork, 2006, pp. 102 – 103 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    John Currin is renowned for combining historical references and challenging subject matter in paintings that are simultaneously traditional and completely contemporary. The present lot, Standing Nude, 1993, is a prime example of Currin’s radical use of fresh subject matter within the genre of portraiture. In the painting, the nude figure of a short-haired brunette stands dramatically against a black background that moves the viewer to focus on the wiry perfection of the subject’s silhouette. Her elongated proportions nod back to Mannerism or German Renaissance painters. From the lines in her face we can surmise that the woman is probably middle-aged – not the typical age of the nude figures we find on museum walls.This painting is a bold tour de force, which the artist has built his reputation on.
    When John Currin first emerged on the art world in the early 1990s it was not a climate warm to painting, let alone figurative painting. “For by the 1990s the figurative image, centered on the body and the face, had reached something of a nadir of historical viability. Currin’s strategy was like a wager against the history of Modern Art.The territory of the portrait, in particular, was by now discredited as to constitute something like a “no go” area within contemporary painting. Getting rid of the portrait – driving the last nail into its coffin – had been part of the Modernist agenda from the early years of the twentieth century. For artists as different as Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, nothing represented more clearly than the portrait the antiquated values of the old bourgeoisie” (N. Bryson, John Currin, NewYork, 2006, p.18). When John Currin’s exhibition of middle-aged women, such as our present lot, opened at Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1993, it was a radical move. Part of what makes John Currin’s works such as Standing Nude, 1993 so compelling is the strange relationship of their contemporary daring with his affinity to older paintings.
    John Currin’s embrace of art historical references is evident in the present lot.The black background that the figure is framed by is reminiscent of the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472 – 1553 (see fig. 1) and the shaping of the figure bears relation to the artist as well. “The gaunt, scantily clad, enigmatically smiling women that we encounter in [Currin’s] paintings share much with Cranach, whom Currin eagerly acknowledges as one of his sources.The German master is also the inspiration behind the strange, markedly angular poses and inflated bellies of Currin’s female figures, as well as his high-toned palette and crisply edged forms.Yet, it could be argued, Currin seems to be playing post-modernist games with Cranach and other old Masters” (F.Whitford, “Cranach’s Legacy,” Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, London, Spring 2008, n.p.). While the present lot, certainly references painters like Cranach, it uses Cranach’s language in a completely contemporary way spinning the meaning of the work into something entirely new and unique to Currin. From the visual cues of art history, Currin found anatomic conventions that he could translate to represent modern womanhood.
    According to Peter Schjeldahl, “No one today makes more telling use of subtle painterly rhetoric than Currin does. The taut and tender concentration of his techniques – he tacitly talks shop with Old Masters from Vincent van Gogh to Lucas Cranach – reacts with the coarse comedy of his images to generate a rare ardor. The longer you look at a Currin, the less you know what to make of it. Finally, you commune directly with the permanent conundrums of painting – ambiguities of light and substance, depth and flatness, the works – on the awkward occasion of the artist’s psychosexual hang-ups. Currin unites extremes of low-down grotesquerie and classical elegance. I want contrapposto without looking Italian, Currin said to me of his nudes’ expressively distorted Northern Rennaissance anatomies. (He also said, I prefer the Germans, because they’re smokier and scarier.) His figuration is so kinesthetically affecting that it takes a viewer time to notice that, say, a figure’s right arm is roughly twice as long as her left one. Currin’s women may be unreal, but they sure are actual.This art bursts upon our imagination before we can organize ourselves to keep it out” (P. Schjeldahl, “The Elegant Scavenger,” NewYorker, February 22, 1999, p.176).
    Of further provocation is the subject matter of the current painting. Not meant to be mere shock value, the use of the older woman can be read in many ways. One wonders if it is meant to force the viewer to question what we socially view to be beauty –should beauty have an age tied to it? Is the artist trying to get the viewer to confront what we find sexually attractive? Painting women of a certain age gives full rein to two mutually exciting impulses: to locate the embers of a pin-up fantasy within the ashes of its deterioration, and to turn each pin-up trace into a stigma, a mark of beauty’s downfall (N. Bryson, “Maudit: John Currin and Morphology,” John Currin, NewYork, 2006, p. 20). Or, is Currin pointing us to a new kind of beauty? Perhaps the beauty found in the grotesque. All of Currin’s figures are exaggerated in some way, and the figure in Standing Nude, is a fantastic early example of this with her elongated frame culled from art history and here used to portray a thoroughly modern woman. The beyond natural proportions paired with a face that is not shying away from age, may be Currin’s way of embracing the things that we cast away in our society, without hiding it or trying to gloss it over in some way. Despite the slight shock that the image provides by displaying a figure that has not been idealized, the image also provides something close to affection. The image contains a display of age as grotesque and unidealized, yet simultaneously accepts these flaws and presents them to the viewer in an unapologetic way. “The flaw, then, is the precondition of idealization, affection, beauty” (Ibid, p. 22).
    One could also credit John Currin, not as a misogynist, but as a shrewd observer of society.We are uncomfortable looking at images of aged bodies, because it forces us to admit that death is coming for all of us, even the former pin-up girls. Currin’s image forces us to face our own stereotypes and fears and confronts an increasingly vain society. Perhaps the physical signs of age are also being used as a metaphor for an existential meaning. The signs of age could serve as a metaphor for the emotions that the artist is experiencing, or for the way he views his situation as an artist working in a traditional medium. Alison M. Gingeras discusses this issue in her forward essay for his latest catalogue:
    “Currin centered these fictional portraits using a series of abrasive social indicators, rendered with equally unappealing formal qualities: desexualized bodies; wrinkled skin; matronly clothes; severe hairstyles; pathetic postures; a dour palette of browns, beiges, and greens; and deliberately bad, thrift-store-painting techniques. Currin has explained the motivations behind these post-menopausal allegories:
    I wanted to make work that came directly from the center. I wanted to make a situation that purged my guilt about this context. I started to make these paintings of middle-aged, somewhat pathetic women put into situations that were sort of embarrassing…There was a feeling of exploitation –not in a sexual way, like a gigolo –but there was transference of blame on the victim. I thought of these women as harlequins, the way that Picasso looked at circus people as a corny way of talking about his own ruthlessness. In the same way, I thought of these women as irrelevant people. The way I was perceived of as a painter in our culture. These women had no more sexual value; they were only interested in culture, like museum patrons. These women mirrored my situation as a painter. When I was making these paintings, my validity as an artist was greatly challenged.
    With the first mature cycle of paintings, Currin found a way to channel painting’s loss of mainstream currency into a source of freedom from the dogmas of good taste, the tyranny of avant-gardism, and the prescriptive limits of correct representation.”                                                                                                                                 A. Gingeras, “John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris,” John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 39
    In a way, Standing Nude, 1993 is a self-portrait of John Currin. The figure stands in for the artist’s own sense of being old-fashioned and out of favor in his quest for figurative paintings. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the figure, while clearly a woman with the side of her breast showing, has a certain masculine quality about her. One might even say that she physically resembles the artist.
    Standing Nude, 1993 is an important example of John Currin’s mastery of the tension between beauty and the grotesque. He captured the tension inherent in the choice of controversial subject matter, while the work remains open to many different readings. The painting is a daring and provocative example of using art history in a completely contemporary way. Standing Nude is a seminal work that helped usher figurative painting back into favor in contemporary art.

24

Standing Nude

1993
Oil on canvas.
48 x 36 in. (122 x 91 cm).

Signed and dated “Currin 93” on the overlap.

Estimate
$500,000 - 700,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

13 Nov 2008, 7pm
New York