John Currin - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Sunday, November 8, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Andrea Rosen Gallery, John Currin, October 23 - November 27, 1999

  • Literature

    R. Rosenblum, "John Currin", Bomb, Spring 2000, p. 76 (illustrated)
    K. Vander Weg (ed.), John Currin, New York: Gagosian Gallery and Rizzoli, 2006, pp. 252-253 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Instead of layered physical space, I kind of layered culture. You know, different languages battling on one painting.” John Currin

    Ever exploring the connotations within creating, John Currin's Birthday is replete with emblems notably absent from historically-rooted, narrative paintings. Portraiture serves as Currin’s primary vehicle to establish an array of symbols, taking shape in subtle transformations and dialogues between the minute and the monumental. Almost nowhere more so is this evident in his oeuvre than in the present lot, with the jarring curve of our subject’s smile, the dimples hugging its edge, the cheeky curl of her lip just beneath her nose. As we peel away the layers of the surface, we divulge metaphors throughout the picture plane, her smile preserving the majority of implications for the composition as a whole. Coalescing insights from 17th century European art history, Currin’s fastidiously renders the present lot , with her protracted silhouette and caricatured face, with what has been described as a “vicious power” (Jennifer Higgie, “John Currin,” Frieze, no. 105, 2007).

    Contemporary culture has directed our tendencies to search for meaning in narrative or in subject, and yet Currin asks us to revisit our strategy. In Birthday, we immediately appraise a woman in the throes of a celebratory toast, candle light dancing against the black of her festive attire. Her gaze is cast elsewhere, a frozen moment capture with an unbridled sense of joy that is almost off-putting in its candor. The restaurant in which she dines is draped in richly textured curtains, with a floral still-life arrangement atop a nearby table, as if plucked straight from Rococo tableaux. This pastiche of excess holds up a mirror to the decadence of the generation in which Currin grew as a painter—an America of gluttony, exorbitance, and overindulgence. Of this allusion, he has explained, “When I was trying to change myself into a figurative painter, I was more drawn to the rococo and the other damned souls of art history.” (Robert Rosenblum, “Artists in Conversation: John Currin,” BOMB, 2000) In the wanton, exponential rise of the dominance of technology, wealth, and media in the 1990s into the 2000s, contemporary culture confronted the history of art, which the artist delineates in his meticulously placed lexicon of kitsch and historical appropriation. This outright repudiation of common taste feels so calculated that it adopts the shape of defiance.

    Cast in the porcelain skin of Cranach, our woman wearing the crooked smile in Birthday mutates our expectations of the familiar, from art historical drapery to feminine partygoers, into the uncanny. At once ordinary and preposterous, the present lot is a dynamic study in portraiture and a vocabulary of buried denotations. In 17th century Europe, broad smiles were a violation of etiquette, inconsistent with decorum, plastered on the faces of only the lascivious, the drunk or the impoverished—in this contextualization, Birthday is radical and unusual, its sitter eclipsed by her own toothy grin.

Property from an East Coast Private Collection



oil on canvas
22 x 18 in. (55.9 x 45.7 cm)
Signed and dated "John Currin 1999" along the overlap.

$1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $1,505,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1267

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 8 November 2015 7pm