John Currin - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    'I was in my mode of isolating a woman, or her body, and having this magnifying glass in the sun burning a hole in her with concentration.' —John CurrinThere is something instantly iconic about John Currin’s Girl in Bed, painted in 1993. Forming part of a titular sequence of works portraying the same recumbent female silhouette tucked in bed and resting her head on a sterile white pillow, the painting attends as much to reality as it does to fiction, placing the eponymous girl in a surreal, ethereal realm that immediately puzzles the viewer. Is the girl awake? Is she asleep with her eyes open? Currin creates more an atmosphere than a portrait in Girl in Bed, using the composition’s monochromatic pink background to further highlight the protagonist’s absolute isolation. ‘I wanted to make a totally passive subject’, John Currin explained. ‘She [Girl in Bed]’s isolated by being put in bed. She's awake-she's not sleeping, she's not sick, she's just a completely passive isolated watcher or spectator. She doesn't have any life or activity. She just looks at things. It's an allegory of what you're doing when you are looking at the painting. She can't sleep because you're looking at the painting’.1 A masterpiece from Currin’s body of figurative paintings, Girl in Bed is distinguished by its technical skill, its immersive image and its conceptual ambivalence. Further attesting to its importance in Currin’s wider oeuvre, other examples of Girl in Bed — of which only few are as qualitative as the present example — are held in important collections, including a work on paper of the same name residing at Tate, London.


    John Currin, Girl in Bed, 2006, etching, aquatint and drypoint on paper, Tate, London.  Image: © Tate.
    John Currin, Girl in Bed, 2006, etching, aquatint and drypoint on paper, Tate, London. Image: © Tate.

    The Female Muse

    'I like the idea that Picasso looked at women all the time, but had a strange, antagonistic, questionable relationship to them. [...] Have you ever experienced a moment when you can’t believe how cold-hearted you are? It’s an emotional moment. I’ve realized that it’s analogous to painting - to paint you have to be very observant and cold about it.' —John CurrinA prominent and lasting subject matter in the canon of painting, the reclining female figure nonetheless seems to have evolved over time, gaining life and consciousness as women’s personhoods increasingly became acknowledged as voices to be heard rather than simply silhouettes to be looked at. Coming a long way from Edouard Manet’s seminal Olympia of 1863, Girl in Bed seems to bear more similitudes with Lucian Freud’s similarly named counterparts, portraying the artist’s wife and muse Lady Caroline Blackwood. In Girl in Bed and Hotel Bedroom, painted in 1952 and 1954 respectively, Blackwood’s lethargic yet meditative portends Currin’s supine protagonist in Girl in Bed, her eyes gazing into obliviousness as though plunged into deep thought. Unlike Freud’s painterly contributions, however, Currin seems to impart an uncanny facet to his painting, locating the girl’s daydreams in a space entirely devoid of context and verisimilitude. Eschewing reality and believable personhood, she takes the appearance of a thinking doll — a lifeless body with a working mind.


    Right: Lucian Freud, Girl in Bed, 1952, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Brideman Images.
Left: Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954,  oil on canvas, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Canada. Image: Bridgeman Images.
    Left: Lucian Freud, Girl in Bed, 1952, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Brideman Images.
    Right: Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954,  oil on canvas, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Canada. Image: Bridgeman Images. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

    A Painterly Punctum


    An aspect accounting for Girl in Bed’s ambivalent psychological effect is the composition’s overall sheen — its false sense of perfection. Indeed, the girl depicted at its heart boasts glowing skin, deep blue eyes, pouty red lips and shimmering blonde hair; her eerily flawless appearance appears to have been sculpted out of a pre-conceived ideal. Yet, similar to what Roland Barthes once elucidated as the punctum of a photograph — that visual element that creates a sharp twist in a composition’s portrayal of reality — Girl in Bed seems to contain an unknowable component that subverts its overarching sense of faultlessness. Indeed, while the composition exudes all the formal qualities one would expect from a billboard advertising, it simultaneously emanates a sense of unease that borders on distress. Another contemporary artist who has frequently played with the idea of the photographic punctum on a painterly plane is Michaël Borremans, whose eerie compositions merge the familiar with the unfamiliar. In a statement that could be applied to the present work, Borremans poignantly summarised: ‘With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the paintings don’t match, or don’t make sense. […] The images are unfinished: they remain open’.2


    Liminal Portraiture


    In addition to the painting’s structural and imagistic perfection, it is perhaps the protagonist’s neutral position that weighs down on the overall atmosphere surrounding her. With its inert subject matter drenched in physical beauty — appearing both conscious and not — Girl in Bed is redolent of William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening of the Conscience, where the female protagonist appears lost, thoughts suspended, staring intently into the void. As the title of that painting suggests, the woman seems to mirror a moment of psychological liminality, when one awakes from cognitive oblivion. In Girl in Bed, the subject matter’s disturbing inertia similarly contrasts with her bewitchingly beautiful appearance. She is a soul shifting between awareness and apathy, all-the-while captivating the viewer’s gaze with scintillating beauty.


    William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, Tate, London. Image: © Tate.
    John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-1852, oil on canvas, Tate, London. Image: © Tate.

    Between Photography and Painting


    Although keen on making veiled allusions to an art historical past, whether from the late Renaissance or 19th century, Currin also finds inspiration in the visual production of contemporary culture: ads from women’s magazines, 1970s Cosmo models drawn from cliched images featured in stock photography books, and pornography. Regarding contemporary culture’s overall ‘sexualisation’ of images, Currin explained, ‘I’m critical of it but also am a victim of it. I paint the way I do because that’s the landscape I inhabit. Part of it is just reflecting the constant prurient provocation’. He adds, ‘A larger question is of the battle between photography and the painter. In my paranoid view, photography represents the state or society and painting represents the individual… I’m trying to take control of lustful images that have this automatic physiological effect on me and on men, and then redeem them’.3


    1 John Currin, quoted in Rochelle Steiner John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, p. 78.

    2 Michaël Borremans, quoted in David Coggins, ‘Identity is a retrograde myth’, reproduced online.
    3 John Currin, quoted in conversation with Catherine Wood, ‘John Currin’, Kaleidoscope, issue 17, Winter 2012-13. 

    • Provenance

      Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
      Penny McCall, New York (acquired from the above)
      Private Collection
      Thomas Olbricht Collection, Berlin
      Christie's, New York, 16 May 2013, lot 490
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Andrea Rosen Gallery, John Currin, 21 January - 5 March 1994

    • Literature

      Helena Papadopoulos, 'John Currin,' Arti (Athens), vol. 22, November - December 1994, p. 131 (illustrated)
      Kara Vander Weg and Rose Degan, eds., John Currin, New York, 2006, pp. 122, 380 (illustrated, p. 123)


Girl in Bed

signed and dated 'Currin 93' on the overlap
oil on linen
61.5 x 77 cm (24 1/4 x 30 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1993.

Full Cataloguing

£450,000 - 650,000 

Contact Specialist


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021