What you need to know about John Currin.

The big picture.
Dec. 30 2003 3:07 PM

Talk of the Town

Critics love the painter John Currin. But why?

(Click here  to see the slide show of Currin's work.)

Skinny Woman by Currin
Skinny Woman, 1992

Almost every art season, there's one show courageous, compelling, or contentious enough to get everybody talking—like "Sensation," the controversial exhibition of Young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Guggenheim's populist resurrection of Norman Rockwell. This year, the name on everybody's lips is John Currin, whose midcareer retrospective recently arrived at the Whitney Museum. By now, the major critics have weighed in on Currin's slyly satirical, figurative paintings, and the reviews have been unusually enthusiastic. There are some wildly different ideas about exactly what Currin is up to— New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman sees him as "a latter-day Jeff Koons" trafficking in postmodern irony while Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker finds him a blissfully sincere artist tapping into the timeless values of "mystery, sublimity, transcendence." But everyone is unanimous about one thing: John Currin can paint.

In almost every review, Currin's technical skill is acknowledged with a kind of breathless wonder. And to be sure, lately he has adopted a suave, Old Master-ish style, rendering the smooth, luminous skin of his nudes with real conviction—a marked departure from the intentionally crude technique of his earlier paintings. But this critical fixation on Currin's painterly technique raises the question: Why are we so surprised that a successful contemporary painter is good at putting pigment on canvas?

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(Click here  to see a slide show and for further exploration of Currin's work.)

Mia Fineman is a writer and curator in New York.

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