Artists Frieze New York 2017

‘A Lot of Naked Ladies, That Kind of Stuff’: John Currin on the Drawings Behind the Paintings, on View for the First Time at Frieze New York

John Currin, Untitled (2000).COURTESY GAGOSIAN GALLERY

John Currin, Untitled (2000).


After accidentally calling his wife (“Our numbers are very similar,” said Rachel Feinstein) and then catching him while he was stuck in traffic, I got John Currin on the horn last week via the landline at his studio in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York, where he had just finished combing through decades of his drawings—thousands of drawings, none ever shown—to pick a few hundred to put up for sale at Frieze, at the Gagosian Gallery booth.

“They range from real doodles to pretty finished drawings, but the majority are quick things,” Currin said over the phone. “A lot of naked ladies, that kind of stuff.”

The whole approach seems like it will be pretty laid back: the Gagosian booth will have a salon-style hang of the works, a more casual set up than, say, the blockbuster-stuffed affairs that the gallery often brings to bazaars like Frieze London or Art Basel in Switzerland. According to a statement from the gallery, the booth will be “fitted with elements of a decorative interior,” which sounds pretty delightful. There’s also a book signing tonight at Gagosian Shop at Madison Avenue, where seven new Currin prints will be on sale.

But it wasn’t exactly a breeze for Currin to sort through hundreds of notebooks, spanning his whole career, to find the right sketches that could best represent his process.

“Initially, I was a little reluctant—you know, I’m nervous, because I haven’t shown these before and I haven’t been so out of control,” he said. “But I find them illuminating myself so I hope they are to other people.”

I don’t know effective this will be financially,” he added. “They’re good drawings. Gagosian knows how to sell things.”

Many of the drawings that will be up this week at Frieze were initially studies for his lush Mannerist compositions on canvas, often depicting a frank sexual encounter, or self-encounter, which Currin’s become well known for. One such work, Nice ‘n Easy (1999), sold for $12 million at Christie’s last November, and the booth will feature studies for works such as Thanksgiving (2003), The Penitent (2004), and Fishermen (2002). But the older, earlier works were often completed ideas, not means to an end.

“I went through periods where I made finished product drawings, and for some reason I don’t do that anymore,” he said. “Back then I was too poor to have enough canvases to do that kind of stuff, and I didn’t know if it could turn into a painting. When I was younger I was a little more scared to paint, and not as confident, so I would work out things more in drawing.”

Currin said it had never occurred to him to show these drawings, but after Gagosian proposed the idea, he found himself enjoying the process of revisiting the nearly 6,000 drawings that he could choose from.

“It was a great opportunity to see what I’ve done, and it was actually a little emotional to see the march of time, to see how things have changed,” he said. “It would be a little like finding old photographs of things. It was kind of a gold mine for me.”

For such an expressive, labor-intensive artist like Currin, it takes a significant amount of effort to turn sketches for a work into a finished painting—”it’s like a play that you make a movie out of,” he said. And so, inevitably, certain ideas don’t make it past the the planning stages, leaving a finished sketch for a painting that never was executed.

“There were a lot of things where I would think, ‘God I should have made a painting out of that!” he said. “But there’s a huge difference between drawing state and painting state—and it was about getting to the state.”

I asked him if there was a particular unrealized sketch that he wishes he had followed through on. He paused for a second.

“Well, something I’ve always wished I made a painting of is a drawing of three doctors,” he said. “One is white, one is black, and in the middle is Jesus, or God, and he’s got a beard and the whole bit, and they’re looking over X-rays, and… actually, maybe it’s best as a drawing.”

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