After viewing this summer's John Currin show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, I walked away perplexed. Not because the artist received such high-level attention, but because I kept thinking about how much money his work has been bringing at auction.
Back in 2002, the Currin painting, Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk, a 48 x 38 in. oil on canvas from 1995, brought an astounding $427,500 (Sotheby's evening sale, May 2002). For that price, the buyer could have bought a major Joseph Cornell "Bird" box or a significant John Chamberlain from the 1960s.
For a few bucks more, the purchaser could have bought a two-foot-square Andy Warhol Flowers, or a small Edward Ruscha canvas from the 1960s, or a modest Wayne Thiebaud painting of creamy pie. I could go on.
Now that Currin's prices are in the same league as the above artists, you have to ask yourself -- who is this painter and what is he doing selling for all this dough?
In terms of esthetics, John Currin has surprisingly received universal praise from the art world press. There has been all sorts of talk of how expertly his works are painted, coupled with a lot of psychological nonsense about the human condition.
To my eye, all we have here are intentional kitschy, thrift-store portraits of people with exaggeratedly wide eyes. Sure, they're skillfully painted, but why shouldn't they be? In this day and age, the art world considers being a good draughtsman and having a command of color and composition to be something remarkable.
This attitude, of course, is ridiculous. If an artist decides that what he or she wants to say is best said by painting in a realistic manner, one should assume that the artist has mastered the necessary craft. Yet, people can't help but be bowled over by Currin's technical abilities.
The next question with Currin's work is why collectors are inclined to pay so much money for his paintings and drawings at auction. There is no obvious answer. Recent results include the sale of Flag for $207,500 (Christie's day sale, Nov. 2002) and Architecture Student for $152,500 (Sotheby's evening sale, Nov. 2002).
Currin's drawings have also done well, as evidenced by the sale of Mrs. So-and-So for $28,680 (Christie's day sale, Nov. 2002) and Untitled for $17,925 (Christie's day sale, May 2002). However, there was also a sale where buyers were more cautious. During Christie's Post-War evening sale in November 2002, Red Faced Woman failed to hit the low end of its $200,000-$300,000 estimate and Untitled was left unsold with a $90,000-$120,000 estimate.
What it all comes down to is that we have a relatively young (41-year-old), living, steadily producing artist who is selling for more money than many artists who have stood the test of time. If a collector is truly turned on by the work and has the income to buy a Currin, then so be it.
But rather than pursue a work at auction, a better bet might be to buy one on the primary market. New paintings at the Andrea Rosen Gallery run $60,000-$200,000 and drawings are $14,000-$30,000. But collectors shouldn't think that they are buying the work of an artist who is destined to be a major historical figure. On that, the jury is still out. It is still way too early to say how things will shake out for John Currin.