The Lives of Artists – John Currin

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins explores the personal strengths and weaknesses in the life of this great artist
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John Currin beside Ludovico Carracci's The Lamentation at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Photo by Jackie Neale/Kathryn (from our book The Artist Project)
John Currin beside Ludovico Carracci's The Lamentation at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Photo by Jackie Neale/Kathryn (from our book The Artist Project)

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Consider this account of dinner with John Currin and his wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein.

 

Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
 

"My wife and I had had dinner at an uptown restaurant with Currin and Rachel Feinstein, his wife, who is also an artist. Their marriage, which is now in its tenth year, has been a dovetailing of contrary qualities whose symbiosis fascinates and occasionally irritates their less ecstatically married friends. Rachel’s work—wildly fanciful laminated-plywood sculpture is her current focus—holds such compelling interest for John that last spring, when she was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of raising their two young boys (Francis is four, Hollis is two) and thought maybe she should take a year off from making art, he argued her out of it. ‘He said, “I think you’re a great artist, and it really means something to me that you make things,”’ Rachel told me, a week or so later.” 

That’s a touching insight into one of the great strengths in that artist’s life. However, on a visit to the artist’s studio, Tomkins also uncovers Currin’s darker side.  

“He takes me up the stairs to the platform he uses as an office and storage space—it was his and Rachel’s bedroom during the eight years they lived here—and pulls out a large unfinished painting of two women against a yellow background, a picture he worked on for seven months in 2004 and finally abandoned.

 

The Lives of Artists

This was during the bad period after his Whitney retrospective, when he felt upended by events—fatherhood, leaving Andrea Rosen’s gallery for Gagosian’s, giving up the studio he had shared for ten years with Sean Landers, losing his momentum as a painter. ‘The worst thing was not feeling any joy coming from the brush,’ he says now. For the first time since he met Rachel Feinstein, he had slipped into one of his low-grade depressions. Currin’s artist friends all agree that meeting Rachel was the answer to his unformulated prayers. ‘Rachel brings him out into the world in a way he can’t do for himself,’ Lisa Yuskavage said. ‘I think he always wanted to be exactly who he is now.’” 

We’re certainly glad he got there. For more encounters like this Buy a copy of The Lives of Artists here, it's the perfect Christmas gift for any art-loving friend. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.


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