The Interview with John Currin
This an interview I did with John Currin, who is one of the most successful artists today, with paintings selling in the high six-figure range. He is a figurative painter, does not paint what is popular, and has not turned his practice into a more conceptual mode; he is simply making the paintings he wants to make and has met with criticism as well as great success with the subject matter he has chosen. In the interview with Robert Storr, when I mention this interview and how John Currin worked with his friends to build his career, Storr said his story was a common one—that is, gathering support from your peers can be a key to success and what it means to “network” within the art world.
Carey: You gave a lecture recently and talked about living in Hoboken when you graduated school. That’s where you had your first studio and were living, is that the case?
Currin: Yes, I was sharing it with Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein. I think they hadn’t married yet but they were living together there, and they’re the ones who first got a place because I stuck around painting houses for a year. They moved out there. They had a room, so it got me out of New Haven, although it wasn’t exactly New York City, but I could see New York City from my studio so that was the good part and the bad part, I guess.
Carey: So you were you doing house painting—how did youget your first show? You’re an artist, you’re in Hoboken, you can see New York, what were you doing to try to get a show? How did the first one come about?
Currin: Well, I didn’t get a show when I was out there. Lisaand Matvey looked at my work and we kind of starved and starved and froze together there. All of my other friends had moved to Manhattan, to the Lower East Side and I was painting a house one day and, you know, literally had tears rolling down my cheeks on the top of the ladder. I’m thinking like, “What have I done? I’m such a loser.” I remember looking into a Village Voice and getting a sublet on Ludlow Street and when I moved there I was sort of hanging out with people and I guess maybe Julian Pretto, who was an art dealer, and he’s the first art dealer to come to my studio ever.
Carey: That was your first studio visit in Manhattan?
Currin: Yes, I think so, he came to my studio and I don’t know if he was interested or whatever but he told Bill Arning who was running White Columns to come over. So I got to sort of jump the line of kids waiting to have him come over and I got a show at White Columns.
Also, there was a kind of crummy gallery that took a bunch of my paintings, you now, the crummy Broadway gallery. And then when I got the thing at White Columns, Bill said, “I’ll give you a show at White Columns if you don’t do a show at that gallery.”
So my friend, Sean Landers, and I kind of did a commandor aid on the gallery, we just kind of showed up at the back of the gallery and broke into it and walked into the back and took all my paintings out. So that’s how I got my first show.
Carey: And you remember how Julian Pretto came to you at the studio? How were you getting people in the studio at that time?
Currin: I think probably because I was a good looking guy and Julian liked good looking guys. I mean, I think that was part of it and just being in the cohort of people that kind of knew him. You know, it was really just a kind of a social thing actually.
It was going to parties and going to openings and kind of standing around and hanging with your friends and then you end up knowing more and more people. Just kind of like that. I met Andrea Rosen at that time through that same circle of people.
Carey: So tell me a little bit about that, you had the show at White Column which was really your first show in the art world and that’s a great space. Bill Arning’s a really good guy. How did that show go? That was before you had any other gallery shows in the city, is that correct?
Currin: Yeah. I had been doing paintings, more joke paintings. Kind of all over the place and every painting in a different style and which—actually, it was kind of a good thing when I had that studio because it was entertaining, I think, for the people who came over just to see this kind of stupid, different, silly paintings—but actually when I got that show at White Columns, I decided to do like five paintings of the same style and those were those ones I did from my high school yearbook.
I kind of decided to play it really straight with those and just to see what would happen if I made kind of anonymous looking paintings rather than super goofy looking ones. They turned out to be more interesting, and weirder than anything I had been doing. I think they got noticed when I did that show—it was a great response and I sold them. I sold paintings. For the first time I started making a little bit of money.
Carey: You sold them through White Columns, which is kind of unusual because they don’t really sell work there, it’s a nonprofit space.
Currin: I think it was a place where younger collectors would go and buy things. It certainly got you exposed to art collectors. I think Andrea Rosen probably was helping. She didn’t have a gallery yet, but I think she sent people over and arranged a whole lot of sales. It was only five paintings, and they were really cheap, but it was probably her doing more than anything.
Carey: Somehow she was helping or suggesting to collectors to buy work there and White Columns wasn’t taking a percentage?
Currin: Well, no. I think they did take a commission. I can’t remember. It was like $1,300, you know what I mean. I was so excited to be selling something that it didn’t matter to me. Then I had a show about a year later at Andrea Rosen’s, and that went really well, too.
Carey: That was one of her first shows obviously.
Currin: She opened up in SoHo and started with Felix Gonzalez Torres, who immediately became a big star. That got the gallery a lot of attention and it meant that when I had a show there, it was a place people walked into. I started selling paintings and I could get off of the ladder and get out of the house painting jobs.
Carey: Can you tell me a little bit what a studio visit is like? When you had your first studio visit, how did that go? People are coming in now, looking at your work, that’s kind of difficult for a lot of artists. How did you manage that or handle that?
Currin: I would say that—to give a sort of plug to Yale—it helped for me to try to make funny paintings that would be easy to talk about, which I guess sounds cynical but it wasn’t. I enjoyed it. I wasn’t nervous about it. I think it was just because from just so much of the talk, talk, talk at Yale it seemed pretty easy. And I just felt really excited that somebody was there. I mean, I’ve had some studio visits that people just didn’t like, but see, again, after Yale I was used to that.
Carey: How did you manage that? That’s also an interesting thing to talk about because that’s difficult for artists. You do a studio visit, people don’t like the work.
Currin: Or worse, somebody buys, somebody takes something to their house—this happened once—somebody took a painting to their house and then called me like a week later and I had to go get it. They didn’t want it and I had to go up there and take a cab back with my painting in my lap. It was really humiliating but, you know, that didn’t happen that much.
One time I had to meet Andrea Rosen and this art collector for lunch, right around that time, in a really expensive restaurant. I was really excited to be taken to lunch by the collector and everything. It was a really expensive restaurant, and lunch was over and neither of them had a credit card and I had to pay. It was like a week’s earnings. I had to pay for the lunch! But generally there were no terrible experiences that way.
I was just happy to be an artist again, to have people, to have a studio, you know, such as it was. With a futon in the corner but people were coming to see work.
Carey: John, that’s an amazing story. They take you out to a beautiful lunch and they don’t have credit cards. How do you account for that?
Currin: You know even one of them was like, “I don’t carry any cash.” So it’s like, you know, but imagine it’s like the movie scene where the girl ends up doing porn or something instead of the modeling shoot and that was my really low-key version of that, I guess.
Carey: Were you showing with Andrea then or that was before that?
Currin: I don’t think I was officially showing with Andrea butI kind of was. Like—that’s another thing, it never was really like an official thing, it just sort of became the norm that I showed there.
Carey: So she never said to you at one point, “you are now represented,” or anything like that?
Currin: We were boyfriend and girlfriend for like a year and a half and so it kind of happened like that. Then we broke up but I still showed there. We were still friends and everything, so I kind of slept my way into the art world, I guess.
I imagine for young artists it’s a lot more official now when you get taken on or when you join a gallery. It’s kind of a big deal, but there really wasn’t anything official in any of my dealings, there wasn’t. Later on there was, but not then.
Carey: That sounds a bit official. The dealer became your girlfriend, right?
Currin: She wasn’t a dealer at the time but she became one—it’s more like she became my girlfriend and then, lucky for me, she became an art dealer with a really good gallery. So it was a lucky thing that way, but I knew her anyway.
Carey: You were out there looking for friends though, so to speak.
Currin: I’ll bet if you’re a pretty good artist, people are hungry for that, and if you sort of hang out and nurse your drink all night—I think it’s the way you get noticed—people will notice you if you’re good.
Carey: People also have to come to your studio first. So you’re nursing a drink all night—people are wondering where to go to nurse those drinks and who to invite to their studio. That’s kind of a key. I mean in a way things may happen naturally, socially, but you’re after something and you’re trying to go to places where there are interesting people to talk to.
Currin: Well, I also met a lot of different artists. That was another thing—that was most of what my studio was—there were just other artists coming over. They were my core group of friends that would come everyday because we all lived in the same neighborhood.
I kind of remember a guy named John who became a friend. He was a writer at the time for art magazines that don’t exist now, but he came over and then that’s probably how Julian Pretto came over, it was through John. Julian Prieto was the first real art dealer and he had a little gallery that showed a lot of young art. I never showed there but it was like you talked to people, and it was very casual, but it worked. I don’t want to make myself out to be like Patti Smith or something—“Oh yeah, me and Robert Mapplethorpe just sort of hung out at the Bottom Line and then I became a rock star.” It was a lot more casual.
Carey: It was your friends—a group of friends that were supporting you—but also you’re saying that still happens now. Going to openings and events and hanging out with people, talking to people and showing your work is still what it’s about really.
Currin: Yes, and your friends from school. They were the only people I knew in New York. That’s also actually how I got jobs. That’s how I initially got house painting jobs, was through the Yale network as well. The sculptors all became carpenters and the painters all became housepainters.
A girl who went to Yale with me, her husband turned out to be a contractor and I did a lot of plaster work with him, which was a big deal. It meant I could kind of work when I wanted to. I didn’t have to have a real job.
Carey: How do you see the world of artists now? It was a different world when you were entering into it. Now with online and social networking, do you think there’s more advantages to artists reaching out and meeting collectors?
Currin: I don’t really know. It’s so much bigger now than when I started—that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. I think it’s harder to hang out and develop in kind of secrecy. So if you’re thirty or thirty-two, I think there’s much moreon people to try to make it very quickly. And it’s so much more expensive that they do need to make it more quickly. You’ll starve if you hang out in New York without a way to make money.
There are probably five times as many galleries as there were then, maybe ten times. The other thing is that right around that time, there was a big crash right when I started into the art world. When Saddam invaded Kuwait and all the galleries closed in like two weeks. It was really amazing. They all just shut down especially all the galleries who’d been showing young people. It just got real quiet for like three or four years. That’s another aspect of when I was young, I guess. I was very lucky to have Andrea through that time.
Carey: Right, because it’s similar now in some ways. I mean there was a crash, things are coming back, but artists are grappling with an economic tightening in New York. It’s more expensive to rent space in New York but I think many opportunities and, certainly, some of what you’re talking about is possible.
To conclude, is there something that you want to say to artists that are out there? Some of them have been out of school for several years, some not; some living in New York, some aren’t.
Currin: I think the most important thing is in a way what people say, “Oh, it’s who you know. It’s who you know.” Well, it is who you know because that’s what’s going to make you a better artist, having friends that are interested in what you do.
I think it’s very important for people to work at their art—even if they have a job, to work at night. And try not to get too wrapped up in your day job—try to stay full of shit in your day job and full of ambition and seriousness about painting.
It’s a very daunting and a hard thing to enter the art world in New York but it can be done. The most important thing is your friends, really, it is the other artists you know. That’s more important than knowing collectors and art dealers because if you have a group of people that push you, you’ll get noticed no matter what.
Carey: That’s a really great point. Some people separate from their friends after school, some people don’t, but you’re saying to cultivate that, to keep those friends together and to keep visiting everybody’s studios. Is that what you’re saying?
Currin: What I mean is friendship based on being ambitious—don’t feel bad about being ambitious and wanting to be successful and a famous artist. That’s the whole point. You should want that. There’s no real point in moving to New York if you don’t want that. Having a group of friends who are also ambitious and also struggling is incredibly important, I think, psychologically and emotionally, to make it in New York.
I know I’m sort of talking only about money and making it but that’s all I thought about when I moved here. It was, “How the hell can I do this? How can I not sink?”
That interview of John Currin was one of the interviews that I think most clearly lays out the steps for an artist on his or her path and how you can go from a housepainter to one of the best-selling painters in the world. The details are all at the beginning. He moved to place where he could meet more people and he was not afraid of being ambitious and wanting a lot. By talking to people, going to galleries, and getting small shows in nonprofit spaces, he was noticed and then got the exhibits he needed. It couldn’t be clearer as to the path an artist can take, but the variables are in the relationships that you make by hanging out in galleries and even bars, as he says, while nursing a drink all night.
You could say there is an element of luck involved, but that luck was created by being in places where new relationships could start. It is also the case study that proves what Robert Storr was saying in his interview about the importance of friends in your success. The networking that John Currin was doing paid off.