OLIVIER ZAHM — How many years have you been in New York?
JOHN CURRIN — Three-and-a- half decades. I came here two years after school. My first year after school, I lived with my girlfriend, who was a graduate student at Yale, basically sponging off her to feed me and take care of me while I sat and wept in my studio. Then I moved to Hoboken. I was scared to move to New York City.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Renée Green was living in Hoboken. Do you remember her?
JOHN CURRIN — Oh fuck, yeah, I had a crush on her. I haven’t seen her in years. But anyway, I lived in Hoboken with Lisa Yuskavage and her husband, Matvey Levenstein. We shared a loft, and I realized I wanted to be in Manhattan. All my friends were in Manhattan. I’d hear about them going to clubs and doing crazy shit. I think it was less amazing in real life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But Hoboken at the time had a crazy energy, very industrial…
JOHN CURRIN — Yeah. From my studio, you could see the skyline of New York. I would just imagine all the fun everybody was having. They were meeting people who would buy their paintings. But it was very fortunate that I did that with Lisa and Matvey — it was formative.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And Lisa Yuskavage was starting her career, too?
JOHN CURRIN — No, she was bartending. She got arrest- ed for serving an underage… Some kind of trumped- up bullshit. No, we weren’t successful at that moment at all. But it was nice to be together, and we’re still best friends now. It turned out to be the right thing to do because there was some quiet time before going to New York and really trying to make something happen. I think I moved to New York City proper in ’88…
OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember your studio on Houston.
JOHN CURRIN — Houston, yeah. With Sean Landers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I bumped into Sean at Omen two days ago. I didn’t know Omen was still the place to go.
JOHN CURRIN — Oh, yeah? You know that Mikio Shinagawa died, though. It’s so sad. But what a great place that is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, how would you describe New York in the beginning of the ’90s, compared with now?
JOHN CURRIN — So much of my feelings about New York have to do with meeting my wife, Rachel Feinstein. But even before I met her, I think New York got really good starting in 1990, 1991. It was a little harsh in the ’80s. It was just dangerous and depressing. If you weren’t successful like Basquiat, it was very depressing and dangerous. But my 1980s New York really sucked — it was just working on manual labor jobs. To me, in the ’90s, things were getting kind of wonderful. My work started to become something, and I started to realize who I was as an artist. And then when I met Rachel, I thought it was the most magical place on Earth, and it was everything I’d ever wanted.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You met her in New York?
JOHN CURRIN — I met Rachel in late 1993. We fell in love immediately, and then we had this fantastic… I mean, now, horrible loft, a gigantic dry cleaner. It was a commercial space, but Rachel had a studio there, and we lived there. I loved it. It was really magic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read in a piece in Interview magazine that you met her through a guy from Jackass.
JOHN CURRIN — I met her through this guy who was involved in art but also in other things. [Laughs] I didn’t know him very well, and he called me — this is before cellphones — and he said: “You gotta meet this girl. She looks like your paintings.” So, I went and met her… I’d seen Rachel before. It was like, “Holy shit, that’s that girl.” I’d seen her from 100 feet away, and we fell in love immediately. She told me he was a close friend of hers. He told her he was a close friend of mine, but neither of us knew him at all. [Laughs] So, he was kind of this angel who allowed us to meet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who had a vision for you two.
JOHN CURRIN — Yeah.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s been more than three decades in New York, and you still love the city?
JOHN CURRIN — The shutdowns in New York were insane. I mean, the last two-and-a- half years have been terrible and tragic and unnecessary. The whole Covid thing was the wrong thing to do, and I hope New York recovers. It was a crazy over- reaction, paranoid, just these stupid hypochondriacs. It was fucking diabolical. And I think the vaccines are a plot by Bill Gates to implant microchips in our bodies. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — For sure, we’ve never seen such control over the population.
JOHN CURRIN — And everybody accepted fascism so easily, immediately. I guess it started with Trump doing it, and then all the Democrats said, “Hold my beer, we’ll go even further.” [Laughs] I am so disgusted and saddened by the whole thing. And of course, for somebody like me, it was easy and a big vacation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It didn’t change your life. So, even though it was generally accepted, the true New Yorkers weren’t convinced.
JOHN CURRIN — Well, I don’t know who a true New Yorker really is. I mean, you could say a true New Yorker is a sheep who accepts whatever the political machine tells him to do. But I don’t know — we’re strong, and we got through it. Everything from our idiotic governor who made the whole thing worse to the mayor who shall not be named… New York had a lot of bad luck, starting with the election of Bill de Blasio. New York was such an absolutely incredible place, and the murder of 3,000 people downtown didn’t really change the city that much. It came back, and it was even okay. But I’m a little bit worried about this thing — that maybe it screwed the city up and exposed the kind of Soviet aspects of the city.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you remain faithful to New York.
JOHN CURRIN — I love this city. Oh my God, I’ve invested my entire life here. I mean, here’s one way to put it: I let my children be educated here, which takes a lot of faith. Getting your kids educated in this city is not easy. It’s difficult, and they make it difficult. And it’s very expensive. Also, there’s a palpable dislike of children in this city, which became really explicit during the pandemic, with all their stupid rules about kids having to stay home from school and all that stuff. That, to me, is the worst part of New York City: the hostility to children.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And what’s the best part of the city today?
JOHN CURRIN — Yesterday, I was walking to my studio. I was late because my daughter needed me to bring something to her at school all the way up on 92nd Street, and I blew my whole morning doing that. So, I’m making the four-block walk from my house to my studio, and I see Matvey Levenstein. I had just eaten a bagel, but he’s like, “Let’s get lunch.” I’m like, “Okay.” [Laughs] So we sit down on the corner of Park and 20th Street, and I have a couple of beers, and we talk about Ukraine, and we talk about Russia. That, to me, is the best thing about New York: you run into a friend, and you blow the afternoon with a friend, and the fact is, I came here late, and the fucking sun’s going down because of daylight savings time, and I’m like, “Fuck, I screwed the day up.” But I actually did a lot of work. I was motivated, and I had to go out that night, too. That, to me, is the best thing about New York. It’s like a small town. You can be 60 years old like I am, and it’s kind of like you’re 26 having a bohemian life… Even though I’ve got a family, lots of worries, and I’m thinking about money all the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s an average day like?
JOHN CURRIN — Part of the magic of New York is I don’t have a set day.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you paint every day.
JOHN CURRIN — Oh, yeah. That’s not hard to do. It’s like saying you jerk off every day. Yeah, I feel a responsibility to. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve never lost your love of New York, and you’ve never lost your love for painting.
JOHN CURRIN — Once you get over the struggle to make money… Because it’s so expensive, as any city is, but New York may be the hardest one of all. Once you figure out a way to make enough money, to have a comfortable life, then New York is the best place in the world because you can see your friends in a casual way without having to plan it constantly. That’s the best part of New York by far. Seeing your friends by accident and playing hooky from your work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And would you say that New York and painting are connected? That the power of New York and the energy of the city are beneficial to the art world? New York is a powerful place for art, but also a place for painting, don’t you think? Since Abstract Expressionism?
JOHN CURRIN — It’s weird to say, but I love German art, I love Italian art, I love French art… Looking at lovely landscapes, country life. But the thing about Abstract Expressionism was that, yeah, it was a New York thing, and I always liked that the Europeans couldn’t quite handle that — like European Abstract Expressionism didn’t work because you don’t have the lack of landscape of New York City and this kind of rectilinear harness for abstract imagery. I’m think- ing mostly of Willem de Kooning — there are these verticals and horizontals, and then this flesh and shit happening all around it — less so Jackson Pol- lock, actually, for me. So, I think de Kooning is the New York artist. And obviously Andy Warhol is the New York artist as well. But for me, de Kooning was always more important than Warhol. When I was a young art student, David Salle and Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons were very important to me. And they were all super-duper New York artists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And Francesco Clemente, too?
JOHN CURRIN — Yeah, but he’s so European, and I can imagine him painting on a rock in Sardinia or something like that. It’s no judgment. But I mean he’s less of a New York artist because you think of him as this wonderful, handsome Italian guy making paintings in New York. I can’t really separate my work from New York City, even though I work in what some people might say is European idioms. And even figuration in New York has to deal with the hostility to the figure, the hostility to nudity, the hostility to naturalness that New York is. That’s maybe why my European homages naturally drifted to pornography because that’s what makes sense in a place like New York City. There’s no such thing as natural nudity — it’s pornography.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It doesn’t exist, so it’s pornography.
JOHN CURRIN — It’s trashy and garbagy. That’s the Warhol thing. It’s this shitty silk screen. It’s crap- py looking, but they have glamour. I think I inherited that in my work because of making lyrical paintings in this city.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And at the beginning of the ’90s, you were one of the first artists to re-embrace paint- ing. It was big in the ’80s, but in the early ’90s, it was criticized as being excessive.
JOHN CURRIN — Yeah, but that was by people who were so far removed from where I was as a young person, and from my friends, that it was good that they were doing that. It made it better. They were providing a picturesque environment in which to make figurative paintings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were one of the rare artists in New York who continued to believe in painting.
JOHN CURRIN — What I’m saying is it took no daring or anything. It was the most fun thing to do, partly because of all those ass- holes who felt that they should shame people for painting in one way or another. Basically, dummies who can’t make anything telling people who can make something what they should make. Really, the other thing about New York is that there are so many smart and funny people here, and at least until recently, there’s been a fairly good sense of humor in this city. That’s what I’m worried about with the response to Covid — everybody lost their sense of humor. It’s kind of like after 9/11. It was, like, irony is dead. We can’t make jokes anymore because 3,000 people died. I remember after 9/11 there was the Academy Awards or something like that, and Tom Cruise goes — and he’s full of shit, but it was funny as hell — he goes: “Some people say in times of strife and struggle, fantasy isn’t needed. I say, now more than ever, we need Mission Impossible movies.” [Laughs] In a way, we really need stupidity when official life is as stupid as it has become. We need fun and humor in culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To go back to your art, you never lost the pleasure and energy of painting. You keep pushing your art in this new political context. And you’re not afraid of offending people?
JOHN CURRIN — I think of- fending people is such an accepted tradition that it doesn’t matter at all. And then, there are people who oblige you by being offended by almost any kind of human honesty at all and any kind of humor. “That’s not funny, that’s not funny, that’s not funny.” I just think, “Oh, these young people have no sense of humor.” That said, with the experience of the last two or three years, you realize the appetite for authoritarianism, for fascism, by the people who prided themselves on being against fascism… Anyway, what I’ve learned is that I have basically no real political intelligence. I used to think I did when I was younger, but I’ve become a lot humbler. I know a lot about painting and art history, but I’m just like everybody else in terms of everything else. I have opinions, but my opinions are not based on anything more than my feelings. A lot of people have opinions that they think are based on knowledge but are actually based on feelings as well. So, I’ve tried as I get older to not judge people and hope they don’t judge me. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — And could we say that your painting is becoming more metaphysical in a way, dealing with the fear of aging? I’m referring to the recent show you did with Sadie Coles.
JOHN CURRIN — Yes, and the one before that with Larry Gagosian here. I mean, partly it’s my own fear of aging and not being a proper subject for Purple [laughs], not being a beautiful young guy. I think the isolation over the period of the pandemic was great for somebody like me, who’s wealthy: I had nothing else to do except going to paint and imagine any- thing I want. It was kind of a great working period.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did it change your work?
JOHN CURRIN — Yeah, I could concentrate. It was horrible to see what happened to my children’s education because it got destroyed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you homeschool them?
JOHN CURRIN — They did school on their computer and Zoom, which was a joke. Then we sent the boys to boarding school, thinking that would be better. And that was a complete disaster. All it did was make them very depressed. So, we brought them back here. But it was just two years of destroying any continuity for them. That said, it was great for me because I got to paint nonstop, and there were no openings, there were no parties, there was nothing. In a way, I’d been getting to the point where I was thinking: “God, our social life is too crazy. It’s distracting.” Well, I got what I wanted. I got a year and a half of zero, and I kind of liked it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Just painting.
JOHN CURRIN — In those two years, all I did was seven paintings. But I thought they turned out pretty good, and I was able to keep my concentration on one theme. I was fortunate through this social calamity to be able to make this group of paintings and then show them right at the end of the pandemic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At Gagosian.
JOHN CURRIN — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And then at Sadie Coles’s gallery.
JOHN CURRIN — And at Sadie’s. Again, I’m just reflecting on aging and on not being young and cool and beautiful. You have to think about this with your magazine, right? What is glamour? This beautiful blooming rose — nine days later, the rose is something different, also kind of beautiful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Since the beginning, you have mostly painted older subjects, not necessarily the young and beautiful?
JOHN CURRIN — That’s part of the beauty and glamour of painting — old men and women can make shockingly beautiful, glamorous artworks. There’s a beautiful, melancholic decadent, aging flavor to them that’s actually kind of nice and generous. And it’s worth remembering, especially for some body like you who runs a magazine that’s based on youth and glamour.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s also part of true glamour, which is connected to death.
JOHN CURRIN — To death and to loss and to despair and to sadness. When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family was driving across Texas, or maybe it was Nevada, one of these places where it’s just highway, 60 miles of a straight line. And there are mountains over there, and you could go 120 miles per hour and nod off and keep it straight, and you wouldn’t hit anything. My dad’s smoking like crazy. It’s fucking hot. And I remember there was a little gas station, like a No Country for Old Men type of thing. We were driving past it, and there’s just nothing around. Just tumbleweed and dirt. And there was an 18-foot paved circle, and a pole with a chain and a ball, where you could play tetherball. And there was this teenage girl, and she had shorts on and tube socks up to here and roller skates. She was roller-skating in a tube top and feathered hair and everything. She looked like the actress Kristy McNichol or a disco girl. And she was doing backward roller-skating, like New York disco stuff in this absolute wasteland. It was the saddest thing you could imagine — and also the most magical thing you can imagine if you’re an 11-year-old boy. This beautiful young girl doing her sad little practicing, her roller-disco moves in the middle of the desert. And the idea that this girl is in this absolutely dreariest place imaginable and has a fantasy…
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