'There are [references] to be found. When I look at somebody else's paintings, like Courbet, whose work I love, it allows you to start imposing meanings on it. That's a wonderful way to look at paintings... paintings that are good tend to invite those types of things, and can withstand them' (J. Currin interview with D. Goggins, 'Perverse Beauty', Artnet, 19 Sept 2011, unpaged).
Painted in 2006, The Pillow is a tender and exquisitely rendered portrait by the consummate admirer of the female form, John Currin. An important painting from the artist's new body of work exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in 2006, it depicts an elusive woman known only to the viewer as Wanda. Looking ahead with her soft, disinterested gaze, she appears gently seductive, the smooth cleft of her lightly flushed bosom appearing from behind her neglected book. A warm light illuminates the long curve of her neck, the height of her cheekbones, the flecks of hazel in her eyes. She rests her head gracefully against a cerulean blue silk pillow as alluded in the title, her long russet hair tumbling down her back, revealing smooth, bare skin.
Created upon a rich golden-brown ground, the artist illuminates the composition through the slow and smooth process of layering lighter hues of coloured paint. It is a skillful simulation of Leonardo da Vinci's signature technique, sfumato that fosters subtle shade and gentle gradations of tone. Traces of the painting's dark base layers abound in the lustrous lapis silk cushion, the delicate bustier of her dress, the warmth of her eyes, in the body of her ochre hair. It is a skillful composition that beautifully captures the mood and atmosphere of the artist's sitter. It is a painting that departs from the artist's early sensational, and politically activated depictions of sexualized womanhood, speaking instead to the elegance and fine detail of 16th century Mannerism. In particular it recalls the serenity and serpentine postures of the Virgin Mary depicted by Parmigianino, Tintoretto and El Greco as well as Titian's luxuriant, reclining nude, Venus of Urbino (1538). When quizzed about his historical antecedents, Currin is characteristically open, explaining: 'there are [references] to be found. When I look at somebody else's paintings, like Courbet, whose work I love, it allows you to start imposing meanings on it. That's a wonderful way to look at paintings... paintings that are good tend to invite those types of things, and can withstand them' (J. Currin interview with D. Goggins, 'Perverse Beauty', Artnet, 19 Sept 2011, n.p.).
Art historical quotation abounds in this painting where Currin, fascinated by old masters' techniques seeks to perfect his own methods. As the artist has suggested: 'the overt political part is no longer a primary motivation any more. It is getting technically really good at it that makes me more uncomfortable. That is where I am going. In a way, I guess that today is a political act - to get good at painting' (J. Currin interview with A. Gingeras, 'John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris', K. Vander Weg & R. Dergan (ed.), John Currin, New York 2006, p. 43).
Throughout his career, Currin has consistently returned to the female form for inspiration. Impossibly buxom beauties, his earliest depictions of women were painted through the lens of heterosexual male desire, courting controversy amongst critics. As he has explained with stunning candor, throwing political correctness aside, 'painting has always been essentially about women, about looking at things in the same way that a straight man looks at a woman... when I hold a brush, it's a weird object... as if part of the female sex has been taken and put on the end of this thing that is my male sex to connect with a yielding surface' (J. Currin quoted in R. Rosenblum, 'John Currin and the American Grotesque', K. Dahlgren (ed.), John Currin, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2003, p. 15). Yet these are intentionally provocative ploys for Currin, attempting to 'get away from the neutrality' associated with figuration (J. Currin, interview with A. Gingeras, 'John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris', K. Vander Weg & R. Dergan (ed.), John Currin, New York 2006, p. 36). In creating antagonistic female figures, he was not only seeking to disturb society's established taboo, but to reinvigorate a medium rendered unfashionable by post-studio art in the late 1980s and 90s.
By the end of the decade, Currin's controversial approach was gradually becoming accepted within artistic circles. Marrying his wife and muse, the artist Rachel Feinstein in 1997, he swiftly gave up the anxious, frustrated and 'burdened' women of his early oeuvre. As Currin explains, 'before I thought of myself as an expressionist artist who worked on negative expressionist impulses a anger, depression, and misery... After I met my wife Rachel, I no longer had the raw material of an expressionist artist... I had no interest in constructing a painting out of its references or ideas or out of grudges. That kind of resentment in my painting used to come naturally, but it doesn't anymore' (J. Currin, interview with A. Gingeras, 'John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris', K. Vander Weg & R. Dergan (ed.), John Currin, New York 2006, p. 42). Amorous depictions of his wife proliferate through the artist's recent body of work, asserting a new focus on idealised beauty and grace. In The Pillow, Currin's woman has a serene elegance, looking with affection at someone of something in the distance. She replaces Currin's earlier female caricatures with a sumptuous and sensual depiction of a woman.