“Nobody will know or care if I rip stuff off of van Heemskerck.” — John Currin
This week, contemporary painter John Currin—notorious for his reference to Renaissance oil paintings—was given a private tour of London’s National Gallery by the museum’s head curator, Letizia Treves. The very next day, the pair came before an audience at Frieze Masters Talks, where organizer Jasper Sharp armed them with microphones and a set of slides to retell their experience—Currin reacting to favorite works, and Treves seeing many in a brand new light.
Though Currin is no stranger to museums (his work belongs to the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Tate Collection London, and Centre Pompidou) his evening in the museum aroused memories of a defining moment, age ten, before the world of Old Masters was upon him—when he first saw an El Greco painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It was the first oil painting I had ever seen,” he said. “It was nice that someone would paint a painting that hundreds of years later, would not impress with its technique and verisimilitude and crazy realism, but was really like a guitar solo over the centuries, that could blow away a prepubescent kid.”
And it did. Years later, El Greco’s guitar solo effect stayed with a starstruck child from the Met as he became a world renowned painter, deeply entwined in the techniques and compositions of the Old Masters. As Currin flipped through his chosen slides, stopping on Dossi, Altdorfer, Bronzino, Poussin, he confessed an affection for second-tier painters—the ones whose techniques he can strive toward. “I like artists that nobody likes,” he joked several times. “I tend to go for things that I can take things from, which is why looking at these supreme masterpieces by Titian or Leonardo, I’m sort of in the position of a pilgrim, I can’t really take anything from those.”
So who else does Currin steer clear from? “Not to joke about it too much,” he said, “but with Van Eyck it’s like you’re the loser behind the police line waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio to show up, the people who wait for the red carpet at the Oscars—you’re not going to hang out with him or anything—you’re kind of a fan, and just from a selfish painter’s point of view, in a weird way they’re ruined for me.”