The Beauty of Friends Being Together
A Brief Meditation On the Paintings of John Currin, Matvey Levenstein, Jesse Murry, and Lisa Yuskavage
John Currin: Memorial
September 14 – October 30, 2021
Jesse Murry: Rising
September 17 – October 23, 2021
Lisa Yuskavage: New Paintings
September 9 – October 23, 2021
September 9 – October 9, 2021
Whatever we think of our love affair with Modernism, at times we think of our disdain for its ultimate objective being the constant rebuke of any previous art in order to claim a new birthright that would continue to do the same subsequently. Whenever we think of the perpetual struggle between abstraction and figuration, we too often do not think of progress as a mere product of whatever it takes to destroy in order to re-create in one instant a utopian aspiration and dystopian view, both are inevitably two sides of the same coin. Whenever we’re to confront such intense disparity, we must peel away any superficial exterior that prompts us to surrender to our passive association, namely failing to recognize the deep knowledge and ambition in some of our contemporary artists of either persuasion, abstraction or figuration.
When we think of figurative painting in the last four decades in particular, we've come to realize how remarkable was the graduating classes of 1986 and 87 from the Yale University School of Art, including John Currin, Sean Landers, Matvey Levenstein, Richard Phillips, Jesse Murry, and Lisa Yuskavage, among others. Even though they’re as famous as the graduating classes of 1963 and 64, with the likes of Chuck Close, Rackstraw Downes, Janet Fish, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Richard Serra, just to name a few, they seem to have shared a similar vision of radical commitment towards figuration with Philip Guston, who once proclaimed, “I am a student of all art.” On the occasion of four simultaneous exhibits of John Currin Memorial at Gagosian, Jesse Murry: Rising at David Zwirner, Matvey Levenstein at Paul Kasmin, and Lisa Yuskavage New Paintings at David Zwirner, I felt compelled to meditate on what and how they’ve all carved out such unique places in a highly populated art world with one thing in mind: to sustain is to grow with and by a collective affirmation. This simply means their unrelenting explorations of different periods of art of the past, most often absorbed by their personal and keen interests in how and why certain paintings have such alluring power, are identified with their abilities to dissect the mechanics of the making of a specific work as much as their own. At this point, the references from which they diverge or communicate with seem to be as natural as what they need to extract from. In other words, at first there must appear particular connections to subject matter in terms of how it was specifically painted, be it particular paintings for John Currin, for example, Van Eyck’s The Annunciation Diptych (1435) at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Jean Cousin the Elder’s Eva Prima Pandora (ca. 1550) in the Louvre, Bruegel’s small painting The Three Soldiers (1568) here at the Frick in New York; for Yuskavage, they would be, say, Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Giorgione’s The Tempest at Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, or Domenico Beccafumi’s Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata at The Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena; for Levenstein they’d be either Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (ca. 1814) in the Louvre, or his Grand Odalisque in Grisaille (ca. 1824–34) at the Met,, or Kasimir Malevich’s An Englishman in Moscow (ca. 1914) at Stedelijk Museum; for Murry, I’m suspecting J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844) at the National Gallery in London, or any of John Constable’s oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which would have appealed to his interest in the fluidity of weather and oil paint combined, or his attraction to Albert Pinkham Ryder for the maximal yield where both naturalism and abstraction is infused with forceful economy. This is to say that the specific works I’ve proposed here in reference to Currin, Yuskavage, Levenstein, and Murry are those that have been mentioned in the course of our respective conversations (except for Murry whom I met once at a party in 1990 but never had an in-depth conversation before his death in 1993), knowing these references were transitory yet remain part of their equivalence to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. They’re exceptional painters of their generation who have looked and studied the history of art with expressiveness and fluency.
On one hand, for the very purpose of uncensoring the pleasure of learning, artists use the act of careful observations of details in every physiognomic perception possible, all of which is ready to be deployed at will. On the other hand, the uncanny abilities in regards to human anatomy in older art as it applies to modern and contemporary art, as well as other resources of popular culture, especially in the case of Currin and Yuskavage, they seem less interested in any discourses of “historical criticism” in favor of nonconformist digression or divergence of their own making. For Yuskavage, her simultaneous sustenance, which has always been based on her visual acuity, would embrace a broad appetite that includes pictorial conversations between Caravaggio and Max Beckman, Fra Angelico and Monet, Philip Guston’s late works and Giorgio di Chirico’s “Valori Plastici” (The Return of the Craft), for example, all were abutted against countless selections of images from say Penthouse magazine, Mike Kelly’s dark side of toys, Mark Sennett’s films, comic books, illustrations, and so on. For Currin, the same would similarly unleash his own unrestrained aptitude for such visual agility, from which his own ideas of forms in art and in popular and subculture alike, where Willem de Kooning’s Pink Angel (1945) can be stressed and stretched before Master of Flémalle, and other great painters of the Northern Renaissance for a brief or long extended huddle, or in another unexpected space where Cornekis Engelbrechtz’s The Crucifixion with Donors and Saint Peter and Margaret (1525-27) and Hokusai’s encyclopedic mastery of drawing in his how-to-draw manuals, namely Manga, as well as pornographic comics from the ‘80s and ‘90s can all be infused, re-created in his unusual proficiency as a combine or collage artist. In other words, while Yuskavage recognized painting as a limitless, layered, and complex space where she transforms her aggression and love of color intoform and composition, Currin thrives on his passion for extreme distortion of forms as constructive means to achieve his idea of spatial equilibrium. Both, however, embrace an identical historical sense of old and new art, high and low culture as an indispensable and personal raison d’être. Contrary to Currin’s and Yuskavage’s deployment of speed and dexterity of hand-eye coordination, Levenstein’s slowness and exact vision of how images were chosen into his pictorial repertoire has always been deliberate according to his preference of temporal provinciality while making the particular a universal value. This simultaneous condition is Levenstein’s decisive commitment to create both form and content in his work as one unified and autonomous act where discrete boundary is intensely exercised. Levenstein, by his own volition, prefers laconic simplicity in the familiars of everyday’s life, be it a still-life, an interior or a landscape of his immediate surroundings, yet he never fails to transport each of his painting into another realm of suspended reverie, a space where a viewer is capable of getting lost, given a prolonged viewing experience, or perhaps due to the subtlety of how the surface is exquisitely painted, the distance of far and near seems to collapse as the diffused atmosphere emerging before our eyes. They’re simply results of recognizing the initial impulse or desire as a rational criterion at first, then followed by capturing the image in its entirety through different epiphanic moments, which rarely occurs as a mechanical process. Not unlike Levenstein, Murry shares a similar aspiration to undertake the creative epiphany of the image in its entirety except his is contingent on speed of execution and expressive gesture that evoke a visionary landscape where light is to be generated through a constant revision of material substance of paint, from which the notion of cosmic emotion can only be realized. In Murry’s painting, we feel he perceives his art as a spiritual vocation.
Indeed, we recall Sir Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in which “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” wherein the philosopher divides people into two groups: foxes and hedgehogs. He argues that the foxes pursue many goals and interests at the same time, which can lead to a scattered and diffused mind, and as a result the rate of success and failure remains unpredictable. Whereas in the case of the hedgehog the world is reduced to one overarching vision so that their objectives can be reached readily. Here, both Currin and Yuskavage are classic foxes, as opposed to Levenstein and Murry, the two ultimate hedgehogs. Lastly, if we were to think of their works in a spectrum of temperature, Currin and Yuskavage would be regulating between hot and warm while Levenstein and Murry would be warm to cool.
Endnotes: The title The Beauty of Friends Being Together is taken from my curatorial project Jonas Mekas: The Beauty of Friends Being Together Quartet (2007) at MoMA PS1. As for Sir Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, he later confessed it was meant as an intellectual game, but it was taken rather seriously by countless academics.