Have you noticed how John Humphrys on the Today programme has developed the unfortunate habit of making important questions sound trivial because they’re only a link into the next item? It’s something that began bugging me a while ago and that reached some sort of climax the week before last when he introduced a report on the American painterJohn Currin with the singsong demand: “What’s the difference between art and porno-graphy?” Hang on a moment, I spluttered, as I threw myself at the radio. That is not a casual, early-morning question that can be answered in three minutes on the Today programme. That, sir, is a momentous cultural inquiry.
To answer Humphrys’s poser properly, you would need to wind back the story of art to its beginnings, where there are, alas, countless vaginas plastered across huge tracts of cave art, and scenes, too, of entwined stick-men rogering like rabbits. Art has spent its entire history being fascinated by gynae-cology. The Greeks portrayed every type of unspeakable act on their vases. And the things I’ve seen depicted on the 10th-century temples of Khajuraho in India, particularly the positions involving donkeys, make Currin’s new paintings look like illustrations for a Sunday-school textbook.
So, it’s a traditional subject.
That said, it’s hard to remember much good art being prompted recently by pornography. Indeed, failing in this task has become something of an American speciality. Remember Jeff Koons’s grotesque attempt to depict himself pleasuring his Italian porn-star wife, La Cicciolina? And before him, the dull pornographic overlays of David Salle? Even as enlightened and wondrous an artist as James Turrell has, at LA’s Mon-drian hotel, sought and failed to create transportational light-works out of the pink emissions produced by porn channels. So the key thing to note about Currin’s effort is that it has succeeded in achieving the holy grail of this tricky terrain, which is to turn grubby porn into gripping and beautiful art.
Most of the pictures in this eye-popping display feature acrobatic couples touching, inserting, stroking, rubbing and licking. There are also complicated threesomes where it isn’t immediately clear who is doing what to whom. It’s all very moist and slurpy. Currin’s source material is said to be European porn from the days before surgical enhancement, and although I do not know enough about this archive to tell if the depicted antics are typical, I recognised something lumpy and homemade about the participants. These are not tanned and smoothly snipped Californian babes and their beaux. They feel more like moonlighting Hamburg waitresses and readers’ wives from Oslo, many of a certain vintage and still wearing wedding rings. Their underwear clings. Their breasts sag. It’s an unglamorous and veiny world to which Currin – and this is his masterstroke – gifts unexpected quantities of delicacy, exquisiteness and dreaminess.
Since he appeared on the art scene a decade ago, it has been obvious that Currin yearns to paint like an old master. Indeed, his work has, in the past, felt as if it is quoting from Thames & Hudson’s back catalogue: from Velazquez, Cranach, Ingres, Goya. In this show, however, the references have zeroed in quite clearly on French rococo art from the Marie Antoinette era, on Boucher and Fragonard, the two great soft-porn pedlars from the 18th century’s endgame. Apart from the loving couples, there is a large still life of a porcelain coffee service you might buy on a shopping channel; two portraits of porky blondes whose come-on mood has been nicked from a rococo pastel; and even a beautiful flower painting of a bouquet of roses.
So, the mood is Versailles updated. In the hands of a lesser artist, I have no doubt it would all have felt as vulgar and arriviste as, well, a porcelain coffee service offered by a shopping channel. What saves Currin is a thoroughly old-fashioned artistic attribute – his touch. How he learnt to paint this sensually while growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I cannot imagine. Yet, somehow, he has turned himself into an expert capturer of delicate surfaces and elusive textures. The breasts of his Hamburg housewives might not always be in exactly the right place – this is a show built on pictures of anatomy rather than on anatomy itself – but there is something superb about the way their pertness and pinkness has been evoked. In the end, the exhibition is remarkable not for its high pornographic quota but for the care with which the jewellery has been painted, the expert rendition of long strings of pearls, the telling wedding rings, the overlarge and perfectly captured gold earrings. By the time you get to Currin’s bouquet of rococo roses, it’s clear that most of the shock and ugliness have been rinsed out of this difficult subject matter.
The porn paintings were apparently prompted by the fuss that erupted in 2005 over the Danish cartoonists who lampooned Mu-hammad. The reaction of the “Islamic fascists” persuaded Currin to express his support for his fellow artists by deliberately producing the most transgressive images he could imagine. I’m not sure I quite follow his thinking, but a sign outside the gallery correctly warns visitors the contents are not suitable for children. They are also not suitable for unthinking moralists, unreconstructed feminists, busy presenters of radio programmes and those members of staff at the Baltic in Gateshead who removed a Nan Goldin photograph from their show because they imagined it was an example of child porn. The rest of us should applaud Currin’s unexpected success at turning lead into gold.
His refusal to be spooked by naked human intimacy is unusual in American art. At least, it used to be. That much is clear from a doomy history of American prints from the turn of the 20th century to the invasion of Vietnam, or, if you prefer a more aesthetic measure, from Hopper to Pollock, unveiled by the British Museum. Most of the artists gathered here were so determined to broadcast their pessimism that they would, you sense, have happily made prints by scratching with broken Budweiser bottles on slabs of sidewalk if they had to. As it is, The American Scene looks back at etching, lithography, screen-printing, woodcutting, incising into cork, and scores of less common means of declaring dismay.
The disillusionment sets in with the ashcan school, an early grouping of New Yorkers who looked round at their madly thrusting new metropolis in the early 1900s and noticed only the unhappiness it framed. John Sloan takes us up onto a Manhattan rooftop where, in the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers would flee from the heat of the summer and strip off to cool down. Sloan notices the dark sexual frissoncreated by this forced disrobing. It was left to his pal George Bellows to capture the full predatory brutality of the unshirted Manhattan male in his justly famous boxing pictures.
Thus, the beginning of this show is spent cursing the condition of modern America, and it isn’t until the import of French cubism begins that local artists learn to admire their own architecture. Yet, although John Marin and Louis Lozowick made fine stabs at enjoying the thrill of Manhattan’s futuristic skyline, the urge to peer into the skyscrapers and spy on the miserable lives illuminated within never really goes away.
My, what a long time it took American art to cheer up. Even when it gets into the countryside, it has trouble finding anything to enjoy. Grant Wood’s haunting depiction of four small-town Freemasons belting out their anthem in a shoddy homemade Egypt is a particularly memorable record of the alienation that appears, on this evidence, to have been the American default position for so much of the 20th century.