John Currin Grows Up

Creating ever more gorgeous paintings

Angry, reactionary, frustrated, repressed: John Currin isn't any of these anymore. In the early '90s, Currin, a 30-year-old wunderkind painter with a master of fine arts degree from Yale, made a splash on the New York scene with beautifully painted but grotesque renderings of doe-eyed, big-bosomed gals, emaciated society dames, and generic nudes with celebrity heads (one was called Bea Arthur Naked). Of that time he said recently: "I thought of myself as an expressionist artist who worked on negative expressionist impulses—anger, depression, and misery." But then, in 1994, he met the sculptor Rachel Feinstein; they married, and honeymooned in Florence and Venice. "Suddenly, I got very happy," he has said. And he's been in a blissful state ever since.

What's followed has been a steady stream of mature, ever more gorgeous paintings: Botticelli-esque sirens, fleshy Venuses in the manner of Boucher and Fragonard, and beatific portraits like Rachel in Fur (2002), which is part of the first museum survey of Currin's work, opening May 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Currin, now 41, can still have a surpassingly weird take on things. In Stamford After-Brunch (2000) he imagines a trio of happy suburban women, with exaggeratedly pointy knees and bulky bottoms, having a General Foods International Coffee moment, only with cigars and martinis. More and more these days, Currin is painting his cake and eating it too.