In Love with Beauty; John Currin's Voluptuous Nudes Are Putting the Human Form, and Desire for It, Back at the Heart of American Art

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DEMAND for John Currin's paintings at his last commercial show in New York was so fierce that collectors were asked to sign an agreement that the purchase was not theirs to sell for profit, but could only be donated to a museum or returned to the gallery for resale. The few paintings that make it to auction can command up to [pounds sterling]400,000. Most collectors are holding on to their assets because Currin is seen as the new saviour of American painting: at once its most conventional and also its most controversial stylist.

Currin currently has two exhibitions in London, his first in eight years.

At 41, he is part of a new wave of figurative painting that has weaned American art from its postwar fixation with abstract expressionism. When modern art shifted its centre from Paris to New York in the late Forties, the drips of Jackson Pollock became the new orthodoxy.

There may even have been a political motivation to distance US art from its European roots and position it as a counter-force to the socialist realism iconography of the Soviet Union.

Whatever the truth behind the Cold War shadows, American painting lost its subject. Jasper Johns's Flags were not figurative so much as a critique on the nature of painting and illustration, while Andy Warhol's superstars were swift, arbitrary appropriations of images in general circulation.

Even when the figure returned to US art in the 1980s, it was through the bravado of artists such as Julian Schnabel, photographed painting on a tennis court (the paintings were that big), stripped down to his vest, in an obvious reference to Pollock's renowned stooping dance over the canvas.

John Currin follows a different history. At first sight his work seems distinct from any American painting that precedes it. His painting tends to be small, carefully worked with the precision of a northern Renaissance painter such as Lucas Cranach. Raised in Boulder, Colorado, Currin worked hard to hone his skills, ruthlessly copying old master techniques. Part of the seduction of the work is that in an art world that lost its roots in raw skill, curators and collectors cannot resist well-crafted painting. That magical transformation of paint into illusion is irresistible.

But Currin creates as many problems as he resolves in the redemption of the figure for modern painting. He stands accused of a misogynist streak, creating pneumatic women in a painterly style where old master meets retro porn.

The PC pack doesn't know where to place him. One female New York gallerist told me last week: "It satisfies the male gaze. John's painting is much nastier than the others, which maybe makes them better. He gets away with it because the level of practice is so high."

The misogyny tag is simplistic. …