“At Yale, you became close friends with artists Lisa Yuskavage and Sean Landers. How did their successes, and failures, affect you?
The core gang was always Richard [Phillips], Sean[Landers], and Lisa[Yuskavage]. With Sean, our work was stylistically very different. He made these drawings, fictional letters to his loan officer on yellow legal pads—they’re really weird, and I always loved them. It inspired me, because I was trying to find my style. Sean hit on something that was his alone earlier than I did.” [John Currin in conversation with Karen Rosenberg]
“SABINE HELLER — You attended Yale with Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, who seem to have influenced each other’s work a great deal. Where did you fit in?
RICHARD PHILLIPS — At Yale I stopped painting a few weeks into the program and began making surrogates for painting, after having been exposed to ideas by artists like Jack Goldstein, Blinky Palermo, and Joseph Beuys. The seminars in the sculpture program were of great interest to me, particularly the Benjamin Buchloh lectures on Beuys and the visiting artist program with Vito Acconci. John and Lisa were more part of the “painters” contingent at Yale. I respected them both and certainly followed their work, but in the end, it seemed caught up in traditions that seemed dated. As time went on I did hang out with John more, and he opened up my mind to the surprising insurgent potential of painting, initiated by its nearly blind acceptance as art no matter what you did with it…
SABINE HELLER — You once said, “You need celebrity endorsement and luxury sponsorship,” when speaking about making it in today’s art market. Is that really true? And if so, do you find it sad?
RICHARD PHILLIPS — It has not always been this way but has evolved to this state by the eventual acknowledgement of the reality of market conditions and pressures that need to be addressed transparently and efficiently. Whereas previous conditions permitted the obfuscation of the background operations of dealers, collectors, patrons, and museum trustees, these same actors now take activist roles in all areas of the market where, for example, curators double as art advisors and celebrity wranglers who have the ability to attract and consolidate power and value by determining who is written into the cannon and which sponsors will be invited to be affiliated with these trajectories. I do not find it sad. On the contrary, I support the removal of the false barriers and pretense surrounding art and feel that all areas should be made accessible in an open and unregulated market system.” [Richard Phillips in conversation with Sabine Heller]
“Art is of course a part of culture, and when you look at important milestones for the American branch of Gen X artists, Yale’s 1986 MFA class is considered the first (and possibly largest) contribution from this oft maligned group. John Currin, Sean Landers, and Richard Phillips helped to make this one of the deepest MFA classes Yale has ever seen.
Lisa Yuskavage wasn’t the only female alum from this class, but at times if felt as if she was the only counter-balance to what was often perceived as a rowdy boys club. That’s not to say that Yuskavage was ever antagonistic towards her classmates, in fact quite the opposite. After school, she moved to New York City with Landers and Currin, and they continued the dialogue that they had developed in school, eventually helping to bring figurative painting back into art world favor.” [Ryan Steadman on the Yale Gen X Grads]
One of his best friends at Yale was his classmate Lisa Yuskavage, an earthy, fearless young painter whose work even then was largely figurative… Currin took several drawing classes with live models, and he’d secretly begun filling sketchbooks with quick drawings of idealized pretty girls. He continued to do this after graduation, as a kind of escape from his turgid abstractions. He stayed on in New Haven for another year, doing odd jobs, then moved into a loft in Hoboken with Yuskavage and her husband, Matvey Levenstein, and supported himself by working construction and housepainting jobs. His own painting wasn’t going well, and he says that he felt like “a loser.”
“That’s when I broke away from what I was doing at Yale,” he said. “I read ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ by Joyce Cary, which had a big effect on me—also Kenneth Clark’s book ‘The Nude,’ and William Blake’s poems. Those poems, together with Cary’s descriptions of an artist painting figuratively, just made me think, God, I want to do that.” He spent several weeks painting a large canvas of a female nude, which he claims was terrible. Soon after that, he answered an ad in the Village Voice and sublet space in a storefront on Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which happened to be across the street from where two of his Yale classmates, Sean Landers and Richard Phillips, were living. “I hadn’t stopped being a loser, but I had company,” he said…
In 1991, he began a series of much less ingratiating pictures, of middle-aged, upper-middle-class women whose drab clothes and ravaged features gave grim notice of what the yearbook damsels could look forward to…“I only made about nine thousand dollars,” Currin said, “but thank God there was that really bad review in the Village Voice”—Kim Levin’s diatribe—“which got me some attention.” [Calvin Tomkins on John Currin]