Beautiful in its execution, infamous in the press, and simultaneously nostalgic and repelling with its subject matter, Bea Arthur Naked is among John Currin's early master works. Following his depictions of high school and college teenagers, Currin produced a series of portraits of adult women, from which Bea Arthur emerges. Resulting in a variety of subject matters, this unusual series yielded a lexicon of middle-aged personalities, from a thin regal woman with grey hair, to a serious looking guitar player, and two paintings of twin sisters. Yet, within the series, Bea Arthur Naked has been celebrated as the most sensational and the best. Derived from a photograph, and stripped bare, the artist depicts the star of Maude, the 1970s sitcom about an upper-middle-class, women's activist and suburban wit-rather than Arthur's later incarnation in The Golden Girls. Here, the muted palette of warm earth tones, allows the viewer to focus on the sitter's gaze, her smooth skin tone, that enigmatic smile, together with her wonderfully full and expressive eyes. We are familiar with the subject matter but not in the way in which it is handled; Currin mixes nostalgia with provocation.
Recognized as one of the leading figurative painters in contemporary art, Currin's ability to synthesize historical and contemporary styles is unsurpassed. He creates provocative images that examine the tradition of painting and the role of the female nude in art. In Bea Arthur Naked, Currin subtly blends past representational styles with a seductive subject and surface quality that is inarguably of the moment. As Jerry Saltz writes of Currin's work, "The technique brings you in, the historical references get you going, but the opacity keeps you at arm's length" (J. Saltz, "The Redemption of a Breast Man", Village Voice, November 1999, p. 32). Here, the flat precise linear style recalls the rigidness of Otto Dix or Christian Schad, with intimations of Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer, and yet her strong, piercing gaze and dark eyes are reminiscent of the confidence of ©Edouard Manet's iconic Olympia.
A vastly important work in the artist's oeuvre, Currin decided to create a picture of Arthur in the late 1980s, when he first graduated from art school and she was a vivacious member of the Golden Girls. "[The] Bea Arthur painting is from Maude," Currin explains, "which I used to watch as a kid. In the eighties, I didn't have TV for, like, a whole decade. When I started watching again in the nineties, The Golden Girls was in syndication. When I had a loft with Sean and Kevin Landers, we'd always take a break in the afternoon and watch The Golden Girls. When I made the painting, I was living in Hoboken and still making abstract paintings, and I was very frustrated (J. Currin in interview with K. Rosenberg, New York Magazine, 25 November 2007). "One day," he recalls, "I was hearing voices in my head rant about how bad my paintings were and I thought, 'I might as well paint a picture of Bea Arthur, instead of these masculine abstract pieces'" (J. Currin, quoted in S. Bayliss 'Bea Arthur Comes Out on Top,' ARTnews, February 2004, p. 33). He made a small drawing of Arthur, but didn't complete the painting until a few years later, when he was working on his acclaimed series of middle-aged women. "I had a vision in my head of Bea Arthur, and I found a picture of her. I was going to put a scarf ensemble on her like that from her Maude days, and I drew the body just to drape it. It was then that I realized that the painting was fantastic as it was. I loved being repelled by those two black eyes and falling back into these wonderful, soft breasts, which draw you back in. I thought about the personae of the middle-aged women that were pictured in this series, and I imagined them as being divorced and cast out, like harlequins wandering the beach. They are all self-portraits in a sense" (J. Currin, quoted in K. Vander Weg and R. Dergan (eds.), John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 74). Drawing a parallel between the vulnerable, naked exposure of an American Pop icon and that of the artist who presents his work for the ruthlessly critical review of the public, Currin's own susceptibilities are reflected.
Creating a bold statement, Currin chose to strip his unwilling sitter of her garb-in an act reminiscent of Francisco de Goya's La maja vestida and La maja desnuda. Causing a stir among the contemporary female community, Arthur herself surmised, "Maybe he was attracted to the feminist movement of the 1970s," Bea Arthur speculated regarding her portrait, "because of Maude, I was the Joan of Arc of feminism. He certainly couldn't have done anything with Marlo Thomas of That Girl" (B. Arthur, quoted in op. cit., p. 33). Currin, however, has stated that he always considered Arthur "more of a maternal figure than a feminist icon. I watched Maude all the time when I was a kid," he recalled. "She's a genius. She's funny because she's so much smarter than everyone around her" (J. Currin, quoted in ibid.) Drawing attention to the female nude, Currin is not simply re-writing history, instead his naked heroine, unabashedly focused, gives the impression of one battling her own internal demons and prevailing. Conceived from the synthesis of all these factors, Bea Arthur Naked emerges not as a figure frozen in art history but a woman from the artist's clearly contemporary surroundings.