What kind of art was in your childhood home?
We had my uncle’s paintings, which I always loved—a very vivid memory for me was going to his apartment in Los Angeles. He had floor-to-ceiling paintings of sexy women with fruit on their heads. We had a whole bunch of reproductions my parents got on their honeymoon, super-high-quality things printed on panels, from Florence. There was a Willem van de Velde Dutch harbor scene, and some close-ups from the Sistine Chapel. Until I was 8, I thought they were the real thing.
When did you first see some masterpieces in person?
After I moved to Stamford, when I was 10—going to the Metropolitan Museum. The big El Greco painting knocked my socks off—somebody in ecstasy, with three nude women somehow involved in this religious experience. It was El Greco at his most twisty and psychedelic. I couldn’t believe that’s what old-master paintings actually looked like.
What about contemporary art?
As a kid, I kind of thought that art had just stopped in the fifties, and that it turned into hippies doing things naked. In art-history books, it always ends with some guy from the seventies who just has neon lights. Like every other kid, I liked album cover art. I didn’t really like Yes, but I did have this book of all their album covers. I drew girls a lot. I’d do awful fantasy Tolkien stuff. I still have a Middle-earth troll in a boat.
What did you listen to?
It was a classical-music house. My mom taught piano all day. But what I really liked was the Beatles, Led Zeppelin. And I was scared of them at first, but I liked the Sex Pistols. I remember seeing them on some news show and thinking, That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Did you play any instruments?
I took violin for eight or ten years, but the main thing was that my teacher’s husband was a painter from the Soviet Union. I painted with him on weekends from the time I was 14. He had one of these completely romantic studios, with a bird in a cage and musty old books. I learned how to hold a palette, how to squeeze paint out of the tube. In art school, they don’t really show you that stuff. They do everything in their power to kill the attractiveness of the whole procedure.
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, and Lisa. 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.
What are some of your favorite books?
Moby-Dick was huge for me. Just the idea of a ship that moves around laterally, but you can also go down into the depths of the ocean—I thought that was so beautiful. I’ve read it over and over.
Dave Eggers wrote some of the text for your new catalogue raisonné. How did you come to work with him?
I had read his big best seller [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius], and after that, I remember reading something—I think in Harper’s—that really impressed me. He was taking questions from a Harvard audience, and someone asked about “selling out,” and he just went nuclear on the guy, and wrote this long essay about saying “yes” to everything. And it was a rallying cry. It just destroyed the whole careful, elite attitude. My wife, Rachel [Feinstein], always says, “Just say yes, always.”
You famously painted a topless portrait of Bea Arthur. Were you a big fan?
Bea Arthur painting is from Maude, 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. I was walking back from the PATH train and this vision of Bea Arthur just came to me.
You also like to work from old photographic sources. Where do you find some of this stuff?
It first happened by accident. Somebody gave me three boxes of old Playboys from the seventies. The ads in those days were just better. Lately I’ve pulled some things off the Internet, old Danish porn. The crappier my source material, the more it frees me up.
In this show, there are a few paintings based on hard-core pornography.
It’s not a shock tactic. In every art school in the world there’s a guy doing porn. As a failed shock tactic, that’s kind of interesting to me.
There are also several paintings of fully clothed women absorbed in books.
After my retrospective, I became very self-conscious—thinking about feeling paralyzed. You become afraid of making bad paintings, and as a result you can’t make any paintings. The image of reading was an image of impotence, trying to think your way into a painting instead of painting it.
John Currin, at Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, through December 22.