Lot 47
  • 47

John Currin

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • John Currin
  • The Dream of the Doctor
  • signed and dated 1997 on the overlap
  • oil on canvas
  • 78 x 61 in. 198.1 x 154.9 cm.


Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Charles Saatchi, London
Ash Fine Art, New York
Galerie Sander, Darmstadt
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2003


London, The Saatchi Gallery, Young Americans 2: New American Art at the Saatchi Gallery, September - November 1998, n.p., illustrated in color
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; London, Serpentine Gallery; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, John Currin, May 2003 - February 2004, p. 71, illustrated in color
Essen, Museum Folkwang, Rocker's Island: Werke aus der Sammlung Olbricht, May - July 2007, p. 181, illustrated in color
Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Zwei Sammler: Thomas Olbricht und Harald Falckenberg, June - August, 2011


Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, eds., John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 205, illustrated in color


This painting is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is not framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“Currin looks at the crumbling myths and icons of twentieth century America, revealing, as in a warped looking-glass, their bizarre surface and their dark underside.”
Robert Rosenblum, "John Currin and the American Grotesque," Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), John Currin, 2003, p. 21

With an iconographic vocabulary culled from Old Masters and an unparalleled technical virtuosity, The Dream of the Doctor by John Currin depicts a complex psychological landscape and exposes a delicate world of desire that is archetypal of the artist’s acute observation of pervasive undercurrents in our contemporary world. By concealing the implication of an exposed female behind a screen, the artist alludes to sexuality and desire in a far more sophisticated and complex way than his works in which the female body is merely made explicit. Diverting from the aggressive and unrelenting display of desire prevalent in those works, here Currin turns radically inward towards a world of hidden wishes, of flirtation and denial, of seriousness and absurdity. His subject of a male doctor’s inspection of an unseen woman is loaded with subtext, and as such is an incisively intelligent essay on the mechanics of voyeurism. At the same time, Currin’s technical mastery affords a virtuoso exhibition of painterly skill. Credited with reviving the waning art of figurative painting with his honest and persistent questioning of the ever evolving psychology of contemporary culture, Currin is a longstanding champion of representational painting and the present work is emphatic testimony to both his phenomenal practical aptitude and brilliantly perceptive conceptual acumen.

Consistent with Currin’s overarching theme of deviation from supposed corporeal convention, The Dream of the Doctor investigates the figure’s physiognomy, yet, distinct from other works, the subject matter of the painting – medical examination – makes this investigation perfectly literal. The idea of normativity is seriously challenged when the patient is not the only one with a physiognomic abnormality. The doctor’s neck appears elongated, his rib cage truncated, his legs too short, and his knees too boney. Even the seated position of the doctor is too removed from his patient, resulting in an awkward, caricature-like, forward-leaning pose. This figure’s distorted rendition is not something negotiable; rather it compels the viewer to examine it, to differentiate and identify with it, and, perhaps subconsciously, become intrigued by the darker connotations of its subtle idiosyncrasy. As a result, the painting elicits an immediate visceral reaction, one of sympathy and repulsion, and perhaps even of pleasure and guilt.

The delicate dance between the voyeur and the victim, between intrusion and protection is a prominent theme of the present work.  All the compositional suggestion of the doctor’s over-eagerness is counter-balanced by the half-concealed head, making it impossible for the viewer to read his expression. Similarly, the hidden female body is revealed by the proxy of the generously cupped bra flung over the screen, leaving us to wonder what the body looks like and what dream-like procedures this doctor is conducting beyond our line of vision. A certain flirtation exists not only between the two subjects, but also between the painter and his subjects, and the painter and the viewer. The process of victimization therefore implicates not only the female patient, but the painting’s curious spectator who cannot help but be complicit by the simple act of looking at the artwork.

The story of voyeurism through Art History provides a monolithic legacy for Currin’s sharply honed interrogation. For centuries artists invented fantasies dictated by and for the male gaze, whereby the essentially voyeuristic nature of the perception of women by male viewers both inside and outside the canvas proliferated ubiquitously and without question. Indeed, as in Artemisia Gentileschi’s depiction of the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders, the unashamed objectification of feminine beauty for the gratification of the male onlooker was unhindered even when supposedly catalyzed by devout religiosity. While the likes of Ingres and Delacroix at least invested the bare voyeuristic act with some naturalism by depicting the female nude in a bathroom, or the extravagant fantasy of a harem, the entire equation between male seer and female object was radically capsized by Manet’s Olympia, in which a blatantly undressed woman violently returns the stare of the spectator. This inversion of the spectator-spectacle relationship was continued in the Twentieth Century via such heroic paintings as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso and Bacon’s Study of Nude with Figure in a Mirror. John Currin’s The Dream of the Doctor is rooted in the grand arc of this art historical story, and finally delivers a brilliantly conceptual anti-subject that is more akin to the surreal ethos of Man Ray and Magritte’s famous satire of the conventional female nude. Currin’s genius lies in his ability to re-convert contemporary viewers to the luscious drama of painting through persistent reconsiderations of the human physiognomy and therefore the human mind. In the present work we know exactly the dimensions of this medical protagonist’s dream, and his hidden act of voyeurism draws attention both to the loaded legacy of the male gaze, and to the political incorrectness of gratuitous sexual display. Ultimately The Dream of the Doctor is a deeply satirical and humorous analysis of the nature of taboo; of that which societal convention demands to remain hidden and unspoken, so that the only place it can reside is in dreams.