Lot 44
  • 44


500,000 - 700,000 USD
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  • John Currin
  • Helena
  • signed and dated 2006 on the overlap
  • oil on canvas
  • 25 1/8 by 20 in. 63.8 by 50.8 cm.


Gagosian Gallery, London
Murderme Collection (acquired from the above)
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by Marc Jacobs


New York, The Metropolitan Opera, Heroines, September 2006 - May 2007
New York, Gagosian Gallery, John Currin, November - December 2010, p. 45, illustrated in color, and p. 140, illustrated in color


Ted Loos, "At the Metropolitan Opera, Drama on an Outdoor Stage," The New York Times, April 26, 2019 (text)

Catalogue Note

A work of conceptual daring and technical virtuosity, John Currin’s Helena from 2006 is exemplary of the artist’s capacity to mine art history and reinvent the grand tradition of figure painting through various reconsiderations of the female figure. Evoking and revitalizing the genre of portrait painting championed by European Old Masters, Currin’s complex and provoking compositions, including the present work, intelligently reference art historical precedent whilst creating a body of portraiture that is entirely novel and contemporary in its own right. In Helena, Currin takes inspiration from the portrait after the Trojan queen Helena from Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena. Commissioned for the exhibition Heroines, which was curated by art critic and Gallery Met director Dodie Kazanjian and inaugurated the Gallery Met exhibition space at the Metropolitan Opera, Currin’s Helena brilliantly fuses numerous cultural and art historical referents into a single portrait which reveals a profound engagement and dialogue with the past whilst maintaining a distinctly contemporary relevance. Testifying to the importance of the present work in Heroines, Helena was selected to be reproduced on the central banner that hung outside the Metropolitan Opera. Rendered in a palette of soft, blush pinks and creamy yellows and set against a backdrop of billowy pinks and blues, Currin has captured the sensuous Helena in Rubens-esque flesh, her light apricot skin tone contoured with lilac shadows and pale peach brushstrokes. Helena tosses her had up in laughter, her blonde locks framing her youthful face in a lush fringe. While the title of Helena announces the portrait’s referent, the present work reveals Currin’s capacity to create portraits that narrowly evade direct visual reference while harboring a persistent and uncanny resemblance to the stylistic modes of numerous Old Master painters.

Speaking to the conception of Gallery Met and the inventive exhibition Heroines, Kazanjian explains that in conceptualizing the exhibition: “We tried to think about how visual artists could be involved with the Met in non-traditional ways, […] ‘Heroines,’ as a theme, seemed like a natural place to start. We tapped some of the most original talents working today – people who would bring idiosyncratic and challenging perspectives to the exhibition.” (Dodie Kazanjian quoted in “The Metropolitan Opera to Open ‘Gallery Met,’ Art Daily, September 2006) For the exhibition, the participating artists – including Cecily Brown, Richard Prince, and George Condo – were asked to create works inspired by heroines of opera productions. Currin’s invocation of Die Ägyptische Helena is especially significant as the opera itself evokes art historical precedent, referencing the play Helen by the classical Greek tragedian Euripides, which was first produced in 412 B.C. for the Dionysia festival in Athens. 

Dense with art historical and cultural references, Helena richly imparts Currin’s very best formal evocation of the influences that have informed and themes that have defined his monumentally significant oeuvre. The subtle idiosyncrasies that infiltrate Helena pit the surreal against the corporeal, epitomizing Currin’s career-long enthrallment with the female portrait.