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By: Caroline Cummings

I had the opportunity to visit Deborah Kass in her studio and interview her about her new show.  Kass is a Brooklyn-based artist who creates works that are historically and politically analytical.  Her paintings and drawings draw on a variety of art historical and popular culture references and speak poignantly about the state of women in the history of art as well as the current art market.  Kass has shown extensively in museums around the world.

"Blue Deb" 2000
Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery and Vincent Freemont

Thirsty: In our discussion you explained that you knew, from an early age, that you wanted to be an artist.  Can you elaborate on a few instances from your past that helped you come to this realization?

Deborah Kass: Honestly I have no idea where the idea even came from since no one in my family was an artist or spoke about art in any way.  So, to decide at five that this is what I was supposed to be…it’s a mystery.

I went to the Art Students League starting at fourteen through high school, where I learned to draw from life.  I spent Saturday mornings there, and then wandered MoMA Saturday afternoons, trying to figure out what all this work had to do with me.  I also went to a ton of theatre, sneaking into the second acts during intermission.  I saw the second act of Mame four times.  Eventually I went to Carnegie Mellon University, where I went because Warhol had and then the Whitney Independent Study Program, when it, and I, were in our infancies. 

Thirsty: What was it about Warhol that inspired you to embark on the Warhol Project?

Deborah: Everything.  Andy was a hero since my teenage years.  It was the familiarity of his images.  Everybody knows his work.  The ubiquity of his images made his work a language I could use to speak about myself.

Thirsty: Are there are few works in particular that you see as milestones in the process?

Deborah: I have my favorites, but I don’t want to say.

Thirsty: Was there a point when you knew it had reached a completion (in the Warhol Project) or is it an evolving process that you will continue to work on?

Deborah: Yes, the “Debs” in 2000.  Once I pictured myself as someone other than Andy in a self-portrait and became “Liz”, it was clearly winding down.

Thirsty: How did you move from the Warhol project to the new work and what did you take with you from the Warhol Project when you were creating the new work?

"A Woman No Place in the Art World Unless She Proves Over and Over Again She Will Not Be Eliminated" (click to enlarge)
Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery and Vincent Freemont

Deborah: I finished up Warhol, took some time off, and just started one day.  I will never finish my learning from Andy Warhol.  There are unlimited lessons.

With the Warhol Project, I wanted to make two notoriously “cool” strategies, Pop and appropriation, hot.   But to be honest, I saw Andy’s choices as deeply revealing about who he was: Death, Disasters, Marilyn and Jackie, and Elizabeth Taylor…Green Stamps.

The deeper I got into MY Warhol thing, the deeper my understanding of what Andy was doing creatively.  There is the most nagging of artist’s questions: how do you make generative art? How you make work that makes more work?  How do you make a work that spins off seemingly forever?  Now (in the new work “Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times”) I have figured out how to do it with painting.

Thirsty: About the new work, a lot of the reviews of your recent show at Paul Kasmin Gallery have focused on how these works speak of a longing, on your part, to be included in the art world.  For example, "A Woman has no place in the Art World Unless she Proves over and over again she will not be eliminated". Can you elaborate on this longing and why you chose the language that you did to express these emotions?

Deborah: That, by the way, is a quote from Louise Bourgeois.  The longing is really for post-war optimism, the notion that the world was a decent place, government was for and by the people, the middle class was permanent, and we had the power and responsibility to change the world, to make it even better.  Those good old days had their realization or materialization in the era of the great Broadway musicals, post-war painting, and the liberation movements of the sixties.  I seem them as all connected and they are what have informed my life and my work.

Thirsty: We have talked about the longing associated with your work, and your emotions on this topic are surely powerful.  At first glance, however, your work is very upbeat.  It is only with a deeper investigation that the viewer becomes aware of this sadness.  Have you purposely chosen this approachable veneer of pop art and pop culture as a way of pulling the viewer in and not scaring them away?

Deborah: Yes.

Thirsty: There are many Broadway references in the new work.  Do you see the individual works as acts in a play? Does the collection have a beginning and an end?

Deborah: I see them more as an album.  I see them more as cuts on a CD.  My show was constructed that way, around an emotional arc. I think Frank Sinatra made this first concept album using this idea.  Barbra Streisand followed this formula. So did I.

Thirsty: Do you see any one of them as the single or a hit?

Deborah: That’s a great question. The idea is to get a lot of hits off an album so whatever one I am doing I think is the hit, and then the next one is the hit. "Daddy I would Love to Dance" was the last thing I painted for the Kasmin show. The lyric is a very emotional moment in Chorus Line.  If you’re a women of a certain age and you saw Chorus Line at any point in its whatever-year run, you probably burst into tears when you heard this line, as I did.

"Daddy I Would Love to Dance"
Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery and Vincent Freemont

So, I had this lyric in my head for years and could not put a form to it.  Then I dreamt the painting fully formed.  Now I have more ideas for that lyric.  I can use these same lyrics in different ways; I can go deeper.

That said, there were others.  One person wrote me that she had an enormous unexpected reaction looking at “Mighty Real” because to her it brought back the AIDS crisis.  And frankly, that was one of the things I was thinking about while making the painting, Disco and freedom leading to sex and death.  Sylvester, the signer of the song, died of AIDS early on.

Thirsty: How did you decide on the Pollock reference?

Deborah: Well I have referred to Pollock in my work consistently since college, as I have Warhol and Johns.  He is, after all, one of the very BIG DADDIES, along with Stella and Guston.  In my own head I have been in dialogue with these men for as long as I can remember.  Being so is a huge part of my generation’s consciousness and the raison d'etre of much of the work made by us. The pain of being excluded from this public dialogue is always with me and every woman painter I know. 

After years of analyzing the mechanics of the politics of marginalization, it is the emotion of being marginalized that has become interesting to me.  What does being marginalized feel like exactly? One thing I know, it’s about as close to a universal feeling as you can get, since the vast majority of us manage to be marginalized in the culture of the free market and unfettered capitalism that is our brave new world.

Thirsty: So what is next for you? You have an agent, a gallery, and major shows, how could you possibly top such achievements?

Deborah: There’s always “The Museum Show”. But I am very happy where I am right now.


All opinions expressed by Caroline Cummings are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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