In the May edition of Thirsty Beach, Caroline Cummings visits Deborah Kass in her studio, and they chat about Kass's recent show at Paul Kasmin. Kass, a Brooklyn-based artist who creates works that are historically and politically analytical, draws on a variety of art historical and popular culture references, and speaks poignantly about the state of women in the history of art as well as the current art market.
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?
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.
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. Read more."Deborah Kass: feel good paintings for feel bad times," Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York. Through Oct. 13, 2007.
Deborah Kass at Paul Kasmin
Feminism, painting and New York City in the 1970's