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Art history and self-portraiture have resided at the core of Deborah Kass’s practice ever since her first student paintings in the 1970s. In fact, these two things – an academic discipline and a genre of art – are for Kass completely intertwined. As art historian Mary Anne Staniszewski once observed: early on in her career “Kass was not only making self-portraits, but was attempting something slightly – yet significantly – different: she was trying to make the discourse of painting serve as a means of representing herself.”
Kass held her first solo exhibition in New York at Baskerville and Watson Gallery in May 1984. Comprised of paintings depicting rocks and seascapes, the show evoked early 20th-century American landscape painters such as Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Marsden Hartley. The paintings also revealed her interest in the work of Pat Steir and other contemporary female painters whose artworks employ quotation as a means to critique the conventional male-dominated art historical canon.
Notably, these early works betray Kass’s affection for the activity of painting itself. While there is a strong conceptual underpinning to all of Kass’s works, her technique and compositional considerations are equally important. As these seascapes show, her final product evolves from a close study and deep appreciation for the process of painting.
“I used art history the way other painters used light, color and form. I used it as a given, a ground. After some time, I figured out what I wanted to say.”
— Deborah Kass, Interview with May Anne Stanizewski, June 1998
In the Art History paintings Kass considers the art historical canon from a feminist perspective. Like Warhol, who used consumer imagery and processes in his paintings to question American culture, Kass uses the male-dominated language of modern art to question the art of her time. The works present a cornucopia of references and appropriations, from Paul Cezanne to Robert Motherwell, Walt Disney and Kass herself. Kass extracts fractured ideas from all genres, reforming them into a distinctly postmodern vision.
Kass referred to the Art History paintings as “lists” or “indexes,” as they reference large bodies of information and could be read in multiple ways. With their compositions divided into discrete rectangular sections, the influence of Sherrie Levine’s striped, “generic” paintings as well as David Salle’s paintings of this time is evident. At times comical, poking fun at masculinity and virility, the compositions are also critical of power and patriarchy.
The Warhol Project
Between 1992 and 2000, Kass worked on an ambitious project reprising key paintings in the oeuvre of Andy Warhol. Her works closely replicate Warhol’s combination of painting and silk-screening but, importantly, replace his cool, detached subject choices with people who had a personal significance in the artist’s life. As feminist art historian Linda Nochlin observed: “Out of Warhol’s cool, she makes something hot, replete with the warmth of genuine feeling.”
Regarding Warhol's work as a text, a kind of cultural readymade, Kass’s project reconfigures his art to her own ends. In Kass’s words, Warhol’s oeuvre is “so ensconced in culture, it functions as language, I can use this language to talk about me, and my concerns.”
feel good paintings for feel bad times
The title of solo exhibitions in 2007 and 2010, feel good paintings for feel bad times refers to a large body of paintings and works on paper, in which Kass expands upon her investigation of art history, popular culture, and self-portraiture. Many of the works combine canonical examples of post-war painting with lyrics from The Great American Songbook, thus pointing to a time of extraordinary cultural production and consumption in the United States.
Kass’s selection of texts and images in these works also reveal much about the artist herself. As she stated in a 2007 interview with filmmaker John Waters, “one way of formulating a self is through the process of identification. What is it in the world that holds our attention? What museum do you like, what art, which stars, which shows? What grabs your attention in popular culture and cultural production? How does that define you?”
The juxtaposition of emotionally effusive song lyrics with motifs from the canon of high modernist and pop painting – from Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha to Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella – results in a body of work where “high-brow” and “low-brow” come together in compelling and often illuminating ways. While the compositions are decidedly playful and upbeat, the choice of lyrics reveals more ambivalent sentiments, reflecting Kass’s reaction to an uncertain and at time upsetting state of affairs in the world at large.