Marlene in her studio, 2002.
I first saw Marlene McCarty’s artwork in the late 90s. She made a series of huge portraits of teenage girls who had killed their mothers, accompanied by captions describing the murders in grisly detail. The girls were drawn painstakingly with no. 2 pencils and cheap ballpoint pens—the tools of a kid doodling in a notebook in class—and their clothing was see-through, which made them look ghostly and simultaneously menacing and vulnerable. They were tragic monsters.
Marlene’s drawings have since evolved to include a whole bevy of murderers: teen girls who killed their whole families, groups of girls who killed a friend, Christian evangelists who killed their children (because God told them to), as well as a creepily sexual series of children and families praying and, most recently, a series about the bonding between female scientists and the apes they study (also sexual).
Prior to these pieces, back in the late 80s and early 90s, Marlene’s work was primarily text-based, stretching from her large canvases printed with dirty words to her work with AIDS- activist collective Gran Fury, which created iconic posters like that one with the portraits of same-sex and interracial couples kissing (alongside the slogan “Kissing doesn’t kill: Greed and indifference do”) that ran on the side of New York City buses in 1989 and wigged out tourists from Iowa.
Political and feminist art thrived in the 90s, and Marlene McCarty is an important part of that history. You can see a lot of this work at Marlene’s first major survey, at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery this month. And if you can’t make it, you can pick up the accompanying catalog, which includes a great essay by Kathleen Hanna, who met Marlene when they taught a graduate seminar at NYU together two years ago. I would have killed my mother to take that class.
What follows is a selection from the exhibition of some of Marlene’s earlier work, along with Marlene’s thoughts on each piece.
“I’m Into You Now: Marlene McCarty, Some Work From 1980–2010” is on view at 80WSE Gallery from November 2 through December 18
“I did eight or so of these painting installations at this music venue called Kulturhaus Palazzo outside of Basel, Switzerland, between 1980 and 1982. It’s paint dripping down plastic that I stretched around the room. All the Central European punk and new-wave bands played there, like LiLiPUT, Yello, and Der Plan. It was great because I was just a kid in school studying design, and I could do whatever I wanted there.”
“In the late 80s and early 90s I was doing a lot of text paintings. I would piece together sheets of iron-on material and then heat-transfer them onto giant raw canvases. It was about the idea of painting as this male arena and what happens when the content becomes antithetical to that. So I was adopting this heavy female voice, and using ironing, you know, this female thing.”
“First there was the original Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture, then the art collective General Idea made a version that said AIDS, which incensed members of Gran Fury, who thought it was a passive way of dealing with the AIDS crisis, so as a response they made one that said RIOT. So my response was like, “Oh, just… FUCK.” People were always getting their feathers ruffled back then. The 90s were intense.”
“A lot of this work was about posturing, reacting against the male mythos of art. Like what does it mean when a girl says, ‘I fucked Madonna,’ and what is the potential reality of that?”
“‘Honk if your body’s not yours’—meaning, who owns your body: your father, your husband, the state? It was also part of the whole AIDS discussion; how many pharmaceuticals can they put in your body to control it? I did a series shown at White Columns in 1990 where I collected bumper stickers and had stacks of them that people could take. Things like ‘I heart fags,’ ‘I brake for queers,’ ‘Pray for RU-486.’ I was following right after Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who were everywhere at the time. They were so adamant about what they were suggesting, I was trying to be more humorous or oblique with the language. Not that it was always so successful.”
“Oh, the corn penis. It’s called Colonel. It’s a piece of dried corncob adhered to the middle of a canvas. In 1990, the art historian Anna Chave wrote an essay called ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,’ and it was about how minimalism claimed that its power was in its muteness, but in fact, she wrote, minimalism reeks of the status quo. Anna and I were both on a panel at the Whitney and this is the work she chose to represent me. It coincided with her idea about the mute object that speaks volumes.”
“A majority of the text I used was found language, either graffiti or something I heard somewhere. This one is called Factory Wall in Cincinnati. I went to school in Cincinnati and literally saw that graffitied on the wall of a factory. It hangs on the wall at tit-height. Unfortunately this is only going to be in the catalog because it was bought from Metro Pictures in ’91 and all they have in their records is a name and we cannot find that person anywhere. I hope whoever bought it still has it and enjoys it.”
“This is a floor sculpture and it’s 15,000 matchbooks. They’re standard matchbooks you can order from a catalog. On one side they have pinup girls on them, and on the other side I had them print, ‘I got a clit so big I don’t need a dick.’ If you’ll notice, clit and dick are handwritten. The company had called me up and were like, ‘Ummm, we have a problem. We can print dick but we can’t print THAT OTHER WORD.’ She wouldn’t even say the word clit. So I said OK, take the mechanical—this was in the olden days—and just slice the dick and the clit off. Then I got some friends together and we wrote them all in by hand. I’m reproducing these for the retrospective, but the curator is worried about whether we can have NYU students writing dick and clit 15,000 times. Maybe the seniors can do it.”
“As part of my research for the ‘Murder Girl’ series, I did these road trips to the murder sites and then I did small drawings of them. I needed to have the feeling of what it was like to be in these places. Plus it was a great excuse for a road trip. This was the creepiest house. It was Gina Grant’s house in South Carolina. She was a 14-year-old honor student and she crushed her mother’s skull with a candlestick after an argument over a boy Gina liked. The house was down a steep driveway, so once you drove down it was like you were trapped there. There were major bad vibes in this house. I wanted to get out of there quick, but when I started to drive back up the driveway, I couldn’t get up the hill and the car stalled. I was freaking out.”
“This is Gina Grant. My research started with girls who only killed their mothers. I wanted to find situations where the female-to-female relationship, which is supposed to be so important, imploded on itself. Then I expanded to include girls who killed not just their mothers but sometimes also their fathers or their entire family. So it became a rage against domesticity in a way, a desperate attempt to free themselves from the structured environment being imposed on them. I did these drawings for a long time and I did them all in pencil and ballpoint pen because I like to torture myself. When you spend that long on one drawing you kind of merge with the drawing in a way that is not normal.”