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The Artist Making Appropriation Look Good

Deborah Kass's new show, "No Kidding," is full of uneasy paintings for uneasier times. We talked to the multimedia artist about Andy Warhol, the reign of white men in art history, and why it's "next to impossible to feel good anymore."
All images courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

Last night marked the opening of multimedia artist Deborah Kass's sardonic, sinister No Kidding show at the Paul Kasmin gallery in New York's Chelsea. Divided into two rooms—one mostly black and blue and making use of neon, the other too-bright and metallic, making use of tape—the multimedia paintings proclaim uneasy slogans for an uneasier time: "Just a shot away," "We'll be young forever," "The band played on." On the far wall in the front room, a shiny black panel reflects shadowy figures of the night's gallery goers, who, laughing and chatting and posing for photos, all seem to be captioned with the ominous declaration that "HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN." On the left side of the piece, which is painted with oil and automotive urethane paint to give it its creepy look of slick darkness, is another piece in the show reflected at us, the words "good TIMES" in blue neon, backwards.


Underneath the confidence of such a declaration is a pressure present throughout the show: Believe it, please, or else. Making nostalgic nods to both the Rolling Stones and Franklin D. Roosevelt, these slogans were once evidence of hope, or joy, but in Kass's hands, they are reminders of good old days lost, possibly never to be found again. Like the advertisements—or, in some cases, the propaganda—they evoke, the works demand attention so that they may remind us that we do not have the kind of lives we want. In the far room, splotches of bright pink and yellow and red on silver and bronze–painted canvases look like cheerful bullet holes in Jenny Holzer–esque Nike campaigns.

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If Kass's work falls into a movement, it might be called post-postwar; the Brooklyn-based artist works largely in references, manipulating and commenting on pop culture and art history in paintings, photographs, collages, and sculptures that keep an eye on race and gender.Her eight-year series The Warhol Project, which she produced from 1992 until 2000, is particularly iconic, or at least post-icon. (Post-Warhol.) Itmakes use of Andy Warhol's techniques and aesthetics to integrate Kass's own political commentary; Kass's The Jewish Jackies replace Warhol's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis prints with multi-colored Barbra Streisands, a recurring figure in Kass's work. I talked with Kass over email on the day of the No Kidding openingabout how people have received her work over time, the apparent hopelessness of today's political climate, and how she makes appropriation work so well.


BROADLY: How do you see the new works in No Kidding fitting in with your previous works?
Deborah Kass:No Kidding is a continuation of feel good paintings for feel bad times [2002–present]. It's just next to impossible to feel good anymore. Deadly attacks on women's health; deadly institutional racism; mass murder at elementary schools, churches, movie theaters, and malls; global warming. It is nearly impossible to process what seems to be the homicidal and suicidal nature of humanity. Political agency of individuals has been subsumed by corporate takeover of the government. The middle class has been decimated. And still people vote against their own self-interests. The list goes on and on.

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In such dark times, what does one do? What does an artist do? What does a painter do? The contradictions are almost too much to process. Making luxury items was never the intention [for me]. Expression, reflection, agency were. An active conversation with the history of ideas was. This seems so quaint now. I am nostalgic for a time when we thought that we could make the world a better place.

Can you talk a little bit about why you think the kind of appropriation you use—piecemeal, yet extremely purposeful—is successful? It's sort of a bad word these days.
Seems to me appropriation is the coin of the realm. It feels like we are in the fifth generation of appropriation artists. Now young male artists are appropriating color field painting from the 60s. Everything old is new again, isn't it?


I don't appropriate from minority cultures unless I am a part of them. I have been appropriating the history of postwar painting, Broadway lyrics, popular culture—in other words, the cultural history of white men. I used appropriation first in the Art History paintings to deconstruct how value and power is inscribed in the history of postwar painting as it had at that point been written and as how it looked to me from my subject position. It was a history of the winners, the white guys. I thought that was a worthy job for painting.

What about your relationship to Andy Warhol specifically a little bit? He's clearly an influence, but there also seems to be some antagonism there.
Andy: To be clear, here is zero antagonism towards Andy Warhol. In fact, it felt like a fantastic partnership, the best marriage. I learned so much about creativity and art, stepping into his giant shoes for eight years. The lessons truly go on and on. I started using Andy's vocabulary in order to make my own ideas clearer to an audience. His style was so ubiquitous and transparent, I knew I could articulate my own ideas through it and they would be understood.

How have reactions to your work changed over time?
As I get older, the audience gets younger. My ideas are much more in sync with younger people. When I was starting out the collectors were my parents' generation. They grew up in the Depression and World War II. My generation is not as different from our parents' as we would like to think. When we went to college, ALL The Great Works—"the canon"—were made exclusively [by] white men. There were no women in Janson's History of Art textbook. Deconstructing the canon in other disciplines was the best and most radical and important work of women and people of color of my generation. The art world has been particularly resistant to these changes.

But people ten years younger [than I am], or more, have very different sensibilities, different educations, and different values. If you went to college after the institution of women's, black, LGBT, Jewish studies programs, after the canon was amended to include some women and people of color, let's face it—my work is going to be a helluva a lot better understood by those people than by their parents. And by parents, I mean people my age.

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What's your process like?
Ideas come from working. When I am fully immersed in what I am doing sometimes I dream paintings, can hear them in songs, or in conversation. Honestly, work makes work. It's the best part of being an artist and I am not sure it should even be called work.