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This first post is the early release of my Design Matters episode with Deborah Kass. Deborah Kass was born in San Antonio, Texas and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. You might know her from the giant yellow OY YO sculpture first on display in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and now on the waterfront in Williamsburg. She us is a multimedia artist who combines a pop sensibility with politics, feminism and art history. Her work is fun, funny, eclectic and deep and I loved interviewing her. The transcript for this show will be coming in a few days, but for now, please enjoy this conversation with the extraordinary Deborah Kass.
For more info on Deborah and to see images of her work, please go to www.deborahkass.com.
(DRIP doesn't allow for images and MP3s in the same post yet, or hyperlinks. As soon as they do I will utilize them. It is supposed to be happening soon.)
AND here is the full, verbatim transcript!
Curtis: This is "Design Matters" with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 13 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative types about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about. On this podcast, Debbie Millman talks with artist, Deborah Kass.
Deborah Kass: My whole middlebrow attachment to middle class entertainment is, to me, [laughs] one of the more radical things I do in art.
Curtis: Here's Debbie Millman.
Debbie Millman: Brooklyn recently got its YO back, or is it OY? I'm not sure. In any case, I'm talking about Deborah Kass's sculpture of two giant yellow letters, Y and O. Depending on which direction you're coming from, or your mood, you can read it as YO or you can read it as OY. It was originally on display in Brooklyn Bridge Park and now it's back in Brooklyn, on the Waterfront in Williamsburg. Deborah Kass is a multimedia artist who combines a pop sensibility with politics, feminism, and art history. Her work is fun, funny, eclectic, and deep. She's here today to talk about her long and extraordinary career. Deborah Kass, yo! Or should I say, oy? [laughs] Welcome to Design Matters.
Deborah: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Debbie: Deb, I need to start by asking you a rather trivial but potentially polarizing question. I understand you can't live without Bounty paper towels.
Deborah: That's true. Where do you get your information?
Debbie: Oh, I have my sources and I don't ever give them away.
Deborah: That's really funny.
Debbie: But, really, Bounty? I like Viva much better.
Deborah: Really? Oh, Bounty's the "Quicker picker upper," I don't know.
Debbie: This is not a sponsored podcast.
Deborah: No, it's not.
Debbie: Nobody has to worry about our being authentic.
Deborah: No. I think I inherited it from my grandmother. She had really particular tastes in paper products.
Debbie: Now, do you keep a lot of paper products around?
Debbie: See, I'm a person that has a lot of paper products in storage. I just feel safer when I have a large quantity of paper products around me.
Deborah: I completely concur because it ends up we have a lot in common, including a need for a big backup on paper products.
Deborah: I'm never happy unless I see that really well stocked shelf.
Debbie: Yep, I hear you.
Debbie: You were born in San Antonio, Texas, but you grew up on Long Island. What motivated that move to the East Coast?
Deborah: My parents were from the Bronx and Queens. My grandparents were three out of four from Russia. Well, the Ukraine and Belarus. They were New York Jewish immigrants and my father just did two years in the Air Force in Lackland in San Antonio, so they were just coming home.
Debbie: You were coming home.
Deborah: Like that generation, the next move was into the suburbs.
Debbie: I was there as well. Your mother was a substitute teacher in the Rockville Center Public Schools and your father was a dentist, but he was also a jazz aficionado and an amateur musician. I read that, in your house, there was only one kind of great art and it was jazz. You and your dad would listen to how Charlie Parker and Coltrane or Billie Holiday could all perform the same tune, but differently. This led you to thinking that interpretation was completely within the realm of a great artist. Do you think that this was only relegated to music or did you think it could apply to other art forms as well back then?
Deborah: I only knew one kind of great art and it was music, because my father said so, and that's what the literature of the house was, although my mother read a lot of literature aside from that. It was a very active passion for my father and it was a very involving atmosphere. I didn't really know that it applied to anything I did till about 1999, when I had a traveling show that originated at the Newcomb Museum there, The Warhol Project, started in New Orleans, the show.
It was because I had to give a talk to the trustees of the big opening and I had to prepare some remarks. It never really occurred to me that I had in any way assimilated that point of view, except there I was in New Orleans which, in my family, was like Mecca.
Deborah: There I was having done all this Andy Warhol work, this work that looked just like Andy Warhol's, and I realized that I had been doing exactly what my father had been pointing out these great musicians had done, which was taking a pop standard named Andy Warhol and making it mine, doing it my way. I never realized that I had made this connection between art and music or interpretive art versus creative art. To me, it was all the same thing. I didn't realize I had any connection to it till I had to give this talk, and it was like the light bulb went off.
Debbie: Was there ever a time in your life where you thought you might want to be a musician or a performer?
Deborah: No. I did have a little acting flirtation in my teens.
Debbie: Didn't we all? [laughs]
Deborah: Yeah. I guess we did, but I got the real bug because someone I knew from summer camp was in a Broadway show when she was about 16, in the chorus of "Henry, Sweet Henry." Ilene Schatz was in the chorus. It just blew my circuits. She ended up being a really, I guess, famous soap opera actress, Ilene Kristen, but Ilene Schatz inspired me.
I was very taken with this fact that someone I knew was doing something professional like that. I started going to theater a lot. What I would do is I would take the Long Island Railroad in on Saturday mornings and go to the Art Students League I started at like 14 and draw from the model. Then, in the afternoon I would...This was all with babysitting money. None of this was supported. My generation, your...Our parents weren't interested in creative children. They just said "Turn off the light and go to sleep." They didn't care that I was interesting, which I was.
[laughter] If I had me as a kid, I'd be fascinated. I would go do this theater thing in the afternoon on Broadway, but I quickly spread out to off Broadway because I was a little snotty intellectual. I actually went through my calendar from a few of those years. I'm still very close to my best friend from the time. At her surprise 60th birthday party, I gave a list of all the things we did, all the art we saw together and all the shows we saw together.
Debbie: Wow. That's amazing.
Deborah: It was like the living theater "Paradise Lost." It was crazy. It was Nicole Williamson in "Hamlet." It was an unbelievably...
Deborah: ...rich. I did have a little acting jones for a while.
Debbie: You knew that you wanted to be an artist or certainly had artistic talent pretty early. From what I understand, fairly early in your life you received a letter from "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz. He was actually responding to a letter that you wrote to him. Before I share the contents of his letter to you with our listeners, what did you write him to motivate his response to you?
Deborah: I sent him drawings.
Debbie: What did you draw?
Deborah: I drew a comic strip so unusual for me, based on his.
Debbie: Now, why am I not surprised?
Deborah: I had my own comic strip with little kids called "Applesauce," based on Peanuts. I had found my first Peanuts book at A&S, Abraham & Straus department store in Hempstead. I remember there was a pile of these books. I must have been eight years old, maybe nine. I don't think I was nine. Then I started collecting the books. I was completely obsessed, and I copied them endlessly. I perfected Lucy and then I went on and did my own based on them. I sent him a bunch of drawings and that's all I know. I don't know what I said. I don't know what I wrote. I just know he responded, and it went back and forth a few times. I have quite a few.
Debbie: Oh, so you have a whole correspondence from him.
Deborah: Yeah, I do. I have about six letters from him.
Debbie: Did you ever correspond with him when you were older and an adult?
Deborah: No. One of the things [laughs] I said to him, "I couldn't find 'Go Fly A Kite, Charlie Brown' when it came out," and I knew it came out somehow. I was very exteriorly motivated. I still am. The world was of enormous interest to me as a kid. I'm not like an internal artist who has churning emotions that have to get out. I never was.
Even as a little kid, I was very interested in the world. Somehow I knew this book had come out and it wasn't at A&S yet. I'm sure I bothered my mother endlessly to take me there. I sent Charles Shultz a dollar for the book, because that's what they were. He sent me back the book. He kept the dollar. He sent [laughs] me back the book, and he drew me a Snoopy.
Debbie: Please tell me you still have this.
Deborah: Oh, I have it framed. I pull the page out, and it's framed. It's brown now. It says, I should know what it says. I look at it all...Like, "To Debbie, best wishes," with Snoopy, in a blue ball point pen. It's so great.
Debbie: Oh, that's amazing. Well, his letter back to your first letter to him was, "Dear Debbie, Thank you for your letter and cartoons. I enjoyed seeing your drawings and I think you did very well with them. It is very nice of your teacher to display your drawings as she does. If you enjoy drawing cartoons, I would suggest that you keep it at.
"You can never tell what it may develop into. Kindest regards, Charles M. Shultz."
Deborah: I know. So dear. I did only write him one more time. When he was dying there was something about, if you want to write to Charles Shultz, do it now. There was some way to email him regards. I quoted that to him.
I said, "I don't know if you remember me, but I'm an artist in New York. I've made my life this way. When I was a kid, you know, you wrote this incredibly, encouraging thing and told me to keep at it because you never know what would happen."
Debbie: Keep at it, for you can never tell what it may develop into.
Deborah: I said, "I took your advice."
Debbie: Wonderful. Now, in addition to sneaking out of your Art Student's League's classes to going to Broadway plays...
Deborah: I was not sneaking out. They were done at 12:00.
Debbie: OK. [laughs]
Deborah: I wouldn't sneak out. I'd paid for them and I wanted to be in them.
Debbie: Well, you also would go to MoMA.
Debbie: That is where, while still in high school, you first saw the work of Frank Stella. I know that that was a really profound experience for you. Can you talk a little bit about that first experience?
Deborah: Yeah, and I used to just really haunt...I haunted MoMA to try to figure out what this was. This thing I wanted to do, even though I don't know why I wanted to do it. I don't know where I got the idea. I certainly didn't know anyone else who...These were doctors, lawyers, and manufacturers. That's what dads did. Moms taught. I don't know where this came from. I was really on a mission to find out what is this thing? What is art and what's being an artist? I would look at this work all around. I didn't really get a lot of it. I remember the first person that I actually...I loved de Kooning. I think most people who end up painters probably fell in love with de Kooning as a kid, in some way. I remember...
Debbie: Why do you think that is?
Deborah: Gushy paint, just gushy paint and so beautifully, fabulous gushy paint.
Debbie: I read that seeing Frank Stella's work convinced you you could be an artist because you understood what he was doing.
Deborah: Right. The thing that was so great about...It was Stella's first retrospective. I was 17, he was 44. It was whatever year that was. '70? '69, '70? It was the logic of Frank Stella that I understood. I understood how he got from that very first painting to the second painting, what was going on in his head.
Debbie: You just felt it?
Deborah: No, I think it's clear in the work. It's very logical. [laughs] It's logical work. The jumps between the series were what utterly fascinated me. They seemed completely logical, but they were obviously, intensively...They're creative jumps. They're not what you expect, but they make sense. It was being able to follow someone for 20 years of changes in their work, and how their work changes. It was more in my head than it was emotional.
Debbie: It sounds like figuring out a code.
Deborah: Yeah, like that. I understood his thinking. I understood the relationship of the form to the content, that the form was the content. That was kind of a big deal. [laughs]
Debbie: Did it give you a sense that you could do this with your life as well?
Deborah: Oh, yeah. I was already committed. I had probably already gotten into Carnegie Mellon. No, I knew I was going to be an artist, but it was the first time I understood motivation within a body of work.
Debbie: While you were at Carnegie, you also applied and were accepted to the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program, which was only about four to five years old at the time. I actually applied, and didn't get in. What was it like going there?
Deborah: My father had just died. I was in a completely altered state, because it was unexpected. He was only 47. It was a very weird time. I'm not sure I could describe much, other than I was kind of on another planet. I was living in the studio there. I'd, every now and then, go home. It was a real shock when my father died, but it was fun. It was fun to be with really ambitious people my age.
Debbie: It was at this time that you made one of your first paintings. Would it be fair to call it appropriated paintings?
Deborah: Yeah, I guess after Applesauce, my appropriation of Charles Shultz. This would be my next [laughs] major appropriation.
Debbie: Ophelia's Death after Delacroix. Can you describe it for our listeners?
Deborah: Yeah. It's actually a very large rendition of a small oil sketch by Delacroix called Ophelia's Death. I think his was like eight by ten inches, a very small little thing. Mine was maybe five feet by seven.
Debbie: Six by eight. [laughs]
Deborah: Oh, six by eight, even bigger. It was a redo of this painting. I just repainted it.
Debbie: Deb, you've written about how David Diao, the Chinese American artist and your teacher, saw the show of student work at the Whitney and was so freaked out about your painting that he literally hit his head against the wall. [laughs] Why was he so freaked out about your work?
Deborah: I don't know. I was really young. I was 20. I didn't know what it meant. Listen, I still don't know what it means when people [laughs] react to my work. I certainly didn't understand what it meant then. I never asked him. I wouldn't have had the nerve to ask him.
Debbie: Your time at school was rather interesting, I guess is the word I could put it. I found an interview wherein you describe your time there as total chaos and actually said this. This is a quote. "This is how crazy it was. Here's an actual assignment. "Our teacher got video cameras and said, 'We're going to hitchhike to Lexington.' One of our coolest teachers, the one who had studied with Kaprow was, then, in Lexington. We were stoned. We were tripping. We had video cameras. We went from Pittsburgh to Lexington with our thumbs out on the road. A lot of the students would transfer to CalArts. A few people went to Denmark to do primal therapy. This was undergraduate school. I did a ton of acid, smoked a lot of pot. I was such a bad girl and, oh, I had the best time.
Deborah: That is all true.
Deborah: It really was. I was out there and I had a ball.
Debbie: It sounds like it was just kind of perfect.
Deborah: I have to say, and I was madly in love. I was madly in love. I feel like I had the world's best first love affair. The world's maybe not best [laughs] art education, but for somebody dying to break out of Long Island and being a nice Jewish girl, I did it in spades, and I had a ball, and it was something else.
Debbie: You started your art history paintings in 1989. In this work, you combined frames lifted from Disney cartoons, with segments of paintings from Pablo Picasso, and Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock. It was here that you established appropriation as one of your primary techniques. What gave you the sense that this was something you wanted to pursue?
Deborah: I think to answer that question, I should establish a little context which was in the '70s, when I first came to New York, after the Whitney Program, when I came to settle down, find my loft, start my life, become a famous waitress. In the mid 70s, what was happening in the art world was thrilling. It was the height of second wave feminism. The art world was way smaller. The most interesting work, particularly painting, was being done by women. It was the intersection of New York School painting and feminism. The art that was being shown in SoHo, which was kind of a new thing, was Elizabeth Murray's work, which was incredibly important to me. So was Pat Steir's work, Mary Heilmann's work, Susan Rothenberg's work, and all of these women were really talking about abstraction and representation at the same time. What was interesting to me was how they were injecting their own personal point of view or...I'm not saying this well. After all those years at MoMA, not understanding what any of it might have to do with me, basically, I wasn't necessarily the audience. I didn't feel like the subject. These particular women's work, paintings, were the first time I felt like I was the intended audience of a piece of work. They were abstract painting, so I don't know how that was communicated, but it was communicated extremely strongly to me, who was already obsessed with postwar painting because of all of my time at MoMA. You can understand why if I love Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray would be a huge revelation. I said to Elizabeth once, "You know, you ruined abstraction." She said, "What do you...Deb, what do you mean?" I said, "Well, before you, it was universal. Once it was you, it became specific." That was a really big change.
Debbie: I felt the same way when I looked at her first...the big giant canvasses, all out of proportion and shape. It's incredible.
Deborah: Yeah, and Pat's work, the fact that she broke picture making down into these parts. Now, Jasper Johns had done it, but it felt different. Just felt different. I don't know. Something about seeing a little bird on a grid felt different.
Mary Harman's relationship to the edge in those paintings and the casualness, only Mary would make a mark in that way, but it was still an abstract painting. John Snyder, I put into this category, too, making operas with that work.
Debbie: How did that influence the kind of work you were doing at that time?
Deborah: [sighs] I'm not sure it influenced me specifically in terms...I never made a Frank Stella painting except when I use Frank Stella. It was never to me about, "Well, then I'll make a piece of work like that." It's more what it meant philosophically or what it could mean...
Debbie: What it opened up in you.
Deborah: What it opens up, period, and where you can go with that information. Then I go back to the late '70s, early '80s when neo expressionism happened, which also happened along with Ronald Reagan. In that particular group of artists, you had to be a white man. There was simply no women my age who got any traction for being painters. Women my generation got traction by being on the outskirts of the then very new and exciting market following closely to Ronald Reagan's reign. The people who are doing critical work in relationship to the culture and representation, us painters called them the photo girls. It was Laurie Simmons, Sarah Charlesworth, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine. What I'm getting at here is it was the content of that work that weirdly, in my head, connected to what these women had done, painting in the '70s. Breaking open a system like abstraction and figuring out new ways in and new subjectivities, somehow getting them in there, and here were all these women doing critiques of photography and media, and inserting their subjectivity in, and seeing what it look like from their point of view.
That was incredibly interesting and radical. The art history paintings came from a combination of those '70s women and what they've done with the history of abstraction and postwar painting. What Barbara and Cherie, as I love to say, were doing in terms of cultural critique and media critique, and putting them together into the art history paintings, which was me looking at the history of painting in a certain way or certainly the one I loved and new starting with Cezanne. It's the stuff I just loved and through postwar painting, through Andy Warhol, and putting that kind of critique that the photo girls were putting towards a culture, towards the history of painting.
Debbie: Your fascination with Andy Warhol began when you were about 13, and you saw a reproduction of his 1961 painting titled, Before and After. Can you describe the painting for our listeners?
Deborah: You reproduced in paint a widely distributed advertisement for a nose job. It was a little drawing, not his, from the advertisement of the profile of a woman with a nose, a big schnoz.
Debbie: Are you drawing it now?
Deborah: Yeah, I am probably drawing it, and after the nose job.
Debbie: I read that you took subversive joy in that image.
Deborah: I did because nose jobs were really important on Long Island.
Debbie: Especially in the '70s and '80s.
Deborah: This was the '60s.
Debbie: I guess that's why, right?
Debbie: You said that your decade of Andy Warhol started in 1992 and ended in 2000, and then you began a new body of work in 2002. Let's talk about your decade of Andy Warhol. It began when you borrowed the format of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy silk screens, and used an image of Barbra Streisand. You titled it Jewish Jackie. Why? Why did you make this painting?
Deborah: Well, in the art history paintings, I got up to Warhol. I used Andy a bunch of times including Before and Happily Ever After, Making Men, Puff painting, to name a few, and there I was with Andy. Those paintings, particularly, were really about my absence in art history. That's what they were about. It's like, "Here's our history. Here's how it's written. "Here's what's valuable, here's what's not," and I'm really missing in here, in this whole equation. I was having a conversation with a friend. It was about the sexism in the art world, which was my... [laughs] It's my common theme. It's my theme. I was sort of screaming like, "Jerry, you're interested in every single thing that's in the inside of an adolescent boy's head. You think it's valuable? "Anything a guy does, even if it's like from when they're 13 years old." He said, "Well, I'd love to know what 13 year old girls think about," and I was fascinated. That's why you talk to your friends. It really got me thinking. [laughs] Also at that time, it was another contextual thing about that particular moment, late '80s. This was really the beginning of women's studies in academia, and black studies, critical race theory, and queer theory. This was all the beginning of what became academic 20 years later. I was reading a lot, a lot, a lot about subjectivity, objectivity, specificity, fluidity of gender, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick. Before then, Goober and Gilbert, "The Madwoman in the Attic," Elaine Showalter, the Pembroke Series, the Columbia University Press Gender and Culture Series Nancy K. Miller edited with Carolyn Heilbrun. There was enormous, enormous amounts of intellectual activity around identity. This was the stuff that was working in Barbara, Cindy, and Cherie's work. This is what their work was really engaged with and engaging. Women studies came out of a lot of really smart women, most of them Jewish, [laughs] a lot of them Jewish. Let's just say a lot of them are Jewish, who were really good girls, older than me, who we're brilliant children who became brilliant women, who did nice girl things like major and get their PhDs in French literature and English literature. Something cracked in the '70s and then, in the '80s, began to re examine their own history of their own know topics and subjects French literature, English Literature, American Literature through the lens of feminism, and that is what I was doing with the art history paintings.
I was re examining my beloved history of art postwar painting through the lens of feminism because I was reading these women, and it looked like no one had done this in painting, and I really wanted to do it. They were just starting to do it in English literature, and then it became critical race theory and black scholars looking at the law through the lens of race. When I had that conversation with my friend and he said, "I would love to know what 13 year old girls think about," I was thinking about my work, as I always do, and I realized that that work had really been about my absence. That the art history paintings had been about my absence. What would my presence look like? What would my presence look like? Then he said that thing about being 13. Those two things just exploded in my brain. What I was thinking about at 13 looked a lot like Barbara Streisand.
Debbie: I actually read that. You talked about how Barbra Streisand changed your life as a Jewish girl growing up in suburban New York and stated that her sense of herself, her ethnicity, glamour, and her difference affirmed your own ambitions and identity. She did the same exact thing for me. Exact thing for me.
Deborah: That is the power of being Barbara.
Deborah: I was really obsessed with my parents' nostalgia. My father had the music thing, which was major, and my mother was a great reader and a great movie person. Those gals were. They loved the movies the '30s, the '40s, the '50s.
Debbie: Oh, you kidding? When my mother told me that she and my father were getting a divorce, she took us to see "Hello, Dolly!" starring Barbra Streisand.
Deborah: [laughs] Oh, God.
Debbie: Seriously. Now you understand my fascination with Barbra. In any case, you were saying?
Deborah: That's like the Rosie O'Donnell story when her father died. No, her mother died. Her father threw out everything her mother owned. She hid "Funny Girl," the album. That's what Barbra means to her.
Debbie: Yeah, of course.
Deborah: That was her last piece of her mother. Having been obsessed with my parents' nostalgia and movies, I knew everything about Hollywood in the '30s and '40s. My mother would talk endlessly Leslie Howard was Jewish, and Ashley Wilkes, and Rita Hayworth's electrolysis on her hairline.
She knew it all. She knew it. She was great. I think I had a whole theory, when I was probably 14, about 1939 being the best year of movies ever.
Debbie: Of course, and it still is to this day.
Deborah: Well, what 13 or...
Debbie: "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone with the Wind," please.
Deborah: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Wuthering Heights." It was an amazing year.
Debbie: Never to be repeated.
Deborah: For a 13 and 14 year old to know this was like...Really, I was a gay boy.
Debbie: That's so funny that you should say that. I often say that about myself. [laughs]
Deborah: I was, "Aha, your first..."
Debbie: I made a much better gay man. [laughs]
Deborah: I am. That's a part of my work that's been under theorized. Anyway, Barbra was so obviously different than any other of these movie stars. I was completely in love with Marilyn Monroe. I just adored her. I adore Jane Russell. I enjoyed "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," was my favorite.
Debbie: You knew that by heart.
Deborah: By heart. It was very clear when Barbra showed up that she was different than any woman who'd ever been a movie star. She looked like people I knew. She looked like people I knew. She looked like a New Yorker. She looked like a Jewish girl.
Debbie: Is it true that Barbra Streisand declined an offer from Warhol to sit for a painting?
Deborah: That's the story. I know the same story. That is my understanding.
Debbie: But we don't know for sure.
Deborah: But Barbra wouldn't, because Barbra controlled her own image. I have to tell you, when I was painting my celebrity portraits and I would ask Barbara Kruger, my heroes I asked some of my heroes and she...
Debbie: You did Elizabeth Marie and Pat Steir.
Deborah: Yes. They said yes, and Barbara Kruger said no, because Barbara Kruger controls her own image. It as crucial to Barbara Kruger as it is Barbra Streisand, but Barbra Streisand did a damn good job of controlling that image.
Debbie: Yeah, absolutely.
Deborah: My guess is she didn't want someone else painting her when she's too busy creating herself.
Debbie: You also painted portraits of yourself impersonating both Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor in a series you called The Debs. Don't think I don't want one of those. What was it like inhabiting somebody else's spirit in that way?
Deborah: Oh, it was great. It was like the best marriage. I always feel really grateful that I got to partner with Andy for as long as I did. I learned so much stuff about making things, and ideas, and making ideas multiply literally and figuratively. It was just the best partnership.
Debbie: We touched a little bit on a woman's role in the art world. Do you think that women can or ever will be able to be equal in the art world? Do you think that they'll have to be granted art world equality by men, or do you think that this is an uphill battle that will not be one in our generation?
Deborah: The only way that that will be resolved is when women make the same amount of money as men.
Debbie: Does that what the gender equality in the art world looks like to you?
Deborah: I mean in the big world, because it's the big world that pays for the art world. Women need to make as much as men...
Debbie: Oh, in the world.
Deborah: ...in the world for enough generations that art is something they feel like investing in. Till women make a dollar to a dollar, women in the art world don't have a chance. I don't see it. I don't see how, till there's financial equality, anything is going to be equal.
Debbie: After the Warhol project, your plan was to take some time off. I think you took about a year off. When you take time off between periods of work, do you ever worry about ideas and having something new to say?
Deborah: Yeah, always.
Debbie: Is there any way that you manage that fear or that stress?
Deborah: I think every break is for a different reason, in a way, but it does tend to come at the end of a series. After Warhol, which I always knew it would come to an end at some point, I don't remember exactly what happened anymore, but if you're telling me I took a break, I believe you. I do know, when I got back to work, I knew there were a couple things I just had been thinking about a lot, and I didn't know what it would look like, or what it would mean, or anything. It was, really, still wanting to say what I say in a different way.
Debbie: Your next body of work, Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, consisted of paintings of phrases from musicals and movies as a reaction, then, to the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq. Those were indeed feel bad times, but it's hard for me to imagine how the world now is affecting the kind of work that you want to be making.
Deborah: That's a really good question that I am in no way prepared to answer.
Debbie: What was the intention of using the phrases from the musicals and the movies? Was it the sense of joy that you experienced in observing those or participating in those types of art forms and wanting to bring that into the work to cheer people up, to distract them, to create a sense of a dichotomy between realities?
Deborah: Well, the whole thing was very tongue in cheek and every single phrase was double edged.
Debbie: I think everything in your work is double edged.
Deborah: I guess it is. It must be astrological.
Deborah: It's my Aries. It's my Sun/Moon opposition. I was turning 50 and I really wanted them to be about turning 50. [laughs] It was also that idea about identifying that I was playing with, and nostalgia, and weaponizing nostalgia.
Deborah: They were biting. The phrases were biting.
Debbie: Yeah, but nostalgic. [laughs] Nostalgic only if you're a person like me. Again, that's where the specificity comes in. I love musicals. I love the old musicals. I don't love the new musicals. I loved Hamilton. My whole middlebrow attachment to middle class entertainment is, to me, [laughs] one of the more radical things I do in art because art's supposed to be this other thing. Yet, the middle class is the thing that has...It made the greatest art. It made the greatest movies. We made a lot of great stuff. Let's face it. Working class, middle class, that's where the action is, but that great middle class made us. That great middle class was the thing that was being attacked so directly by Republicans, and by Bush in particular. The dismantling of the middle class is one of the most tragic things that's happened in my lifetime. To embrace this middle class stuff like musicals, it seemed, really, like a good idea.
Debbie: Let's talk about OY/YO because it has so much embedded in it. I mentioned what it looks like a little bit in my intro very large, big yellow letters, O Y, Y O. You can look at it from two different directions. You first develop the idea, I believe, through paintings in smaller scale pieces that were inspired by Picasso's Yo, Picasso, and Edward Ruscha's OOF. How did they infiltrate into your psyche?
Deborah: Well, I was walking around MoMA, as I do still not as often as I did when I was a kid, though and there was Edward Ruscha's OOF, and I just saw OY. So, I made the painting the exact same size, same color. It was up at the gallery and a friend saw the reflection and said, "You know, it says YO in the reflection." This is like an Andy moment where I went, "Should I paint it?" Which is exactly what Andy would have said. She said, "Yeah," so I made the YO. I painted the YO. This is an it takes a village story. My print publisher, Robert Lococo, Lococo Fine Arts, who I adore, said, "What if we made a little sculpture out of it? That way you could see it at the same time," so we did.
Then this opportunity came up to do a large scale sculpture, and it was completely like, "Who wouldn't want to see that eight foot tall?"
Debbie: Especially in New York City.
Deborah: Yeah. That's how it happened. It was a lot of people with a lot of good ideas and a great opportunity.
Debbie: I think it's a modern day version of the I Heart New York logo.
Deborah: You know, that and LOVE.
Debbie: Yes. Robert Indiana, absolutely.
Deborah: It is totally those two things combined with Tony Smith.
Debbie: Yes, absolutely.
Deborah: When it went up, when it was installed, I knew it.
Debbie: Is going to become a permanent part of the New York City landscape?
Deborah: One can hope. There's a lot of conversations going on. Hopefully, there will eventually be a great New York City spot for it to stay permanently.
Debbie: It has to.
Deborah: It really was a remarkable experience.
Debbie: It's such a mash up of the culture of the city, this wonderful melting pot that still does exist and should be expressed in this way.
Deborah: I'm still shocked by it. [laughs] It's not like I planned for it to be an instant icon. Even I knew it was the minute it was installed. It was just so obvious. That's what happens when you have opportunity, which is the thing that is lacking to specific groups of people that this is an example of you give...
There's not a lot of public art by women, and there's virtually no permanent public art by women.
Debbie: Hopefully, this is going to change and help move that.
Deborah: Thank you. I hope so. Given that opportunity, it just worked out really well. It was so much more than I ever thought about.
Debbie: Charles Schulz would be proud.
Deborah: He would be proud, yeah.
Debbie: I have a final question for you. You've had a remarkable career. You've had extraordinary longevity. There are a number of artists today, but not many, that you can look at the trajectory of their work and feel like they haven't even peaked yet. They're doing the best work of their career. I think that you're an artist in that category that's just continually doing things that are really important and making a really important contribution and statement.
In a recent interview you were asked if you had any advice for young artists today, and your response was classic
Deborah Kass. You said, "Don't be an asshole." Why that advice? Aside from the obvious, why that specific advice?
Deborah: I guess because, at this point in my life, I know more about human nature and I know that people don't forgive and they don't forget. That's why you should mind your Ps and Qs.
Debbie: Deborah Kass, thank you for making our world and our city a more painterly and a provocative place. You can see some of Deborah Kass's work on deborahkass.com. This is the 12th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Curtis: For more information about Design Matters or to subscribe to our newsletter, go to debbiemillman.com. If you like the podcast, please write a review on iTunes and link to the podcast on social media. Design Matters is recorded at the Masters in Branding studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by designobserver.com. You can subscribe to this free podcast in the iTunes store or wherever you get your podcasts.
Debbie: OK. She's here to talk about her long and extraordinary career. Deborah Kass, welcome to Design Matters.
Deborah: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Debbie: [laughs] You should say, "Yo."
Deborah: You should put that in. This should be in.