“Art after Stonewall,” Art in America

By Holland Cotter

Chairman Ma (Gertrude Stein)

Deborah Kass: Chairman Ma #21 (Gertrude), 1993, silk screen, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 42 inches. Collection Alice and Marvin Kosmin, New York. Courtesy Jose Freire Fine Art.

Deborah Kass

Born 1952, San Antonio, Tex. Studied at the Art Students Leaguy, New York, 1968-70; Whitney Independent Study Program, New York, 1972; Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, BFA 1974. Currently lives in New York. Most recent solo exhibition at Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston, 1994. Forthcoming exhibition at Jose Freire Fine Art, New York, 1995.

My first big art experience was the Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso at the Metropolitan when I was about eight. It was also my first big sex experience. There was instant identification (as there was later when I saw Barbra Streisand and read about her went nuts). There was something about this portrait and this person that mesmerized me. And I figured it out later, going to the Met and MOMA, that Picasso never painted another woman like that, who looked like that, with that kind of presence, who wasn’t a thing! He painted a person, and this personness overwhelmed me. I don’t know whether it was because Gertrude Stein was an artist or because she was a Jewish woman or because she was a dyke, but I’m convinced that at eight I got a lot of this information subliminally.

I later studied art at Carnegie-Mellon. When I came back to New York in 1975 it seemed that being a woman and a painter wasn’t much of an issue. Between 1975 and ’77 Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Pat Steir, Joan Semmel, Louise Fishman and numerous other women had their first shows. And it was the height of second-wave feminism. For me, age 23 and right out of school, it was extremely encouraging.

I had been completely male-identified as an art student. When I stated coming out as a lesbian in New York the work of these women was revelatory. There was something about being sexually identified with women that made me want to see my own reflection in art in ways I never had considered before. Seeing the work of Elizabeth Murray was exactly the same experience to me as reading Adrienne Rich’s poetry. It was about seeing somebody with a real formal base who reinvented formalism by adding personal content. I never could have said it that way at the time, but when I looked at Murry’s painting I knew she was talking about me. It was very exciting.

The other artist I loved right from the start was Andy Warhol, and it’s Andy who inspired the series of silk screens of Gertrude Stein and of Barbara Streisand from the film Yentl, an image I titled My Elvis. I find Andy so fascinating because he was the first queer artist- I mean queer in the political sense we mean queer. While some of his homosexual contemporaries were into coding and veiling and obscuring, Andy really made pictures about what it was like being a queer guy in the ’50s. He was the first big queer-boy artist and he really made these pictures of the inside of his queer brain, from the women’s shoes on.

An for me to look at that work as a lesbian is fascinating. I think: what would it look like if Andy was a lesbian? Because for me his work is defined by his gayness. It’s all about queerness, so I ask what would it be like if he was a woman, not to mention a Jewish woman. Not to mention my age and a Jewish woman? Who would he be obsessed with? That Before-and-After nose job painting he did in the ’60s was such an experience for me as a Jewish girl on Long Island. It had such a different resonance in my community than it did to Andy in his community. And it’s that difference that I’m really interested in. I spent a lot of time thinking why Andy didn’t do Barbra, even though Barbra was such a star when he was doing those paintings.

He didn’t do Barbara because she was just like Andy, an outsider because of her ethnicity, as he was because of his queerness. They were in the same position, culturally, and he wasn’t looking for his own reflection of a perfect American butchness, a perfect American glamour, as defined basically by Hollywood, a glamour that he was incapable of attaining because of his gayness, his immigrant family and his looks. For me there’s the ehtnic aspect of how, when Barbra hit the scene, people like my parents disliked her because she was “too Jewish.” Why doesn’t she fix her nose, why doesn’t she change her name? But to be an adolescent coming across Barbra Streisand was the most exhilarating moment of identification. I’m sure it’s how a lot of gay boys felt about her at my age, 13 or how alot of gay boys felt about her at my age, 13 or 14. It was an identification with powerfulness, talent, with being yourself and being different at the same time. She was my version of Andy’s ideal image of Elvis. Gertrude was an extension of this project. There’s a case to be made about standing outside a culture- the way Gertrude said she had to live in France to write English and how Andy probably had to be a gay white man to reflect the culture so accurately. Standing outside and trying on the culture in various ways- not unlike drag- is a particularly gay strategy.

We need powerful figures like these as role models, because things are tough for gays and lesbians, women, blacks- anyone without power. If you’re a lesbian, by definition you’ve figured out something about your private life, but then you’re stuck smack up against a culture that doesn’t want to see you, doesn’t want to hear you- not the “you” you’ve had to come to terms with. Unfortunately that is true within the art community, too, which is deeply lesbophobic. I think that’s clear just looking at the power structures. Male dealers, collectors and artists, gay or straight- and I say this at the risk of alienating every gay man I loce- come first. Things won’t change until dykes make as much money as fags, until women make as much as men, and blacks make as much as whites. It’s simple demographics.

And I don’t think things have changed all that much when a show like “Bad Girls” is the only attempt by any institution to address 30 years of work coming out of an evolving ideology- feminism- and then doesn’t deal with it in a historicized way. But, of course, this exhibition had the burden of having to fulfill all representation for this crucial movement which has otherwise had no support by any male-defined institutions.

Refusing to do a major historical survey of the impact of feminism is one obvious, major way of silencing women artists, but there are subtler ones. One of them is by shaping a market. Look at the ’80s. Curators seemed to be all of one mind: Let’s put some straight, while male artists in a show, then make up a name like “Neo-Expressionism” or “Neo-Geo” (just as examples), then we’ll just keep changing the name of the show and do it 10 times a season for three seasons. That’s how you create a market and how you write everyone else off. Or you do a midcareer retrospective of a straight white male, and you commission numerous essays for the catalogue. In a number of the essays the phrase “feminist artists of the ’70s” is used; none of the essays name the women who influenced the now-anointed male artists. That’s how you silence women, that’s how you erase careers, that’s how you dehistoricize. In the future there may be references to “gay and lesbian artists,” who won’t get named. Those “multicultural artists of the ’90s,” “that Whitney Biennial.” That’s how it might very well be rewritten. When you’ve seen it happen for 20 years you understand the mechanics of erasing.

So what do we do? I don’t think art is effective within the culture as a catalyst for social change, since it hasn’t even changed the art world. Art just happens to be this sick passion of mine. But then there are those moments when that proves to be not true and you keep on going because you once had the experience of looking at someone else’s piece of work and thinking, “it’s possible.” And for me, the bottom line is my responsibility to my overlapping communities. Doing this interview is hardly a great marketing strategy. I’m doing this because young lesbian artists might read it and know there are other dykes out here. Which leads to the question of whether there is gay or lesbian art. This is another question they’ve been asking women for 25 years, about “women’s art.” Of course there is, just like there’s “male art.” And is ghettoization a problem? It’s a big problem. So I think it’s really good that white straight men have decided to finally get out of the protection of their ghetto, because they’ve been ghettoized far too long. We have been the outside viewers of this ghetto for thousands of years, and it is the most expensive estate in the world. They need to come out in the world and compete with the rest of us. They shouldn’t be scared. Vacate, baby!