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 Past Exhibition

Deborah Kass: My Andy: a retrospective
June 22-September 8, 1996
June 22-September 8, 1996
Deborah Kass: My Andy: a retrospective
Deborah Kass
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , 1994
silkscreen on acrylic on canvas
22 x 22 inches
photo: Liz Deschenes; courtesy of the artist
Through her appropriation of Andy Warhol's portraiture, Deborah Kass examines identity, ethnicity, and the idea of celebrity. Kass imitates Warhol's work so exactly that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between her work and his. Ironically, however, producing work that looks like another artist's gives Kass freedom to explore issues that inform who we are and how we see one another. For instance, with this work in which she sometimes portrays herself as if she were Andy Warhol, she suggests that her own body, no matter how she identifies it (feminist, Jewish, artist, lesbian, as Andy, etc.) is politicized by its sheer presence in culture. Social and cultural attitudes help shape how we see ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Kass's appropriation of Warhol's portraits examines Warhol's moment in art history, while she refigures that moment in her own image and in the images of those people she admires or who have resonance in her life. These images question the values we may assign to gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Kass examines Warhol's obsession with popular culture and fame-specifically who is famous and why. Kass's portraits of Cindy Sherman (who looks suspiciously like Warhol's Liza Minnelli, a suitable mien for an artist whose own self-imagery centers around multiple identities), artist Elizabeth Murray, and finally her grandmother Jeanne Kaufax, all articulate Kass's own heroes as quite different from Andy's, and yet how they-or at least their images/identities-may be subsumed by the culture at large. For instance, is Cindy Sherman actually portrayed as herself, as Liza Minnelli, or as herself as Liza Minnelli? This multiple presentation demonstrates how even a contrived identity is fluid. In her portraits, Kass articulates her own "heroes"-apt replacements for the celebrities Warhol portrayed, whose association with Warhol may have been proportional to and dependent upon his own rising "star" status. However, according to Kass, Warhol's celebrity images actually depict his own place as one outside of or on the margins of American culture. To her he was actually an outsider "because of his queerness. ... He wasn't looking for his own reflection; he was looking for his glorified reflection ... 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." 1

Kass's image of Cindy Sherman, an artist whose self-portraits often analyze the role of women's images in contemporary art and culture, offers a rejoinder to Warhol's flattering portraits commissioned by the wealthy and famous during the 1970s and 1980s. Metaphorically, Sherman represents the antithesis of the male gaze which focused on women's beauty-implicit in Warhol's celebrity portraits. (Certainly there is no unflattering Warhol portrait of any celebrity client.) Unlike Warhol's portraits of celebrities and wealthy patrons which could be commissioned like any business transaction, Kass's portraits pay tribute to her own personal heroes who stand outside the celebrity culture Warhol portrayed. Kass's "celebrities" stand in for Warhol's vision of American beauty and status, and question the role of celebrity, celebrity maker, and how and why one becomes celebrated by our culture.

According to Warhol historian David Bourdon, the first painting Warhol made with photographic silkscreen was Baseball , which captured the repeated image of Roger Maris at bat. Kass's response is Sandy Koufax , which features the repeating image of pitcher Sandy Koufax in action. In addition to the fact that Koufax-who played for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles-was Jewish, he was, in Kass's words, "every Jewish mother's dream," because he refused to pitch games on high holidays such as Yom Kippur. 2Indeed, in 1965 Koufax refused to pitch in a World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur. By memorializing Sandy Koufax, Kass demonstrates how celebrity status is discursively formulated and understood. Koufax's baseball record may have meaning to some, but his personal choices may mean more to others. Substituting Sandy Koufax for Roger Maris, Kass comments on the absence of American "heroes" in her childhood who reflected her ethnic background. (Interestingly, he is Kass's third cousin.) While Roger Maris may be more famous for breaking Babe Ruth's record for hitting the most home runs in a single season, Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame, as his overall career had a more lasting effect. 3

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, Kass depicts Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in a response to Warhol's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , his paean to Robert Rauschenberg. Kass's personal history with Gertrude Stein (or at least her image) figures in this representation. She states, "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 something about this portrait and this person that mesmerized 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." 4 Warhol's work memorialized Robert Rauschenberg, an artist who reached critical acclaim in a way Warhol never would. Juxtaposed with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men -a visual continuation of traditional, white, male-dominated art history- Let Us Now Praise Famous Women examines not only "famous" women, but "famous" lesbian women. Stein is an apt counterpoint not only to Warhol's Rauschenberg, but to Warhol's portraits of women such as Jacqueline Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. While Onassis and Monroe may function as images of the "ideal" American woman, Kass's image of Stein and Toklas pointedly demonstrates that male desire (read heterosexual desire) does not represent all desire. Kass memorializes two lesbians, acknowledging with some irony that the phrase "Let us now praise famous women" is loaded with implications, such as how and when which women are recognized, and even more significantly, for what-their physical appearance and heterosexual desirability or their achievements.

Kass's self-portraits in the guise of Andy Warhol pose a different problem. By portraying herself as Andy, in drag (ultimately as herself), she compounds her identity and her gender, reshaping and reforming them, proffering her image in the multiple ways we may choose to express identity and gender. According to Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity , "The notion of an original or primary gender identity is often parodied within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities." 5Kass's Altered Image #1 , in which she poses as Andy in drag-a replica of the Warhol photographic portrait by Chris Makos-demonstrates the flexibility of gender. Kass is a woman portraying a man portraying a woman. By parodying Warhol's parody of women and the idea of a fixed gender and sexuality, Kass suggests that gender (both public and private expressions of it) is too often governed by cultural standards, and can be fractured, undone, and then redone at will. Conversely, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , Kass represents herself as Warhol, illustrating, by her title choice, that she is deliberately portraying herself as a young man . In an act of political and social defiance, Kass reterritorializes her own body in ways that oppose conventional hegemonies. She demonstrates that gender and its expression may be a performative choice rather than a biological and cultural imposition. Judith Butler continues, "The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance."6 Warhol's and Kass's gender bending, demonstrated in the Makos and Makos-like photographs, over-throw the "normal" divisions of male and female heterosexuality, and contest our culture's idea of a "normal" heterosexual body.

Kass's merging of her identity into Andy Warhol's, whose own identity often seemed to become subsumed, or at the least identified by the people he portrayed (both men and women, gay and straight), allows us to consider the performative value of her works as heir to and separate from the Warhol machine. Camouflage Self-Portrait , after Warhol's last portrait series of the same name from 1986, fractures the notion that portraiture is an avenue of personal access. The multicolored "camouflage" design both conceals and reveals Kass's face, presenting a monumental image of herself that may help us understand that there are no easily fixed definitions or representations of the self. Through her work in My Andy: a retrospective , Deborah Kass contests a facile interpretation of Andy Warhol's portraiture. By altering her own body through multiple gender performance (assuming that there are more than two genders from which to choose), Kass conflates ideas about cultural boundaries, sexuality, gender choices, celebrity, and ethnicity, creating a body of work that restructures conventional notions of all these categories.

-Dana Self
Associate Curator

Notes
  1. Telephone conversation between Ouattara and Dana Self, July 22, 1996.
  2. Thomas McEvilley, Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale (published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same title organized and presented by The Museum for African Art, New York, NY, 1993) p. 81.
  3. McEvilley, p. 72.
  4. Stuart Hall, "The Question of Cultural Identity," Hall and Gieben, eds. Modernity and its Futures (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992) p. 308, in Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994) pp. 27-28
  5. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994) pp. 4-5.
  6. See Okwui Enwezor, Ouattara: Paintings at Larry Gagosian Gallery, Journal of Contemporary African Art, Spring, 1995.
  7. Okwui Enwezor, "Ouattara: Beyond Shamanism," Journal of Contemporary African Art, Spring, 1995