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Deborah Kass (born 1952) is an American artist whose work explores the intersection of pop culture, art history, and the self. Deborah Kass works in mixed media, and is most recognized for her paintings, prints, photography, sculptures and neon lighting installations. The artist mimics and reworks signature styles of iconic male artists of the 20th century including Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Ed Ruscha. Kass’s technique of appropriation is a critical commentary on the intersection of social power relations, personal identity, and the historically dominant position of male artists in the art world.
Life and work
Deborah Kass was born in 1952 in San Antonio, Texas. She received her BFA in Painting at Carnegie Mellon University, and studied at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and the Art Students League of New York. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Jewish Museum (New York); Museum of Fine Art, Boston; Cincinnati Museum of Art; New Orleans Museum; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums; and Weatherspoon Museum.
In 2012 Kass's work was the subject of a mid-career retrospective Deborah Kass, Before and Happily Ever After at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. An accompanying catalogue published by Rizzoli, included essays by noted art historians Griselda Pollock, Irving Sandler, Robert Storr, Eric Shiner and writers and filmmaker Brooks Adams, Lisa Leibmann and John Waters.
Kass's work has been shown at international private and public venues including at the Venice Biennale, the Istanbul Biennale, the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the Museum of Modern Art, The Jewish Museum, New York, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A survey show, Deborah Kass, The Warhol Project traveled across the country from 1999-2001. She is a Senior Critic in the Yale University M.F.A. Painting Program.
Kass’ paintings often borrow their titles from song lyrics. Her series The Feel Good For Feel Bad Times, incorporates lyrics borrowed from The Great American Songbook, which address history, power, and gender relations that resonate with Kass's themes in her own work.
Art History Paintings 1989–1992
In Kass’s first significant body of work, the Art History Paintings, she combined frames lifted from Disney cartoons with slices of painting from Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and other contemporary sources. Establishing appropriation as her primary mode of working, these early paintings also introduced many of the central concerns of her work to the present. Before and Happily Ever After, for example, coupled Andy Warhol’s painting of an advertisement for a nose job with a movie still of Cinderella fitting her foot into her glass slipper, touching on notions of Americanism and identity in popular culture. Before and Happily Ever After series engages critically with the history of politics and art making, especially exploring the power relationship of men and women in society. Deborah Kass's work reveals a personal relationship she shares with particular artworks, songs and personalities, many of which are referenced directly in her paintings.
The Warhol Project 1992–2000
In 1992 Kass began The Warhol Project. Beginning in the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s paintings employed methods lifted from mass production to depict iconic American products and celebrities. Using Andy Warhol’s technical and stylistic language to represent figures in many cases no less iconic, Kass nevertheless turned Warhol’s ambivalent relationship to popular culture on its head by choosing subjects that had an explicitly personal and political relationship to her own cultural interests. Kass painted artists and art historians that were her “heroes”, like Cindy Sherman and Elizabeth Murray, Robert Rosenblum and Linda Nochlin, in the vein of Warhol’s celebrities. In The Jewish Jackie Series she painted Barbra Streisand, a celebrity with whom she closely identifies, after Warhol’s paintings of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. Her My Elvis series speaks to gender and ethic identity by replacing Warhol’s Elvis with Barbra Streisand from Yentl: a 1983 film in which Streisand plays a Jewish woman who dresses and lives as a man in order to receive an education in the Talmudic Law. Kass’s Self Portraits as Warhol nod to the act of drag performed in her all appropriation of Warhol’s work. My Elvis is an example of the artist’s genre-and gender-bending sensibility. By appropriating Andy Warhol’s print Triple Elvis and using the pop art style in My Elvis, Kass states her concerns about gender relations, promotes feminist advocacy in society, and directly challenges patriarchy.
Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times 2002–present
In 2002, Kass began a new body of work, feel good paintings for feel bad times, inspired, in part, by her reaction to the Bush administration. These works combine stylistic devices from a wide variety of post-war painting, including Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Ed Ruscha, along with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Laura Nyro, and Sylvester, among others, pulling from popular music, Broadway show tunes, the Great American Songbook, Yiddish, and film. The paintings view American art and culture of the last century through the lens of that time period’s outpouring of creativity that was the result of post-war optimism, a burgeoning middle class, and democratic values. Responding to the uncertain political and ecological climate of the new century in which they have been made, Kass’s work looks back on the 20th century critically and simultaneously with great nostalgia, throwing the present into high relief. Drawing, as always, from the divergent realms of art history, popular culture, political realities, and her own political and philosophical reflection, the artist continues into the present the explorations that have characterized her paintings since the 1980s in these new hybrid textual and visual works.
Yo, New York, Oy!
In 2015, Two Tree Public Art commissioned of a monumentally scaled installation of OY/YO for the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The installations, measuring 8 x 17 x 5 ft., consist of big yellow aluminum letters, which will be visible from the F.D.R. Drive, and spell “YO” against the backdrop of Brooklyn. The flip side, for those gazing at Manhattan, reads “OY.” Since 2011, OY/YO has been a reoccurring motif in Deborah Kass’s work in the form of paintings, prints, and tabletop sculptures. Kass first created “OY” as a painting riffing on Edward Ruscha’s 1962 Pop canvas, “OOF.” She later painted “YO” as a diptych that nodded to Picasso’s 1901 self-portrait, “Yo Picasso” (“I, Picasso”).
On December 9, 2015 Deborah Kass introduced her painting that has the words “No Kidding” spelled out in neon lights. It was installed at Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea, New York. The exhibition is an extension of her Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, but it sets a darker, tougher tone as she reflects on contemporary issues such as global warming, institutional racism, political brutality, gun violence, and attacks on women’s health, through the lens of minimalism and grief.
America’s Most Wanted
America’s Most Wanted is a series of enlarged black-and-white screen prints of fake police mug shots. The collection of prints from 1998-1999 is a late-1990s update of Andy Warhols’ 1964 work 13 Most Wanted Men, which featured the most wanted criminals of 1962. The “criminals” are identified in titles only by first name and surname initial, but in reality the criminals depicted are individuals prominent in today’s art world. Some of the individuals depicted include Donna De Salvo, deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Paul Schimmel, partner and vice president of Hauser & Wirth gallery; and Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art. Kass’s subjects weren’t criminals. Through this interpretation, Kass show’s how they are wanted by aspirants for their ability to elevate artists’ careers. The series explores the themes of authorship and the gaze, at the same time problematizing certain connotations within the art world.
Award and Grants
- New York Foundation for the Arts, inducted into NYFA Hall of Fame (2014)
- Art Matters Inc. Grant (1996)
- Art Matters Inc. Grant (1992)
- New York Foundation for the Arts, Fellowship in Painting 1987 National Endowment for the Arts, Painting (1991)
Selected solo exhibitions
- The Jewish Museum, New York, NY, “The Television Project,” (2015-2016)
- National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC “Eye Pop: the Celebrity Gaze,” (2015)
- Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY, “No Kidding” (2015-2016)
- Sargent’s Daughters, New York, NY, “Deborah Kass: America’s most Wanted” (2015-2016)
- Red Bull Studios, New York, NY,” Spaced out: migration To The Interior,” (2014)
- Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA, “Deborah Kass: Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times,” (2014)
- Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY, "Deborah Kass: My Elvis+" (2013)
- National Portrait Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, “Eye Pop: the Celebrity Gaze,” (2013)
- Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, "Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After" (2012-2013)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years”, (2012)
- Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY, "MORE feel good paintings for feel bad times" (2010)
- Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY, "feel good paintings for feel bad times" (2007)
- Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC, "Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project" (2001)
- University Art Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, "Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project" Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Houston, TX, "Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project" (2000)
- Newcombe Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, "Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project (traveling, catalogue) (1999)
- Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA (1998)
- Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Kansas City, MO, "My Andy: a retrospective" (catalogue) (1996)
- Jose Freire Fine Art, New York, NY, "My Andy: a retrospective" Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA (1995)
- Barbara Kraków Gallery, Boston, MA (1994)
- Jose Freire Fine Art, New York, NY, "Chairman Ma" Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA (1993)
- fiction/nonfiction, New York, NY, "The Jewish Jackie Series and My Elvis" Simon Watson, New York, NY, "The Jewish Jackie Series" (1992)
- Simon Watson Gallery, New York, NY (1990)
- Scott Hanson Gallery, New York, NY (catalogue) (1988)
- Baskerville and Watson Gallery, New York, NY (1986)
- Baskerville and Watson Gallery, New York, NY (1984)
2012: Shiner, Eric C., with Lisa Liebman, Brooks Adams, Griselda Pollock, Irving Sandler, Robert Storr and John Waters, 'Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After,' Rizzoli, New York.
2010: Katz, Jonathan D. and David C. Ward, eds., HIDE/ SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, exhibition catalog, Smithsonian Books, Washington DC
2006: Wagner, Frank, Kasper Konig, Julia Freidrich, eds., The Eighth Square, Gender, Life, and Desire in the Arts since 1960, exhibition catalog, Museum Ludwig, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany
2006: Bloom, Lisa, Jewish Identities in American Feminist Art, Routledge, New York, NY
2004: Higgs, Matthew, Likeness: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists, exhibition catalogue, CAA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art and Independent Curators International, San Francisco, CA
1999: Plante, Michael, ed. (with essays by Maurice Berger, Linda Nochlin, Robert Rosenblum, and Mary Anne Staniszewski), Deborah Kass: The Warhol Project, exhibition catalog, Newcombe Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
1998: Bright, Deborah, ed., The Passionate Camera, Photography and Bodies of Desire, Routledge, New York, NY
1997: Schor, Mira, Wet, On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, Duke University Press, Durham, NC
1996: Kleeblatt, Norman L and Linda Nochlin, Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities, exhibition catalog, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
1996: James, Jamie, Pop Art Colour Library, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, England
1995: Blake, Nayland, Lawrence Rinder, Amy Scholder, eds., In A Different Light; Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice, exhibition catalogue, City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA
1993: Chernow, Barbara A. and George A. Vallasi, eds., "American Art," The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, Columbia University Press, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA
- Kass, Deborah, and Lisa Liebmann. Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever after. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012.
- The New York Times, Riffing On Forefathers And Mothers, 10/28/2012 The New York Times, retrieved April 25, 2014
- Has Deborah Kass Saved Warhol Appropriation?, Hyperallergic January 4, 2013, Retrieved April 25, 2014
- Museum, The Andy Warhol. "Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After". The Andy Warhol Museum. Retrieved 2016-09-11.
- Shiner, Eric, Lisa Liebmann, Robert Storr, Griselda Pollack and Brooks Adams (2012). Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever after. New York: Skira Rizzoli. ISBN 0847839184.