Deborah Kass, Forget Your Troubles (2010), oil on canvas, 72″ x 60″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
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The title of Deborah Kass’s exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, MORE Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, is enough to clue the viewer into her glib brand of post-everything art. Really. You don’t need to see the accompanying pictures—text-based canvases rendered in a Pop palette and delineated with can’t-be-bothered-with-this brevity—to glean an ironic sensibility pleased with itself and working overtime. The things are stand-ins for an artist who has made a substantial career from exalting her own narcissism.
Then again, that’s pretty much the case for any artist who can be pegged with the prefix “post-.” It doesn’t matter if she hews to a feminist reading of history, self-consciously apes historical modes of abstraction, or engages in Warholian strategies, the “post-” artist will happily jettison aesthetic engagement for the opportunity to pontificate in the service of self.
Kass’s “Warhol Series,” probably her best-known body of work, poached upon the platinum-haired master’s pictorial formulas in the cause of ethnic and gender parity. Kass substituted Barbra Streisand for Elvis Presley in My Elvis, a satire/homage to Warhol’s famous image of the King of rock ’n roll. That it was a picture of Streisand culled from Yentl, the film where the actress disguised herself as a male yeshiva student, garnered significant extra-aesthetic traction—at least for those who keep tabs on these sort of things.
The Kasmin exhibition is a sequel to Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, mounted at the same venue three years back. Those paintings promised to “recontextualize postwar painting” by imbuing it with “nostalgia for postwar American optimism, the middle class, and the notion that the world was ours to change.”
While it was refreshing to learn than a member of the art-world elite was pining for bourgeois values, it was hard to pinpoint just how those values were embodied in pastiches of academic abstraction and epigrams like Do you wanna funk with me? True enough: more people are probably familiar with the song from which that phrase was lifted—a hit almost thirty years ago for Sylvester, an African-American transvestite disco singer—than with the verities of hard-edge painting. But pointing to mass culture isn’t the same thing as advocating on behalf of its constituents. Kass’s art was less an embrace of democratic impulses than a snide or (let’s be charitable) confused comment upon them.
Would that the pictures evinced painterly know-how. If you believe the recent conversation between Kass and the critic Terry R. Myers in a recent issue of The Brooklyn Rail, the artist is “in love” with the history and process of painting. But that her canvases are made with oils in no way means that they’re painting. Forget necessities like composition, light, or the establishment of pictorial space: For Kass, paint is a vehicle to be utilized for programmatic means, not a medium to be explored and savored. Forget metaphors given life and independence: The pictures are over-inflated bumper stickers, pure and simple, and expensive. Kass’s artistic inventiveness is equal to her polemical insights: which is to say, not much.
And so it goes for the new pictures: coy takes on Frank Stella, Ed Ruscha, and Brice Marden interrupted by stenciled epigrams like “Save Our Country Now,” “Forget Your Troubles,” “Isn’t It Rich,” and, for that obligatory dash of yiddishkeit, “Oy.” Elsewhere, Kass quotes Louise Bourgeois in a neon light sculpture whose format is appropriated from Bruce Nauman: “A woman has no place in the art world unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated.”
Such bits of wisdom are beyond received for Kass’s audience: art-world insiders who take pleasure in having their preconceptions affirmed. Kass doesn’t preach to the converted; she flatters them, all the while keeping the focus on herself. The paintings will make gallery-goers feel good only to the extent to which they enjoy being condescended to.
© 2010 Mario Naves
Originally published in the November 2010 edition of The New Criterion.