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Deborah Kass: The Painted Word

Mixing art, language, music, and politics with a sense of irony, artist Deborah Kass makes lively pop paintings that mash-up the times of her life with the spirit of the moment. Appropriating recognizable painting styles from post-war art giants Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly and American Songbook lyrics from Laura Nyro, Stephen Sondheim, and Harold Arlen, Kass creates her own gleeful cover versions of the cultural content she deems most meaningful.

MORE feel good paintings for feel bad times, the artist’s current show at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, reveals her double-edged sword of seduction and subversion when wielding a brush. The painting Daddy blends a line from the song “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line with the concentric squares of a Frank Stella canvas and Andy Warhol’s camouflage blobs.

In a recent BOMB Magazine interview Kass said, “‘Daddy I Would Love To Dance’ is the story of my life as an artist. It’s my absolute desire to participate — wanting to be part of history, wanting to talk to history, to dance with it. I’ve always seen art history as my community. In my mind these postwar artists are my friends. The line ‘Daddy I would love to dance’  is the first female epiphany in A Chorus Line. The syntax is completely female. Little girls stood on their daddies’ feet and danced around the living room. That’s what the song is about, and that’s what me and art history is about.”

Two related paintings, Forgot Your Troubles and C’mon get Happy, combine the lyrics of a Harold Arlen tune made famous by Judy Garland — a celebrated subject of several Warhol pop portraits — with bans of color that reference Ellsworth Kelly’s formalist works and frayed edges that address Abstract Expressionism.

Elsewhere, Kass riffs purely on language in art by spoofing Ed Ruscha’s renowned canvas OOF by changing the word to OY, a Yiddish exclamation of exasperation, and YO, a slang utterance with multiple meanings and a tongue-and-cheek reference to Pablo Picasso’s self-portrait Yo Picasso, which translates from Spanish to English as I Picasso — a symbolic sign indicating that all of Kass’ artworks are basically self-portraits.

After Louise Bourgeois, the single light work in the show, reveals another strategy evident in Kass’ work: taking on the big boys of art, while adding to the discussion of feminism. Using a Bruce Nauman neon language piece as a point of departure, she lights up Louise Bourgeois’ bold statement, “A woman has no place in the art world unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated,” like a bright Broadway sign — letting us know that her star intends to shine for some time to come, or as another painting in the show appropriately declares, “Day After Day After Day After Day.”

MORE feel good paintings for feel bad times is on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery through October 30.

Click through below for a gallery of images.


Deborah Kass, Being Alive, 2010, oil and acrylic on linen, 72 x 72 inches, Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

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