In Molly Crabapple’s ‘Drawing Blood,’ the Millennial Generation’s First Great Radical Artist Tells Her Story

Those of us born in the 1980s who drew on the walls, jammed in the garage, and filled notebooks with words have just recently emerged as fully formed adult artists, with work in hand to show for it: paintings, albums, chapbooks, novels. Some of us have fans around the world, some of us share within our immediate community, but in all of our work we can see reflections of our common journey: the shared experiences that define our view.

How do we compare to, say, Andy Warhol, born in 1928, who grew up during the Depression and the Second World War, whose paintings embraced the newborn consumerism of his young adulthood, who found wonder in mass production? How do we stack up to Patti Smith, born two decades later, who reveled in rebellion so freely and publicly that it became an essential part of her identity? Or even our immediate predecessors born in the ’60s and ’70s, with whom we share the pragmatism and pluralism demanded by a globalized world?

The visual artist Molly Crabapple, born Jennifer Caban in 1983, achieved wide recognition when her sketches and posters for Occupy Wall Street became icons for a historic movement. (Her piece General Strike is now on permanent exhibition at MoMA.) Her memoir, Drawing Blood, released by Harper this month, is her own coming-of-age story, one inflected with her particulars but also ringing with the notes of an age. Did all of us grow up on Long Island with Marxist artist parents who trained us in the ways of color wheels and worker struggle? Can all of us swap stories of modeling nude to fund art supplies while attending FIT — sifting through the adult gigs section on Craigslist, becoming a SuicideGirl, falling in love with New York’s burlesque scene? Did all of us struggle to get noticed in an art market dominated by wealth, ultimately gaining a place in it by depicting just that struggle? No, but that same constellation of forces — the legacy of Cold War ideologies, the emerging necessity of the Internet, the expanding chasm of inequality — flashed above our heads.

Crabapple’s visual style finds its origins in influences as populist as her politics: punk illustrators, lowbrow comics, old-fashioned pinups. (Her longtime partner, Fred, is an illustrator, and her experiences as a model seem to fuel, and be fueled by, a lifelong fascination with beautiful women.) Her signature piece is the portrait — initially of friends and lovers, and, later, as her art became more politicized, of OWS protestors and Guantanamo detainees.

For all of the episodes in Drawing Blood that show her adventurous side (traveling alone in Morocco, protesting in Lower Manhattan), the deeper picture of Crabapple that emerges in her own telling is of an unusually reserved and diffident young woman who simply wants to find a place that feels right. She is certain of only one thing — that she is an artist — and this is the pillar that she holds to as she navigates a complex and shifting world. Her portraits, in fact, seem to have begun as the best way she knew to reach out to people: as a child, she drew pictures of the popular kids so they wouldn’t pick on her. In Fez, she drew the children on the streets, “writing their names in careful, misspelled Arabic, then tore the pages out for gifts.” Sketches forged a connection where words fell short.  

The community that she gathered in New York, as she continued to hustle and draw in an increasingly expensive city, was composed of artists as scrappy and determined as she. Crabapple is clear-eyed about their shared plight. “Art was a hobby for trust-fund kids,” she writes. “In New York, money was the silent grist for the creation of art. To talk about such things was to cheapen oneself as an artist. But the system was there, subtle and undeniable as a wall.”

In one sense, Crabapple was better primed than most to accept this reality, having learned from childhood to strip all situations down to their barest power dynamics. Her leftist father, a political science professor, taught her how. “He’d tape-record his fights with university adversaries, then play them back for me. ‘Listen,’ he’d say. ‘Who thinks they have the power here? Who really has the power?’” But even the most exquisitely attuned observers can only see what surrounds them, and Crabapple’s family had never reached the heights of the art world on which she set her sights: “My mom’s family — clueless, broke artists — never knew how anything worked.”

Learning how it worked, we read, is what Crabapple spent most of her 20s doing. Again and again, we see her oscillate between careerism and defiance. When she’s hired to paint the interiors of the Box, a debaucherous high-end nightclub in London, she depicts pigs throwing money from trees, then chastises herself for taking the job in the first place. “What sort of compromise was it to work with the Box, hiding my subversion between the cocaine and breasts? Sure, there was satire in my mural. Sure, the staff would get it. But wasn’t it just cheeky wallpaper for the rich drunks who filled the club?”

When Occupy burst onto the scene and Crabapple found in its message her greatest inspiration yet, the result was a spectacular collection of paintings, Shell Game, that writ her ambiguity large. The series of six-by-four-foot canvases shows beautiful women personifying, by turns, greed, resistance, populism, power. One shows the financial bubble as a woman made of bubbles; another casts a woman as Anonymous, complete with Guy Fawkes mask. In each of these, we imagine Crabapple — and ourselves — inhabiting these figures, embodying both the excesses and the activism of our time.

The irony of taking a visible anti-capitalist stance while working within an industry that has so obscenely commodified its product is not lost on Crabapple. She recognizes the strength of the systems surrounding us, and the uneasy relationship we must maintain with them. One of the most striking things about Drawing Blood is how often Crabapple expresses uncertainty and self-doubt. Nevertheless, she continues not only to create, but to amplify the most silenced voices among us, producing portraits of prisoners, protestors, refugees. Out of her childhood scribbling grew the power to make an adult difference. She can’t quite believe she’s grown up — “This is the story of a girl and her sketchbook,” she writes in her introduction — but the work speaks for itself, and, at its best, for us all.