In the studio with Katherine Bernhardt. Words by Alex Leav.
Like her paintings, Katherine Bernhardt is as enigmatic as she is direct. On a FaceTime call with me from her warehouse studio in St. Louis, she is colorful – both figuratively and literally, wearing frosted pink 80s-esque lipstick and a multicolored tie-dyed tee shirt – and energetic, eager to virtually take me on a tour of the space (which, funnily and fittingly, has no Wi-Fi). She laughs and shrugs when asked questions about her work, giving quite blunt, amusing answers. Bernhardt's paintings are surely an extension of herself: refreshingly fun, lighthearted, and humorous. Or, perhaps, Bernhardt is an extension of her paintings. The artist has become a household name, a "brand" not different from the ones she paints. Her work, which records a contemporary consumer-oriented, product-obsessed culture, is relevant and important, her creativity undeniable and admirable.
I recently read about your childhood home, where you now live with your son, parents, sister, and niece, is a mishmash of colours, maximalist patterns, stacked storage boxes, piles of stuffed animals, figurines, antiques, and other miscellaneous objects. You grew up surrounded by lots of stuff. How do you think this impacted your painting?
Being surrounded by tons of stuff is very annoying. I had to learn how to use the little space that I had. For example, chopping up vegetables on a cutting board next to a million other things in the way, or trying to cook surrounded by stuff everywhere. It is very annoying! On the other hand, it photographs really well and if you ever need anything, we probably have it.
By the way, I recently bought my own house, so I can have my own space. Check it out on Instagram, @5725lindell. I’m currently renovating it in an '80s and Memphis Milano / Miami Vice vibe.
The Instagram account is so fun. Your new house is also giving Hockney vibes... growing up, you had to learn how to maximize the little space that you had available to you. I see this in your compositions. Your canvases are filled to the brim with shapes, colors, symbols, and graphics. It’s almost like you don’t want to waste an inch. How do you choose the specific images or motifs to create these compositions?
I choose what I’m attracted to at the time. Right now, I’m into Crocs and showers and mushrooms. In my paintings, I continually add to the lexicon of images that I use. I have several images that keep coming back and others that I forget about.
You often focus on icons or products with playful and exciting branding. Is this true?
Yes and no. I make them interesting. I look for the most obvious, overlooked things and then make them funny or animated in my paintings. Other things are naturally interesting like Doritos or Capri Sun packaging.
I feel like “branding” is such a ubiquitous and over used term, what are your thoughts on personal branding, Instagram, etc.?
As an artist these days, I think that is what you’re doing. Creating your own brand. Creating something instantly recognizable, so that when people see your work, they can say oh, "that’s a Katherine Bernhardt.”
I think you’ve achieved that, the work feels contemporary but also nostalgic. You paint characters like E.T., the Pink Panther, and Dr. Teeth. Why do you think you’re drawn to incorporating this kind of imagery?
I always loved E.T. Other characters come from what I see around me, on TV or the internet, or from what my son watches on TV. The ’80s are my favorite era. I love the colours and neon.
Katherine Bernhardt, Painter of Vibrant Pop Cultural Images, Joins David Zwirner
Katherine Bernhardt, whose celebrated paintings focus on various facets of American pop culture, will now be represented by the mega-gallery David Zwirner. She will have her first exhibition at the gallery’s London location next spring. Zwirner will represent Bernhardt in partnership with the artist’s longtime New York gallery Canada.
Over the past two decades, Bernhardt, who is based in St. Louis, Missouri, has established herself as one of the most sought-after painters working right now. Her vibrant paintings offer contemplative and multifaceted reflections of various facets of everyday life and pop culture, from toilet paper and coffee makers to E.T., Darth Vader, and the Pink Panther. She cites Henri Matisse, the Pattern and Decoration movement, Peter Doig, and Chris Ofili as artistic influences.
In an email to ARTnews, dealer David Zwirner recalled first coming across Bernhardt’s work in 2014, when he was paging through the New York Times and came across a review of her work. “I made my way over to Canada later that day and was struck by the power of the work. [Canada cofounder] Phil Grauer was kind enough to sell me a painting, which I cherish,” Zwirner said.
Zwirner described the experience of seeing new paintings by Bernhardt at Frieze New York in May as “a shock to the system.” He added, “Katherine is one of the most unique voices in contemporary painting, straddling the history of the medium itself with pop and street-art sensibilities, via a true American vernacular. Visiting her studio in St. Louis together with Phil was an amazing experience.”
In a statement, Grauer added, “Katherine is a force. Her courage as both artist and person is legendary. We are excited to see her take on this new opportunity.”
On the secondary market, Bernhardt’s star is also on the rise. Last week, Phillips set an auction record when it sold a 2016 untitled painting by Bernhardt during a contemporary art day sale. Estimated to sell between $40,000 and $60,000, the work went for $233,100, beating her previous record of $138,000, set earlier this year.
Bernhardt’s work is held in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Portland Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., among other venues. She has had institutional solo shows at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas in 2017 and the Museo Mario Testino (MATE) in Lima, Peru, in 2018.
Why Katherine Bernhardt’s Freewheeling Paintings Attract Collectors of All Kinds
Katherine Bernhardt paints whatever she wants, and the art world loves her for it. She takes a seemingly indescriminate approach with her compositions, which are packed with Day-Glo washes of watermelons, cigarettes, toucans, coffee makers, Pink Panthers, and Nike swooshes. Describing the omnivorous, unstoppable nature of her practice, Phil Grauer—a founder of New York’s Canada gallery who co-represents the artist with Xavier Hufkens in Brussels and Carl Freedman in London—said, “She’s like a fire you can’t put out.”
Originally from Clayton, Missouri, Bernhardt received her master’s degree from New York’s School of Visual Art (SVA) in 2000. By that time, there was already a percolating market for her paintings. Jerry Saltz—who, according to Grauer, had seen her work as a visiting critic at SVA—wrote a rave review of her second solo show at Team Gallery in 2001 for the Village Voice. “Some art we like in spite of ourselves,” wrote Saltz. “That’s how I feel about the raucous work of 26-year-old Katherine Bernhardt, whose paintings are some of the loosest around.” By 2015, Saltz crowned her “the female bad-boy” of contemporary art.
These days, a Bernhardt painting can fetch as much as $81,250—the record-breaking result for PLANTAINS, BANANAS & TOILET PAPER (2015) achieved at Sotheby’s in 2018, just over double its high estimate. “People really started talking about her work in 2015 when she had her show at Venus over Manhattan and Los Angeles, and at Carl Freedman Gallery in London,” said Rebekah Bowling, senior specialist and head of afternoon day sales at Phillips. The auction house’s 2015 sale of Bernhardt’s Hawaiian Punch (2014) for £37,500 ($56,330) is often seen as the beginning of the artist’s secondary market success, and marked her first auction result over $50,000. While most of her works still sell for less than $50,000 at auction, the secondary market for Bernhardt’s paintings is going gangbusters in terms of volume—her work came to auction 33 times in 2019, and 2020 is on pace for a similar tally, despite the COVID-19 pandemic (which has left the artist stranded in Guatemala since March).
“Pattern painting” is the term Bernhardt uses to describe works like Hawaiian Punch and PLANTAINS, BANANAS & TOILET PAPER. Inspired by the graphic, two-dimensional illustrations featured on Moroccan rugs—Bernhardt has a side business as a rug dealer—and the drippy, freehandedness of street-art murals, these expansive works now make up the core of Bernhardt’s oeuvre. She first debuted this style in 2013, at the gallery Roberto Paradise in Puerto Rico. An avid traveler, Bernhardt infuses her pattern paintings with a mixed bag of disparate cultural ephemera from both near and far. “She’s a travelogue person,” said Grauer. “She’s like a sponge.”
People of all ages fell for the cute gnome-like alien at the center of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” But some fell extra hard; Katherine Bernhardt, who turned 7 the year the movie premiered, was smitten enough to paint portraits of E.T. in art school. In her latest show, “Done with Xanax,” she returns to him, pushing her distinctive fusion of Pop Art, Color Field and graffiti toward a more vulnerable, narrative expression and more complex painting process.
Ms. Bernhardt has at times seemed stuck in her signature patterns formed by repeating images of popular commodities and motifs — cigarettes, sharks, cellphones, slices of fruit and floating emojis — on expanses of bright color. She has painted fictional figures like the Pink Panther, Babar the Elephant and Garfield, but E.T. is more dimensional, complicated by a kind of saintliness, otherness and conflict: He is a stranger in an inhospitable land who has healing powers and wants to go home.
Ms. Bernhardt renders E.T. single and large, like an icon, often outlined in gold or silver spray paint and frequently raising his glowing forefinger in benediction. She evokes but also takes liberties with moments from the movie, making them vaguely recognizable in the way that scenes from the Bible can be. For example, the paintings “Halloween in California” and “Halloween E.T. + Strawberries” show the extraterrestrial wearing the blond wig from the dress-up session in Gertie’s bedroom and a patterned muumuu that suggests suburban California of a certain era. In others, he’s famously aloft, in the basket of Elliott’s bicycle, or surrounded by push-button telephones reflecting his oft-stated desire to “Phone home!” Especially good is “Sick,” where E.T. is shrouded in a brilliantly white blanket that is unpainted canvas. It symbolizes the way Ms. Bernhardt has opened up her work — and her style. Hopefully, her progress will continue.
E.T. and Xanax: An Interview with Katherine Bernhardt
The artist spoke to Wallace Ludel about her drive to paint nostalgic objects, pop culture’s obsession with drug use and what it’s like to move back in with her parents.
“Katherine and E.T. have lots in common,” wrote Katherine Bernhardt’s sister Elizabeth, in an essay on the occasion of the artist’s solo show, “Done with Xanax,” which opened last week at Canada Gallery’s new Tribeca location. “Growing up in the suburbs, she immediately identified with E.T., who himself landed in a suburban setting and could not figure out how to get away from it while suffering great existential pain.” In the show, Bernhardt debuted 11 paintings, each of which stars the empathic, titular alien of Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece. In Bernhardt’s distinctive style, objects like Pac-Mans, telephones and Xanax bars float freely in the singular universe of her canvases. In this world, the extra-terrestrial once again becomes our protagonist. Painted by Bernhardt on the patio of her childhood house, the paintings’ nostalgia grows more poignant. May we all be so lucky as to phone home.
Is it correct that this body of work was made in your childhood home? Yeah, I usually come back here for the summer. I like to work outside in the summertime, so I come here and work out on the patio. I started those paintings last summer and I also moved back into this house.
So you now live in your childhood home again? I have a running joke as a writer that, when I try to write in my childhood home, I'm just pretending I'm not at the source of the traumas that made me a writer in the first place. It's good to be back here to get it all back in my psyche again. And I've painted E.T. before—I painted him at the Art Institute of Chicago as an undergraduate, so I'm coming back around to it again.
Why E.T.? I guess I was seven when the movie came out; it was a huge influence on me and I was totally obsessed with it.
I once likened something in an essay I wrote to the moment of God and David's fingers touching in the Sistine Chapel. My editor suggested I change it to E.T. and Elliot's fingers. It was a great edit. That is really good.
Tell me about the title—"Done with Xanax"? That's another obsession that I've been working through. It’s about how, in popular culture and music, they're all talking about Xanax and drug culture. Everyone's on pills. It's just a popular culture reference.
And is there a significance when the Xanax pills and the E.T. merge in certain paintings? Kind of—well, not really. They're pretty separate. It's my whole thing with the pattern paintings: putting things together that have nothing to do with each other.
Yes, obviously your paintings are full of scattered objects and things. What's your relationship to materiality and thing-ness? I mean, I love things. I love things from the ’80's. I love design.
Meet Katherine Bernhardt, the so-called “female bad-boy” of contemporary art.
BY SCOTT INDRISEK
“When I started, I wanted to paint things that had nothing to do with each other, that made no sense,” says Katherine Bernhardt. “That was the goal: nothingness. And what were the brightest, craziest color combinations I could come up with, that would clash?”
Bernhardt—44 years old, sporting a Daisy Duck T-shirt, enormous earrings from a local fabric store, and flashy neon-pink-laced Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35s with a floral print—is holding court in her studio, a converted auto-repair shop in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She pegs her personal style as “tropical, futuristic hippie,” and that's not far off from some of the paintings she makes; the space is brimming with huge works that exude an eye-popping swagger. In one, a spray-painted Pink Panther hangs out with two high-speed bullet trains modeled on the Shinkansen that Bernhardt rode with her son during a recent trip to Japan. A wobbly painting of the infamous oversized Triple S sneaker by Balenciaga outs her as a sneakerhead. (She's also enough of a Nike fanatic that she has her own hand-drawn swoosh tattoo.) There's a massive pile of soft-sculpture gummy worms stacked up in one corner, leftovers from Concrete Jungle Jungle Love, a 2017 takeover of New York's Lever House, for which Bernhardt created a sprawling environment. “Now that I look back at it, it was kind of too much,” she reflects. “Too much color, too much of everything.…”
Bernhardt's slight regret is amusing, given that these days she's always putting too much of everything into her work. A typical Bernhardt might measure up to 10 feet long, its surface swimming with spray-painted oddities: hammerhead sharks, hamburgers, Windex bottles, cigarettes, watermelons, Garfields, stormtroopers, bananas. A lot of what draws her to things is simply their color: the bright bright pink of the Pink Panther; Garfield's orange tone; the chemical blue of that Windex bottle. The paintings are unabashedly fun and proudly illogical, fast and silly yet executed with thoughtful, painterly chops. And in 2019, Bernhardt is at the top of her game, beloved by her fellow artists and coveted by private collectors and museums alike. Meanwhile, she's got countless creative side hustles—selling imported Moroccan rugs, as well as a series of hand-painted, tie-dyed T-shirts ornamented with bootleg logos—all while juggling the demands of single motherhood. (A typical weekend could include a trip to a Manhattan Lego store and a birthday party down at Coney Island.)
“I'm satisfied and yet never satisfied,” she says. “I don't like to waste time. Life is short, so I always try to do as much as possible.”
There’s a lot to parse in “Green,” Katherine Bernhardt’s enormously bananas show of paintings and sculptures. Take, for example, Climate Change (all works 2017), a spray-painted picture filled with melty Nike swooshes, cigarettes, deranged fruit, and rectangular birds. It could be a riff on poisonous consumerism and how it’s upsetting nature’s delicate balance. Or, seeing as Bernhardt is an artist who works with a very particular set of colors and shapes from the contemporary landscape that pique her interest (or gag reflex), it could be a straightforward example of unencumbered formalism. Bernhardt’s paint handling is equally yummy and yucky: Gross pools of toxic violets and bile greens commingle with euphoric blasts of spray paint that give some of her subjects an auratic quality, causing them to feel like celestial bodies from galaxies far, far away.
Storm troopers, watermelons, R2-D2s, and Coke bottles juicy with airbrushy brown soda invade the AbExy surface of Lima Cola. The incongruous jumble of things intensifies in the painting Siesta, where a languid Garfield—Jim Davis’s acerbic cartoon kitty—is surrounded by a swarm of live-wire bees. It’s the only canvas in a section of the gallery that’s jam-packed with wooden birds and flowers, all untitled, and colored hot pink. These constructions, oddly furniture-like, willfully take up room: Wings, beaks, leaves, and petals jut out into space, which makes walking around them challenging, even dangerous. But hey, if you have the guts to get close, then do—after all, that’s how Bernhardt rolls.
Slices of watermelon, Nike swooshes, bug-eyed Garfields, rolls of toilet paper, and Coke bottles, outlined in spray paint and filled in with drippy areas of color—no one could accuse this talented painter of holding back. Bernhardt renders her boisterous images with pictographic consistency and appealingly messy abandon. “Laundry Day” is the monochromatic outlier: it shows a Day-Glo Pink Panther, with tube socks floating around him, disappearing into a background of muddied fuchsia. As funny, and even festive, as the paintings are, look with care and you’ll notice their critical streak. In “Dole + Darth Vader,” bananas hover around the “Star Wars” villain—part stormtrooper commander, part Carmen Miranda.
XAVIER HUFKENS | RIVOLI
Katherine Bernhardt’s images—of running shoes, cigarettes, and Pac-Man—are messy; her large-scale spray-paint-and-acrylic canvases feature graffiti, cartoon characters, and emoji. What makes her works more than just decorative is that they present the viewer with unsolvable visual and verbal puzzles. They achieve this semiotic ambiguity because her simple renderings of things don’t always make it clear what is being represented. The ten paintings and one quilt in Bernhardt’s recent exhibition, “Product Recall: New Pattern Paintings,” saw the artist on familiar ground: juxtaposing imagery typical of the place where she is currently exhibiting—in this case, Belgium—with the iconography of her past appearances, such as the tropical motifs from her earlier series in Puerto Rico, mixed with less localized ones. While certain images are easy to read—bananas, Windex bottles, Lisa Simpson—others are harder to identify. In Nutella, 2016, for example, are those goblets of Belgian beer and waffles, or are they glasses of red wine and pieces of chocolate? The execution is loose enough that, on first glance, it remains playfully uncertain. And any of those things locate the imagery in Belgium, more or less.
The titles themselves offer no obvious clue to the paintings’ meanings. Nutella, for example, only identifies the two jars of the nutty chocolate scattered among the many objects rendered in it. Sometimes the titles are factually incorrect: Six Papayas, 2016, for instance, depicts six halves only, thus three complete papayas, plus three bananas and one Nike sneaker (not a pair). And yet without the title of one of the more subdued pictures, Five Toilet Papers, 2015, it might be difficult to ascertain what is being represented. Again, however, the title plays with us—this time grammatically, for comedic effect. In Bernhardt’s oeuvre, signs, motifs, and objects from various times and places simmer in a gumbo of global culture—tropical fruit, Smurfs, Duracell batteries, Chap Stick, Rubik’s Cubes, toucans, kiwi fruit, Nikes. The juxtapositions can be amusing, but they also bring to mind Claude Lévi-Strauss’s comment that in an age of monoculture, travel is no longer possible. What we have in Bernhardt’s world, instead, is a series of incongruous images encountering each other as if trapped in an endless game of Pac-Man.
Much like that video game, some of her paintings have anachronistic or even nostalgic overtones. The batteries, for example, recall the 1990s, when, pre-iPod, the tracks of the New York subway system were littered with double A’s, tossed off the platform after use, while Pac-Man and Rubik’s Cube echo the ’80s—outdated and yet appropriate avatars for the sloppy digital world we inhabit, where our contemporary symbols are now as easily recycled from previous decades. Even the shoes are difficult to date—it’s hard to tell if they are current or vintage.
A large quilt, Playing Games, 2016, displayed in the exterior gallery windows, further complicates the tension between what her work depicts and what it means. The large work patches Dutch wax fabrics with images of President Barack Obama and small details of mosques. In this context, the accompanying figures and figments of consumer culture acquire a directly political context. The uncertainty of whether Obama’s presence, sewn into the quilt repeatedly, is affirmative or critical makes the work all the more resonant, providing a sinister tone to the lightheartedness of Bernhardt’s paintings. They do not resolve into an easy statement of the iconography of our era. Instead, they present playful but perplexing riddles of migration and consumption.