Lisa Yuskavage Doesn’t Want to Be a “Good Feminist.” Her Paintings Are Better for It
A sunny, retro haze bathes the nude figures that populate Lisa Yuskavage’s new paintings. In "Home" (2018), a couple (naked but for the woman’s shoes, socks, sunglasses, and shawl) holds hands in front of an arch that leads into a pastel dining room. In front of them sits a table covered with flowers, obscured from the viewer by a barn door. Light enters at a dramatic slant, slicing across the door and arch and creating creamy shadows on the floor. The sunlit wood slats glisten and pool out toward the viewer. The longer you look at the painting, the less you focus on the brazenly naked couple in the middle. The work becomes more about the light and space around them.
It always takes me a while to warm up to Yuskavage’s paintings, and this one is no exception. The nudes that she’s painted since the early 1990s—for which she’s become famous—often possess doll-like bodies with cute button noses and wrinkle-free skin. (Around the same time, painters Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin—a fellow Yale University graduate and one-time roommate of Yuskavage’s—were also embarking on new brands of figurative art.) In "Home," the lean, toned female figure gazes seductively at the viewer, tilting her sunglasses at us. My gut reaction, each time I’ve seen a show of Yuskavage’s, is to wonder why we still need such objectifying paintings of nude women—no matter whether the source material is real, imagined, or photographs of pin-ups. Who really has anything new to say about the subject?
I’m not convinced that Yuskavage’s paintings are countering stereotypes about women, or helping any feminist program. (To be fair, when she speaks about her work, she frequently focuses on her process, not her politics.) Indeed, they connect less to our contemporary world than to some nostalgic, gold-lit version of the 1970s, with its reverence for bad taste: giant necklaces on a man’s hairy chest, beaded panties, scenes that seem cribbed from dirty magazines. The longer I look at these paintings, though, the more I allow myself to get caught up in these deeply bizarre fantasy worlds; the paintings’ weirdness, and their divorce from reality, become their true strengths. Yuskavage’s bodies—soft and sketchily defined—are often beside the point.
This fall, David Zwirner is mounting nearly 100 Yuskavage paintings across two separate gallery spaces—over 90 small-scale works at its West 19th Street location, and, in the gallery’s East 69th Street townhouse, eight large-scale ones. During a recent press walkthrough, Yuskavage underscored her interest in intimacy—not just sex—in terms of both her paintings and how they’re presented. That’s why she chose Zwirner’s Chelsea location (a classic, slightly impersonal white cube) to hang her more modest canvases, saving the larger canvases (some more than 6 by 6 feet) for the uptown gallery, with its fireplace, bookshelf, and spiral staircase.
Yuskavage connected her interest in intimacy to more formal concerns. She said that the same language with which we discuss two romantic partners—hot and cold, horizontality and verticality, near and far, in conflict or harmony—pervades her thinking about color, composition, and painting in general. There’s “nothing stronger in a painting than the center of a square,” she said. In "Home," the couple’s clasped hands are positioned in the middle of the work, making that bond the painting’s major focus.
Yet look beyond the work’s center, and odd details abound: An ashtray is out of proportion to a tea cup, the man is missing a right foot, and two tables in the background appear to merge together into one. Yuskavage said that the barn door in the painting hails from a Franz Kafka story (“A Country Doctor”), in which it serves as a kind of opening to the id; by unlatching the barn door for the viewer, Yuskavage lets us into a tangled unconscious.
Invoking Kafka, Yuskavage indicated her strong interest in storytelling. Even her small paintings offer rich narrative possibilities. One small 8.75-by-8-inch study, "Nest" (2012), for example, holds enough character and setting for at least a novella. In the foreground, a pregnant woman stands with her face obscured by dark, swirling paint. She’s naked but for a striped scarf and mittens. Behind her, another woman reclines atop two long wooden rods, wearing only a green scarf and a high green sock. Beyond stand two women fully covered in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts. (Many of Yuskavage’s characters make wacky, extreme fashion choices: Often, it’s either beaded panties or conservative peasant garb.)
In the background rises a craggy mauve mountain, while the shape of a cross emerges from the grassy hill. The bucolic setting makes the painting feel historical—except, of course, for the unidealized nudes. Yuskavage accentuates the pregnant character’s line of stomach fuzz, leading down to dark pubic hair. She doesn’t glamorize the pregnant body. "Half Heidi," half "Hustler," the painting offers little rationale for how these women ended up in this place, or how this world actually functions. A moon in the top right corner of the painting and the dreamy hues of the backdrop suggest some kind of mysticism at play.
Yuskavage’s source material itself has ranged from the imaginary to the authentic. In the early ’90s, she said, her work was “pure invention.” Around 1996, she began basing her figures on sculptures or maquettes she created in her studio beforehand. She briefly used models from "Penthouse," then moved on to photographing people she knew: friends, waitresses, and baristas people her pictures from that time. For a few small works from 2000 ("Northview Afternoon; Talia Reclining; Northview Peasant Shirt"), Yuskavage photographed a group of young women at a suburban home—reclining on a couch, lifting a shirt, sitting nude in a chair—and painted from those pictures.
While speaking about her work at Zwirner, Yuskavage offered an enlightening anecdote regarding the fraught gender politics in her work. She discussed visiting a magazine shop on 11th Street, scanning "Penthouse" for inspiration. “This guy comes over to me and said, ‘Are you doing research?’ Because of course I’d be doing research. I was a woman,” Yuskavage recalled. She answered with brash confidence: “I said ‘I’m doing whatever you’re doing.’ I didn’t want to lose the right to be a creep. I want the range. I don’t just want to be a good feminist doing research.”
Being a “good feminist” isn’t interesting to Yuskavage—her practice is too multifaceted for such a classification. Consider her 2016 painting "Stoned," on view at Zwirner’s downtown venue. It presents one of Yuskavage’s most potent characters—a pale woman in a gray, unbuttoned jacket and flowered cap emerging from a gray background. She stares directly at the viewer, lit cigarette pressed between her lips. Her sex appeal is central to the work, certainly. But she also couldn’t care less what you think.
Lisa Yuskavage’s Art Continues to Defy Characterization
Yuskavage was grappling with sexuality, power, and womanhood long before #MeToo. Now, her work is more relevant than ever
IN 1990, Lisa Yuskavage was a painter who was not painting. She had not been painting for a year, in fact, since the opening of her debut solo show at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery in New York. The exhibition, a series of small, gloomy canvases depicting female backs—long sloping forms shrouded in shadow—had left her shaken. The works “didn’t feel like me,” Yuskavage, 56, says. “The attitude of the paintings was shame: ‘I’m not going to be big or loud.’ They made me so unhappy.” When the show ended, she left feeling defeated and confused, unsure about her future as an artist. “It was pretty dramatic, crisis-forming. I just stopped painting and sat in a spot and watched the bugs walking around in my Ludlow Street apartment.”
That same year, on a late fall evening, Yuskavage returned home from work, to the apartment she shared with her husband, the painter Matvey Levenstein, and pressed play on their answering machine. They first listened to a message from a graduate school friend inviting them to a party; then in a subsequent message, that same friend disinvited Yuskavage. “‘Everyone discussed it, and Lisa’s just too much,’” Yuskavage recalls the friend saying. “We thought it was crazy, but we were also enjoying the thought. What does that mean, too much?” It was a moment that proved a turning point for the artist. Her principal complaint about her earlier work was that it had been too timid, demure—faceless women with their backs to the viewer—so, her husband suggested, why not switch personalities with the paintings? What would happen if she made paintings that got her disinvited to the party? Yuskavage headed straight to her studio and painted "The Ones That Shouldn’t: The Gifts," which shows a young woman bound, breasts exposed, with frosted flowers stuffed in her mouth.
The move was a success for Yuskavage, setting the tone for the rest of her career; she began to circle thematic preoccupations that would haunt her work for decades: sexuality, power and womanhood. Since then, Yuskavage has built a body of similarly provocative work, drawing on classical European painterly techniques of portraiture to subvert and recast ideas about the female form. The intimacy and vividness of her work, the delicate, fine brushstrokes, recall Delacroix, but the cheeky, unapologetic, and at times challenging attitude of her heroines evokes a model in a pinup magazine.
In those early years, Yuskavage continued to toy with the “what” of her paintings—“What is the energy of the work? I’m not here making shortbread in my studio, to make you feel warm and cozy.” Once she had landed that, she started to explore the actual look, roles and desires of the figures that populated her canvases and, by extension, herself.
This month, nearly 100 works from Yuskavage’s oeuvre that together chart her artistic evolution will be presented in concurrent exhibitions at David Zwirner in New York City. The gallery’s downtown space will present "Babie Brood: Small Paintings 1985–2018," the first survey of her small-scale work, while uptown eight new large-scale pieces make their debut in a show dubbed "New Paintings." One afternoon in October, in a private room at David Zwirner, Yuskavage assesses a selection of the loans that will go on view—the first time she’s seen some of the paintings since they were sold years before. “It’s such a privilege to have made art for decades,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids, but I feel like we’re having a family reunion. I feel like I’m bringing them home.”
YUSKAVAGE WAS born and raised in Philadelphia. Her father was a salesman and truck driver for Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and her mother was a homemaker (later she became a medical records technician). “I didn’t know we were poor, because I got everything I wanted. We had a clean house. All the bills were paid,” Yuskavage says. The surrounding neighborhood was strictly blue-collar and, at times, rough. She references a recent article about the heroin market in a Philadelphia neighborhood: “I grew up blocks from there and it was scary then.”
She received her BFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Her parents were supportive but also reliably realistic—her father taught her how to operate a stick shift in case she needed to drive a truck for money. She went on to earn her MFA at Yale University, where she met Levenstein. But the university’s tony atmosphere intimidated Yuskavage and she slowly felt the particularities of her personality, her blue-collar roots, being chased out; she was an outsider. “I guess it was a class thing,” she says. “Yale costs a lot, so I better listen to them. I wasn’t there to fight them, they’re teachers.” It was at Yale that she met the artist Jesse Murry, a gay black artist from the South, and the two outsiders formed an immediate, intense bond. Several years later, in 1993, when Murry was dying from AIDS, he left Yuskavage with these words: “You’ll never flinch…. You will always be able to stand up to it.” It was a sentiment that Yuskavage needed to hear as she continued to find her way as an artist, facing near-endless rejection and shedding the baggage she had picked up at Yale. (“Shame when harnessed is jet engine fuel,” she says. “When harnessed.”)
After Yale, and a stint in Provincetown, Massachusetts (at the Fine Arts Work Center), Yuskavage and Levenstein moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they lived in a loft above Donald Judd’s office. They shared the apartment with Yale classmate and painter John Currin. To make ends meet, Yuskavage ran a swimming pool in Hoboken and bartended, while Levenstein and Currin took the PATH train to their construction jobs. (“People don’t realize John was skim coating walls. He was very good at it!” she says, laughing.) When she was in a pinch, Yuskavage briefly considered egg donation but was ultimately too scared when faced with the reality of her child out in the world. “I was aware as a young person that I wasn’t going to have a child,” she recalls. “I knew how hard it was to be an artist, especially as a woman…. I didn’t want to take the risk with my work…. It’s unfair that women start to become infertile at 35, and that’s when my career took off.”
After the crisis that followed her debut at Pamela Auchincloss, and the yearlong break from painting it caused, Yuskavage returned to her studio, constantly reinventing and shifting aspects of her technique. For the figures that appear in her early group of paintings Bad Habits, Yuskavage worked from Tintoretto-inspired clay sculptures she molded. Later, she searched vintage issues of Penthouse for muses, fixating on the bodies that appeared in those pages. “It was considered pretty incorrect of me to be using these images, but I was intrigued,” she says. “If that’s a woman, what am I? I don’t look anything like that.” It was Yuskavage’s radical move, an effort to elevate a form deemed tasteless to high art. For her Northview series, she hired a friend to sit for her at an acquaintance’s home in Westchester, New York, a space that she remembers as being “intensely feminine,” as feminine as the figures depicted in the work. It was the first time Yuskavage had used a richly detailed environment in her work, and the possibilities of that interaction between the subject and the space she inhabits, fascinated her. Then Yuskavage pulled back and placed her women in fantastical, post-apocalyptic scenes, fields of trees and flowers dotted with piles of dead fish. Despite the change in background, the trademark Yuskavage bombshell—buxom, beguiling, inscrutable—was still there.
More recently Yuskavage has ventured into the male form, first with individual portraits of strapping, longhaired hippies to paintings of heterosexual couples. “The couple is an entity,” she says. “It’s not about one or the other, it’s about how they are together…. When I got into couples, I began to play with all of it.” In "Self Portrait," a bug-eyed man, inspired by former Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, looms behind a doll-like nude woman in an eerie, blood-red room. In The Tongue Tondo, young lovers tease one another while surrounded by lush foliage.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Yuskavage was labeled one of the bad girls of painting, alongside Cecily Brown and Sue Williams, female artists whose work was considered unapologetic and transgressive in one way or another. Despite this comparison, she was left out of group shows featuring other transgressors, most noticeably from the seminal exhibit at the New Museum in 1994. She took the omissions hard. “I was like, ‘I was made for this,’ ” she says. “But Matvey said, ‘You don’t want to get stuck here…. If you become the poster child for this, you won’t get to develop the other edges you have in you.’ It was a nice way of comforting me—that and a margarita and a basket of chips.”
In more recent years, the effort to characterize Yuskavage’s work has only increased, especially as the conversation surrounding gender politics and the female body has come to the foreground. In "Golden God," a large canvas that shows a broad-shouldered man with a female draped over his back, one searches for meaning in the expressions of its subjects. Is she in the throes of ecstasy or grimacing in pain? What does a painting like this mean in the #MeToo era? Yuskavage says that people have been stopping her on the street lately. “They say, ‘You’ve been out there speaking the truth,’ and I say, ‘Tell me what truth, because then I’ll do it some more!’ I only speak my truth…. Part of my journey has been that I was put on this earth as a female. Our stories…have not been heard.” And what of the critics who argue that her work is reflective of a kind of brutality? “I think America has become the Wild West again—raping, pillaging. But I feel that maybe we were always a rough country…. I find it upsetting from every possible angle.” Hanna Schouwink, a senior partner at David Zwirner, who works closely with Yuskavage, was struck by the consistency of the issues and themes in Yuskavage’s art. “You look at works from 20 years ago and they look extremely present and of the moment,” Schouwink says. “Her work has evolved so much—it’s become increasingly complex and demanding of her as a painter—but at the same time there are specific themes that she stays very true to. She hasn’t abandoned fundamental principles.”
SIX YEARS ago, Yuskavage injured her painting hand while getting a routine massage. It took three days to get a diagnosis, and she couldn’t move her wrist for another three months. She learned that the masseuse had pressed into her hand too hard, crushing her radial nerve. She thought she would never paint again. It was the same year that Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Several of Yuskavage’s artworks were lost in the flood at David Zwirner. As after many dramatic moments from her career and life—the disastrous first show, the death of her friend—she tried to understand that year, to learn from it. “I don’t take anything for granted [when it comes to] my ability to work, to keep doing anything,” she says. “We’re fragile; I guess that’s the lesson.” Her hand now long recovered—except for the occasional tingle in her wrist—Yuskavage considers her forthcoming shows, which includes a large traveling exhibition that will open at the Aspen Art Museum in 2020 before heading to the Baltimore Museum of Art later that year. She thinks back to that phone message, when she was disinvited from a party. “[After hearing that,] I never intended to put paintings into the world that were not troublemakers, that were not getting disinvited to parties.”
With a career spanning over 30 years, New York-based Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1962, Philadelphia) is a figurative painter minutely versed in the history of the medium, channelling artists from Francisco de Goya to Édouard Vuillard and Philip Guston in her ostensibly kitschy canvases. Her paintings are immediately recognisable by their absurdly proportioned naked and semi-clad women, acid-bright landscapes, uncanny interiors and hippie figures that seem to have been cross-pollinated with religious icons. In addition to her figures' delight in their own fleshiness, there is an overpowering sense of otherworldliness at play. Yuskavage's paintings have been read as beguiling, disturbing and ironic, while the soft porn aesthetic–borrowed from men's magazines such as Penthouse–has in the past attracted criticism from some feminists. Regardless, she is reluctant to explain or justify the meaning of her work.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in what was then a working-class area of Philadelphia, Yuskavage knew she wanted to be an artist early on. She earned her BFA at Tyler School of Art, Temple University in 1984 and later took her MFA at Yale. Her breakthrough came in the early 90s, after exhibiting a suite of modest canvases at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery she disliked so much she took a year off to reconsider her entire approach. The results were The Ones That Shouldn't: The Gifts (1991) and the 'The Ones That Don't Want To' series (1991-2). The earlier work shows a large-breasted young woman emerging from a rich green background with a sprig of flowers stuffed in her mouth and her arms pulled behind her back. 'The Ones That Don't Want To' paintings–which the artist also refers to as her 'Bad Babies'–are shockingly vibrant portraits of girls naked from the waist down, who appear to be merging with their pulsating backgrounds and stare (with the exception of one slightly more dreamy figure) disconcertingly at the viewer. Yuskavage famously channeled the persona of Dennis Hopper's sadomasochistic character Frank Booth from the film Blue Velvet (1986) at this point in her career, and her embodiment of a particularly extreme voyeuristic gaze lent the resulting works a startling vitality. Indeed, she has frequently cited cinema, from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to David Cronenberg's horror movie The Brood (1979), as an important force in her work. (The Brood was the title of her 25-year survey in 2015 at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University [12 September–13 December 2015], which later traveled to Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis [15 January–3 April 2016].)
Yuskavage rose to prominence around the same time as other figurative painters such as Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin, who were similarly refreshing the genre with their own singular visions. In the 90s, she commanded solo shows in galleries in New York, Santa Monica, London and Milan, and her paintings were included in group surveys such as My Little Pretty: Images of Girls by Contemporary Women Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1997 and Young Americans 2: New American Art at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1998. In 2000, she held an important solo in her hometown of Philadelphia, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. 'I confirmed for myself that she paints wonderfully, and that wonderful painting is what concerns her,' wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker at the time.
Yuskavage's latest show, which is on view at David Zwirner in London (7 June–28 July 2017), includes new works, most of them large-scale. Her female-centric images have in recent years begun to be infiltrated by male figures; in the show, variously spectral and vigorous males join the buxom women. She has also been treating the painting's ground with layers of taupe and leaving areas of the work unpainted–literally, nude. Where couples appear, their relations are signalled via the use of harmonising and contrasting colour combinations. The artist's typical melding of high and low culture is especially notable in Wine and Cheese (2017), a large canvas depicting a rosy male being embraced from behind by a bloodless-looking woman. Its references, the artist explained during a walkthrough of the exhibition shortly before it opened, include images by Hans Baldung Grien (1484–1545) but also one from Viva, the adult women's magazine launched by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione in 1973.
In this interview, Yuskavage discusses her interest in Renaissance modes of colour, contrast and harmony in roleplay, and why she believes it's important for figurative artists to study with abstract and conceptual practitioners.
Lisa Yuskavage on trusting your creative instincts
Widely associated with a re-emergence of the figurative in contemporary painting, Lisa Yuskavage has developed her own genre of portraiture in which lavish, erotic, vulgar, angelic women (and more recently men) are cast within fantastical landscapes or dramatically lit interiors. Seamlessly blending pop cultural imagery, color theory, and psychology, Yuskavage draws on classical and modern painterly techniques and, in particular, marshals color as a conduit for complex psychological constructs. When asked about working through difficult periods in her career or confronting creative blocks, Yuskavage offers the following: "You paint like you're saving yourself. You're fighting for air. You're going up to the top just to grab some air before you go back down again."
Painter Lisa Yuskavage's Sultry Sirens Are Back at David Zwirner
In what is her debut outing at David Zwirner's London venue, Lisa Yuskavage presents a survey of new paintings depicting the erotic yet angelic women that she has become so well known for. Here, her noticeable subjects–whose full busts and hour-glass shapes render them close to caricatures–return in full form, depicted across a series of 14 works.
Particularly voluptuous women are somewhat of a signature motif for the painter, and Yuskavage has long succeeded in imbuing them with contradicting characteristics: they are at once human–their bodies playing a central role in the works–while simultaneously being other-worldly and dreamlike.
Some of this complicated aura can be attributed to the two starkly different realms the artist alternates between: the domestic and the fantastic. The household settings provides the women with a human quality, while the juxtaposing ethereal background reminds us that they possess celestial, seraphic qualities. These starkly different backdrops both serve to underscore the women's heavily exaggerated sexuality.
In 2015, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University organized The Brood, Lisa Yuskavage's first solo show at an American museum since a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia fifteen years prior. Elegantly curated by Christopher Bedford, the Henry and Lois Foster Director of the Rose, The Brood was not a comprehensive survey but instead a sampling of works dating from 1991 to 2015. Though a chronological, complete account of the artist's oeuvre will have to occur down the road, the occasion afforded the opportunity to see twenty-five of her paintings in the (tumescent, voluptuous) flesh and allowed new insights into her work. What emerged was a painter consistently engaged with the art of earlier epochs, an engagement that Yuskavage has used throughout her career to push herself in directions that are rarely predictable or schematic.
The exhibition borrows its title from David Cronenberg's 1979 cult horror film The Brood, in which an isolated mother undergoing experimental psychotherapy unleashes mutant children upon the world. Yuskavage's Brood is her paintings, replete with hyper-stylized figures, many with engorged bellies, breasts, and butts, set against brightly hued monochromes or dystopian landscapes. The show opened with her Bad Babies, four paintings from 1991 of single figures set against intensely keyed monochromatic backgrounds. These works, along with her Tintoretto-inspired Bad Habits maquettes, are her prime objects. She uses these original figures as a basis for all subsequent works, like a Renaissance artist working out individual saints in preparatory studies before placing them into more elaborate istorie. These Bad Babies eventually grew up and learned to play with others.
The 20 or so minutes it takes me to walk from my apartment to artist Lisa Yuskavage's studio in Brooklyn are pure agony. I am the most nervous I have ever been. Why do I do this to myself?, I repeatedly mutter under my breath. I've loved her work for a long time. I have a vivid memory of looking at her work in the pages of a magazine as a teen. Even then, I knew her work was controversial to many people. Her paintings of naked female figures catch your gaze, while you're probably distracted by their bare breasts. Even the ones whose eyes are looking away from you still make you feel guilty because you're gawking. Weeks before we meet, I am organizing a pile of magazine tear-outs from God-knows-when when I find an image of her iconic work Little Day, Little Night among old tax forms and cut-out fashion editorials.
You should never meet your idols, I think as I approach her studio.
She greets me at the door, asking, "Would you like some tea?" For some reason, this puts me at ease, and my fears dissipate. Soon after, it's just the two of us talking like this isn't the first time we've met. She walks me to a table full of her childhood memorabilia, which is part of a massive archival project of her own work. She has put a lot of that work on her website already: you can search by subject, by year, by dimensions, even by color. It's remarkable, all the more so because it seems rare for an artist of her stature to have such a robust website.
Lisa picks out a junior-high report card from a messy bunch of papers on top of a folding table in her studio. Her grades are all satisfactory, and there is a note from the teacher: "Lisa needs to talk less in class." She also shows me a special report she wrote around the same time on the overpopulation of pets, which is hysterical in its seriousness, especially because she collaged the folder with images of things like dogs in outfits and advertisements for pet-cemetery plots (the undeniable proof there's a pet problem). The irony, she says, is that when her dogs recently passed away after a long illness, she told her veterinarian, "You just lost your best client."
Finally, we walk into her main workspace. It is bright and airy, and there are three paintings in various stages of progress, all on opposite walls. The studio is glamorous in that it's so bare-bones. The middle of the room is mostly empty. There is enough space to have a party, maybe roller-skate a bit, but there is an unremarkable black office chair and a stool right in the middle of it all, and that's where we sit to begin our formal interview. We've already been talking a mile a minute, but I haven't yet started recording, so it feels like it doesn't count. We talk about going to an all-girls school, discovering feminism through dream prophecies, and Madonna songs, all with the constant hum of the aboveground train in the background. It's a beautiful day.
For his bookshop and website One Grand Books, the editor Aaron Hicklin asked people to name the 10 books they’ take with them if they were marooned on a desert island. The next in the series is the artist Lisa Yuskavage, who shares her list exclusively with T.
"The Palm at the End of the Mind," Wallace Stevens
I bought this in 1985 and have read it constantly since. It is always near me. Stevens's poems often reflect on the act of creating, and he evokes exquisite mental images that are thrilling. One of my favorite poems is "The Snow Man." "For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
"A Bend in the River," V.S. Naipaul
I first read this book 10 years ago and was so taken with the fluidity of the prose that I read it a second time, and then a third. And then to my surprise, I listened to it several times as an audiobook. I could not and did not want to escape that place at the bend in the river. It is a total experience of a place and a time, and a thrilling read. The hard opening line still haunts me: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
A few years ago, I followed friends to a celebration, not knowing the occasion. Down the steps, at the back of the bar, people were making passionate speeches in honor of the birthday girl. "When I was pregnant, Lisa asked if she could watch me give birth," one woman said. "She had seen a close friend die of AIDS in the same hospital, and wanted to see someone be born there. She was incredible in the delivery room, rubbing my feet, giving me ice chips, welcoming this baby into the world. The birth was intense but she was fearless, always there. When it was over, I saw her photographing still-lifes of the afterbirth next to a can of Dr. Pepper."
The toasts to Lisa continued with equal intensity, humor and electric devotion. "My kind of person!" I thought. Once the dancing started, I turned to the friend I'd come with and asked, "Who's Lisa? She sounds amazing!" "Oh, it's Lisa Yuskavage!" she laughed, and pointed to a woman dancing to a disco beat in the center of the room.
The facts of Yuskavage's career are well known. She grew up in Juniata Park, a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, then earned a BFA in 1984 from the Tyler School of Art, followed by an MFA from Yale in 1986. She became a major force in figurative painting in the 1990s, amid a torrent of criticism from feminists who argued that her sexualized distortions of female bodies were detrimental to the cause—charges she refuses to refute or even directly engage. As a result, she often appears as a bad object in academic and critical circles, as either an incredibly dumb feminist or a brilliantly cynical misogynist. In 2007 the Washington Post published a "special report" titled "Lisa Yuskavage: Critiquing Prurient Sexuality, or Disingenuously Peddling a Soft-Porn Aesthetic?," where scholar Amelia Jones discussed actively disliking her paintings ("Everybody knows they're soft porn, because that’s the first thing everyone says about them") while feeling frustrated by her inability to pin them down ("I refuse to react in a way that could be interpreted as orthodox feminism"). Jones's consternation unwittingly echoes the statements that Yuskavage has made about her own work from the very beginning. Back in 1992, she told tema celeste magazine: "I offer no solution. I don’t believe there is one."
Through all this, I've come to see Yuskavage as existing beyond the goody two-shoes world of Art Since 1900, living and working instead somewhere over the rainbow, where artists are having a lot of fun and not toeing any party line. When her work is seen as a whole, what first appears as chaos becomes a richly polyphonic worldview. Now we can do just that at "The Brood," a 25-year survey that gathers diptychs, triptychs and a third form she calls "symbiotics" (single canvases engaging the concept of the diptych through intertwined figures). The show is currently at the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Mass., and travels to the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis in the spring. We met to discuss the exhibition, and her art in general, last spring in her Brooklyn studio.
In its entirety, Yuskavage's world is a grand comedy—rife with fantastical visions of both sunshine and shit worthy of François Rabelais. Her characters have Pantagruel’s appetite, humor and—most important—that giant’s heart. The artist’s presence with one friend as he died of AIDS, and with another as she gave birth, recalls the famous story of J.M.W. Turner strapping himself to the mast of a ship during a storm to experience the sublime. The difference is that Turner’s sublime was out there, in the vast tumult of a hostile landscape, while Yuskavage's is in here, at the core of our basic, vital humanity.
JARRETT EARNEST When you were a guest speaker in my class at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) last year you talked about Giovanni Bellini, whom you described as "a man of deep feeling and great awe." I think that has something to do with your ideas about belief in art.
LISA YUSKAVAGE I've come to experience art like a séance. Over time you can meld minds with artists: you laugh and feel their humor, or you are shocked by their sadness and grief. The main thing that comes across in Bellini's paintings is the awesome potency and profound depth of feeling that made them. I've spent a good deal of my life looking at paintings, and what stands out to me is that, no matter when the painters lived, there are a lot of similarities among them. The work carries markers of the artist's inner life—be it Carroll Dunham's or Giovanni Bellini's—for us to connect to. I find that humanity in art very appealing because it just cuts away all the layers of academia. Scholarship can buoy understanding in some ways but after a point can also drag you down, away from the art. Since contemporary artists are not hired by, say, the Vatican, we have the freedom to ask ourselves what we believe in and then to assert that belief. It's actually a powerful liberty to own, and especially nice in our time when there are so many women's voices in the mix.
The best paintings of depositions, crucifixions and entombments are images that are familiar if you've ever buried someone you love. Just today, I saw an image in the New York Daily News of the brother of Moises Locón Yac, who was killed in the explosion on Second Avenue on March 26, collapsing in the arms of a Red Cross worker. You see the same configuration in paintings of Mary Magdalene mourning Christ. I remember things through great pictures. When I look at Renaissance masterpieces I recall scenes like the one on Second Avenue—the profound grief of families realizing that their loved ones have been killed.
Painting might be the most susceptible genre to trend in the visual arts. The usual arc goes something like this: A painter hits on an idea that seems relatively new or interesting and soon endless iterations of that technique or practice are popping up on every gallery wall. This is not a bad phenomenon, but it can often have the unintended consequence of fixing that initial painter's work to a certain fad-hopping period in contemporary art. All of this is the long way of saying that 53-year-old painter Lisa Yuskavage is so damned original, so provocative and epic and intimate and off-putting and exacting in her style, tone, and subject matter, that she has managed to avoid a million copycats (it would be nearly impossible to copy her), and a glimpse of her work past to present still feels as if it exists in its own eternal present.
Yuskavage rose to notice in the mid-'90s, during a particularly formidable period for figurative painting and women painters. But even then, she charted her own dark path, notoriously centered on young, zaftig female bodies with curves like guitars and, more often than not, enacting some mysterious rite that might be described as "Lolita witchcraft" or a Grimms' fairy tale mixed with someone's father's vintage basement collection of Penthouse. And this is precisely what is so mesmerizing and fascinating about Yuskavage's work: its seriousness and its play. No question, the New York-based painter has spent a lifetime studying European masters, from Rembrandt and Bellini to Vuillard and probably a number of altarpieces in Venetian chapels. But it also seems like she's tapped psychoanalysis, American porn, and a number of slightly hallucinogenic film directors. (Was Fellini's Satyricon  an inspiration, I wonder? Or Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant ?) A Yuskavage painting is a lurid, carnal, end-of-the-world or birth-of-the-world environment, and the relationships between subjects can often suggest pansexuality, masturbation, birth, abandonment, voyeurism, rape, or love.
Beginning this month, Yuskavage will present a retrospective-style survey of 25 years of her work—in 25 pieces—fittingly called "The Brood" at the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts. In honor of the occasion, and just after her solo show at David Zwirner Gallery this past spring where men, or "dudes," finally made an appearance on her canvases, Yuskavage had breakfast in downtown Manhattan with her friend, the director Todd Solondz. If there are two bigger taboo-tacklers in the visual arts, I can't think of them. —Christopher Bollen
TODD SOLONDZ: Art has a smaller audience than, say, movies or other forms of mass consumption. But that doesn't mean the work doesn't have an impact in a way that transcends just a few cultural arbiters. Artwork can be a portal, a kind of rethinking and reseeing of the world as we live it.
LISA YUSKAVAGE: I talk kind of ad infinitum about the example of Philip Guston. I was aware of his work as a very young artist. My first take was repulsion. I saw a retrospective of his at the Whitney in 1981, and I didn't know what I was looking at. I didn't like it, but I continued to investigate it. Something drew me to investigate it, and I eventually became addicted to the energies in his work. Then you want so badly to paint in that style. But I knew that would be a really bad idea. To touch that style was the kiss of death. It's like the call of the Sirens: You will crash. Guston's style is so powerful. And yet what is just as powerful are the things he said about the work and the battles he personally fought to make it. That was an incredibly important guide for me as an artist.
I first met Lisa Yuskavage in the shop where I work part time. She was searching for special thick ponytail holders that only we sell, and I helped her find them. Over time we became friendly and would chat whenever she came in, mostly about eyeliner or hair clips or whatever she was looking for. Then one day, while I was wrapping a gift she had purchased, Lisa asked me, "So, what else do you do besides work here?" I told her I was a writer and that I self-published my work. When she asked what kind of stuff I wrote, I think I probably replied, erotica, as quietly as possible.
Lisa let out a sharp laugh and looked at me in the very earnest and straight-shooting way that she has, "That’s funny," she said, "A lot of people call me an erotic artist." I stopped wrapping and gave her all of my attention. "But, I'm not," she continued, "Or at least I don't consider myself to be."
After that conversation, she jotted down her number and invited me to an exhibit she was having at the David Zwirner Gallery. I never made it to the gallery but I asked her if I could interview her. Thus began my journey into discovering who Lisa Yuskavage was. I had absolutely no knowledge of how incredibly massive her body of work was, how controversial and pivotal her paintings of women were and still are. It wasn't until I went to see her speak at the New York Public Library and they introduced her as one of the foremost figurative painters of our time that I realized my friendly patron was a celebrated, influential, and world-renowned artist.
Lisa Yuskavage's Brood of Luminous Filthy Figures Rocks the Rose Art Museum
In David Cronenberg's 1979 film The Brood a controversial psychotherapist accidentally calls forth a litter of killer children from the body of a disturbed patient by uncorking her repressed demons. In Lisa Yuskavage's identically titled Rose Art Museum survey, the artist arrays some of the more grotesque, gorgeously painted creatures she has spawned over the last quarter century. The show is a trailer that offers career highlights, but it makes an unflaggingly forceful point. Few pictures painted by anyone anywhere today produce the mental havoc engendered by Yuskavage's exquisitely wanton creatures.
Yuskavage is a commanding presence among contemporary artists. As a painter, she reinvented the modern figure (mostly female, in her case) together with a handful of other 1990s brush-and-canvas radicals (including Neo Rauch, Chris Ofili, and John Currin). As a conceptualist, she out-transgressed most art polemicists and feminists, both of her and subsequent generations. Rough mischief served up with masterful skill has, over time, become the artist's painterly signature—an achievement akin to doing dirty stand-up comedy in rhyming couplets. And like a filthy joke that gets beautified (The Aristocrats comes to mind), Yuskavage's penchant for combining bravado with impishness has influenced other artists.
Looking back, it's clear that Yuskavage pioneered once barren artistic territory now claimed by loads of artists. Among the non-painters are figures like Jordan Wolfson, whose creepy yet alluring animatronic stripper sculpture could have easily been inspired by one of Yuskavage's bodacious freaks.
Within her own medium, the Philadelphia-born, Yale-educated artist's influence appears both general and specific—like the color of the sky or the average woman's self-image. On the one hand, it's unthinkable to conceive of today's well-behaved expressionistic pictures—like, say, those of painter Dana Schutz—without Yuskavage’s trailblazing example. On the other, the veteran artist's Trojan Horse aesthetic, which subtly conveys low content via painterly sophistication, renders similarly stylized figuration Yuskavage-lite.
Painter Lisa Yuskavage Goes From 'Vulgar' Women to Saintly Men
For the past quarter-century, New York artist Lisa Yuskavage has been known for painting women. Ms. Yuskavage, age 53, gained an international reputation in the 1990s for using Renaissance-era techniques to paint cryptic images of women, often nude and set within epic landscapes or saturated color fields.
Critics have hailed her as a feminist, an artist who explores identity politics by depicting women as strong in their frank sensuality. More than a dozen museums now own her paintings of women, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, and her provocative portraits have sold at auction for as much as $1.3 million apiece.
All of which explains why it's a big deal that Ms. Yuskavage has now shifted to painting men. Her latest show, opening April 23 at New York's David Zwirner Gallery, will introduce a new series of lanky men painted with shaggy hair and standing in classic, contrapposto poses. (Michelangelo's "David" stands contrapposto, his weight on one foot and torso slightly twisted.)
Some of these new figures, such as "Dude Looks Like Jesus," are painted nude, staring boldly out at the viewer. Another character, "Dude of Sorrows," is painted close up, one of his eyes rimmed by a yellow-green bruise and his curly hair fluffing around his face like a halo. In "Hippies," a group of men are painted in electric shades of cherry red and alien green. They peer out from behind the nude figure of a blond woman facing us; the rest of the scene is muted gray.
Ms. Yuskavage, sitting in her airy, Brooklyn studio, said the men emerged in her canvases over the winter, as she was experimenting with a painting method championed by Michelangelo called cangiantismo. The technique involves painting spiritually important figures, such as saints, using brilliant, shifting colors to underscore the presence of the supernatural, and placing them against ordinary backgrounds. While sketching ideas, Ms. Yuskavage said she was surprised to find men kept turning up on her pages. "I guess I was craving them," she said.
Ms. Yuskavage didn't set out to paint men—but she hadn't intended to avoid them for decades, either, she said. An artistic epiphany early in her career spurred her to paint the taboo, which in her case became hypersexualized images of women.
Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, the daughter of a truck driver, she said she struggled to shed her "tough girl, potty mouth" demeanor when she began studying art at Yale University in the mid-1980s. One way she sought to gain a measure of charm-school respectability was by painting 19th-century-esque nude images of women sitting with their backs to the viewer. She won praise for this tasteful early work, but the subject matter put her in an artistic funk, she said.
After she graduated, Ms. Yuskavage didn't paint anything for a year—until, she said, her husband challenged her to funnel some of her "ornery" disposition into her canvases.
Her reaction? She took those demure portraits of women and turned them around. "Yale doesn’t think 'Girls Gone Wild' is funny because that woohoo silliness is considered trashy," she said. "But I felt free as soon as I embraced the vulgar—I put it on my palette alongside my paint, and I started laughing in my studio again."
She began painting series of women who appeared at ease in their nudity, some coyly innocent and others brazen. As did Caravaggio, she placed her women in dark rooms, lighted by unseen spotlights. Like Raphael, she used Renaissance-era theories about perspective to arrange groups of women within vast, utopian landscapes. She was also inspired by outlier painters such as post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh and by Philip Guston, who painted cartoonish figures when modernist abstraction was all the rage. Collectors began to visit her studio, and she realized she had found her niche: femininity. "Jackson Pollock had his drips, and I had my thing," she said.
Ms. Yuskavage said she made a couple of experimental portraits of men early on, but they seemed tame compared with her women. She never showed them. In subsequent years, a few tiny figures of men cropped up "as extras," as she calls them, in her pastoral scenes, including one carrying a backpack. Then last winter, it hit her: No one expected her to put men out front in her work. She was deemed a feminist painter. Suddenly, the subject matter intrigued her.
"A long time ago, I told a person that if I were ever to paint men, I would paint Jesus and his friends," she said, citing the rarity of Christian iconography in contemporary art. She hasn't gone that far, but the men in her new show do evoke a laid-back saintliness, particularly "Dude Looks Like Jesus."
The emergence of male figures marks a new direction in her oeuvre that will need to be acknowledged in a survey of her work planned for this September at the Rose Art Museum, in Waltham, Mass. Director Christopher Bedford said his show will mainly explore Ms. Yuskavage's career-long habit of bundling her portraits into diptychs and triptychs. But Mr. Bedford plans to show "Hippies" as well because, he said, her men cannot be ignored.
"Male models in the 1980s were so beefy, but now our ideal man is slinky and wears skinny jeans," he said. "The way she's wading into expressions of men feels so current."
Good World to Be In: An Interview with Lisa Yuskavage
Since her arrival on the art scene some twenty-five years ago, Lisa Yuskavage has made a name for herself with paintings that use classical techniques to depict unabashedly taboo subjects. Her creations—awash in radiant, hallucinatory colors and featuring hedonistic heroines unlike anything else in art today—are instantly identifiable. Her latest show, which opened last week at David Zwirner in New York, explores the idea of the incubus and succubus, and includes images of men—Dude Looks Like Jesus, for instance—a first for the artist. "I was thinking a lot about Dürer," she says. "There’s this obsession with a certain look, which has to do with a revolutionary kind of guy."
I met Yuskavage, who is fifty-two, at her spacious Brooklyn studio earlier this month, where our talk touched on a variety of subjects, including her process, her past, and her experimentation with Grindr, the gay dating app. We'd intended to take a trip to her favorite bookstore, Ursus Books, afterward, but we stayed at her studio instead, conversing as pale yellow light crept along the floor.
When critics discuss your work, they talk a lot about gaze—whether the figures depicted are inviting us to look or whether we're intruding upon something private.
It's interesting because in order to make some of these paintings of men, I did something a few years ago—I didn't realize why I was doing it at the time. I joined Grindr. I had a Grindr persona. You didn't think I was going to say that today, did you?
Do you remember your username?
I don't remember, but I eventually took it down when I almost hooked up with someone. I met someone by accident. My husband has a very nice body, and I took a picture of his torso. He had pants on. I didn't want to be that vulgar, because I didn't want to present myself as being just interested in sex.
So I was at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street having my stupid vegan soup. I was looking at Grindr and imagining the Dionysian possibilities of life. It seemed like the air was full of sex. Not just sex, but hopefulness. Then I see that there's someone who, whatever you call it, poked me or tapped me. He was ten feet away. I was like looking around and then I saw someone looking around. He was looking for me, and he couldn't find me because I didn't exist!
Do you still have the app?
I immediately deleted it. I realized it was a strange thing to be doing and I cold-turkeyed it. I suppose when you asked about gaze, something I've been working a lot with is using my own fascination with what turns people on. Which is why Grindr was so interesting to me. I had no idea why I had done it. But I think the thing is—in a way, everything is enchanted, if you can just let it be. I was doing that because I was enchanted—to make the work that I'm making now. These are a series of paintings about the incubus and succubus.
When the 1963 negative for Le Bonheur (1965) lost most of its colors, Agnes Varda had a new one created to look more original than the first. The name given to things more original is artifice, but Varda has said that the film's palette was exactly as she found it in nature, a truth that applies itself well to the realaesthetik of painter Lisa Yuskavage.
Opening with the green-on-green oil-on-linen Bonfire, which is split in two panels of equal, familiar brilliance, the exhibition unreels into a series of canvases obscured in shades of fog, letting iridescence win over her signature scale-tipping chromaticism. A second surprise: The woman who for years has felt like painting other women now also feels like painting a number of men, some of whom she affectionately termed "dudes" in the titles of her works. Others appear with babes, peek up from supine positions (The Neighbors, 2014) or fan out in splendor from behind (Hippies, 2013). Most of these boys are coyer, cuter, and more virginal than the feminine subjects we’ve often mistaken for "girls."
But if her subjects-as-objects have always been grown, her style is matured—tenderer, reveling in awe. It's rare that we get to see a famous painter changing before our eyes, especially so late in a game she has already won (though fans of John Currin, her straightforward counterpart, may have a different opinion). In a show that extends her career-long field day with color, a sunset coda—three pieces in finely splayed pastels over ink-jet on paper, each re-presenting a scene or a subject from her oils—gives us a chance to see Yuskavage's figures in a state that feels closer to her nature, as heavenly and earthy as it is.
Lisa Yuskavage's latest paintings and pastels take viewers on a love-generation trip back to the garden.
Known for her pneumatic nudes that bring to mind the Renaissance masters, Lisa Yuskavage has always been fascinated by physchology—her own and other people's, which to date has mainly meant women. But in her latest paintings and pastels, men crop up as part of a series on hippies, who, in her mind represent the era in which she came of age. She delves into those memories and more in this look at her enigmatically groovy canvases.
If we say "bad-boy artist," a number of names come to mind, mostly guys who partied to excess, made spectacles of themselves—Larry Rivers—and some who died young: Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dash Snow.
But say "bad-girl artist" and who comes to mind? Usually, Lisa Yuskavage. Her biggest backers—the gallery that exhibits her work (David Zwirner), the museum giving her a career-spanning show in September (Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University) and the publishers of a concurrent survey and monograph (Skira Rizzoli)—describe her work with words that most would consider critical: controversial, unsettling, cartoony, vulgar, confrontational, grotesque. Her oeuvre includes pneumatic babes lounging around half-clothed, holding flowers, spreading their legs, touching themselves and sometimes each other.
Lisa Yuskavage has the skill of an old master, the imagination of a manga illustrator, the naughtiness of a Catholic schoolgirl, and a serious art school education from Yale. Her color-drenched world of hyper-erotic female nudes defies all conventions of beauty, repression, power, and surrender. Amid such paradoxes, Lisa’s paintings resist simple interpretation. I met Lisa at her studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
SABINE HELLER — How would you describe your paintings?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Every aspect is imbued with mood or psychological importance. It's not just the figures. Each character and each element add characteristics. In Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining, when the camera follows the little boy down the hall and he stops, the camera keeps going. The camera isn't tracking the boy–it's got a mind of its own, which is spooky. In The Shining, a choice creates a psychic experience, and something jumps out of the film into the viewer, in a magical transition. The realization of this opened me up to the idea that everything you do can shift the way things are seen–that formal elements can be rich in their ability to overpower what's normal. I want an intense experience when I look at art. There's a difference between a figurative painting that's illustrative and one that has codes. All paintings illustrate something, but there's a way to go beyond the picture and add a psychic quality.
Was it bizarre to have Lisa Yuskavage, the notorious painter of preposterously pulchritudinous young women, discussing the subtle intimist Edouard Vuillard, who is the subject of a retrospective at the Jewish Museum, subtitled "A Painter and His Muses"? To a packed auditorium at the museum recently, Yuskavage, chic in baggy black, acknowledged the perceived frisson of "this hip chick with this old dead artist." She protested, "But I'm not so hip. I have not had sex with the wife of my art dealer." The allusion is to Lucy Hessel, the second most important woman, after his corset-maker mother, in the life of the shy French master. They were close for forty years until Vuillard's death, in 1940, with no reported upset to Lucy's husband, the dealer Joseph.
In fact, Vuillard's hypersensitive paintings of people in domestic interiors, especially those from the eighteen-nineties, have influenced Yuskavage since before her student days at Yale, twenty-some years ago. She is not alone in making him a perennial painter's painter, who wrung poetic drama from unremarkable scenes with excruciating colors, smoldering tonalities, dense patterning, and loamy build-ups of paint. (Her interlocutor, the museum's chief curator, Norman Kleeblatt, flashed slides of somewhat apposite works by Howard Hodgkin, David Park, Alex Katz, Peter Doig, Kai Althoff, and others; he should have added Fairfield Porter, the late superb painter and critic who argued that modern art had taken a wrong turn when it hewed to Cezanne rather than to Vuillard.) Yuskavage's analysis of Vuillard's art, and of her own, amounted to a clinic in painting for painting's sake. "I've spent hundreds of hours looking at Vuillard," she said. It showed in her talk.
Lisa Yuskavage's large scale, enigmatic, and acerbic-colored paintings complicate how we view their female subjects. These women are mostly rendered either nude in a youthful, cartoonish manner with the curvaceous bodies and voluptuous breasts of soft porn, or as senescent—overly clothed in long dresses and turbans, suggesting babushkas or Mormons. Mainly, Yuskavage employs the former treatment as these paintings' subjects and the latter as figures in the distant realms of her landscapes.
These nymphets are mostly preoccupied with the sensuality of sexual provocation and the act of eating. In "Afternoon Feeding" (2011), one nude feeds round, shiny fruit to another. The objects (perhaps oversized, multicolored grapes) are only decidedly half as large as the feeder's breasts and about the same size as the areola of the girl being fed. This act of assisted eating could not be more sexually charged or maternal, which is odd considering the matrons of the background look on, disconnected and uninvolved with the activity taking place in the foreground.arge scale, enigmatic, and acerbic-colored paintings complicate how we view their female subjects. These women are mostly rendered either nude in a youthful, cartoonish manner with the curvaceous bodies and voluptuous breasts of soft porn, or as senescent—overly clothed in long dresses and turbans, suggesting babushkas or Mormons. Mainly, Yuskavage employs the former treatment as these paintings' subjects and the latter as figures in the distant realms of her landscapes.
Yuskavage's pneumatic nudes return, bigger than ever.
In Lisa Yuskavage's new exhibition, a jump in scale has made her signature combination of masterful style and dubious content—knowingly incorrect images of snub-nosed, hypersexualized nymphets—downright trippy. The ten-foot-wide canvas Outskirts, for example, depicts a pair of prepubescent twins sitting back-to-back, silhouetted against a setting sun in a baleful sky of acid yellow and umber. In the right foreground, a blond with pendulous tits sits on the rump of another woman on all fours who has flowers stuck in her anus, while in the background on the left, a male hiker leans on his walking stick. Simultaneously frothy, portentous and winking, the painting merges Fragonard, Frederic Church and a Playboy cartoon with the psychedelic charge of a head-shop poster. The artist's dexterity with the paintbrush almost seems like an extreme sport.
Green clouds and mountains dominate the view in the three-panel composition titled Triptych. On the right, a girl in a thong and striped socks sucks on a Blow Pop as she stares off into the distance; in the center, another figure lies on a table with her legs splayed, her fuchsia dress casually hiked up to offer a view of a hairless vagina. Beneath the table, a hodgepodge of studio objects—fruit, flowers, canvases, palettes—rest in the weeds, symbolic attributes of the figure above.
Art is an indolent whore, we're led to believe, in contrast with the industry of the doll-like peasant women in kerchiefs holding baskets of fruit as they gather the bounty of distant hillsides on the left. But we all know whom we'd rather spend our time with.
The outrageously talented Lisa Yuskavage has been flouting and exalting figurative painting for nearly two decades, in luminous, color-soaked scenes of female nudes that are equal parts kitsch (imagine a Hummel figurine posing for Penthouse) and Old Master (art critics drop names from Vermeer to Pontormo). She does have detractors. "Who could paint so conservatively after the events of the twentieth century?" a well-known formalist recently asked me, as if Greenbergian flatness were a moral imperative. (In 2009, Yuskavage lampooned such critiques as a pie in the face of her figures, which she portrayed with whipped-cream-smeared kissers rendered in Ab Ex-like brushstrokes.) In the artist's new show at Zwirner, the future of painting has rarely looked brighter—more complex, more limitless. Think of her canvases, as lusciously perverse as ever, as exquisite corpses, seamlessly folding art-historical bodies into the pictures. Note the brazen young woman in "Fireplace," with the stone-cold flesh of Manet's "Dead Christ with Angels" and the beribboned neck of "Olympia."
Lisa Yuskavage makes beautiful paintings about the paradoxes of beauty, and she just keeps getting better at it. In an electric Rococo style, her new works picture her signature cartoonishly curvy, childlike women in sexually titillating postures in expansive, wilderness landscapes. With a bravura painterly touch and in luscious, luminous colors, she renders her pneumatic nymphets under spacious green and pink skies, conjuring a Never Never Land of erotic bliss far from the struggle and strife of modernity.
At the center of a triptych more than 18 feet wide, a naked femme lolls on a wooden bench with her nether parts facing the viewer in an invitation to enter the archaic feminine, both literally and metaphorically. Romantic yearning for immersion in beneficent nature, however, collides with satiric hilarity as Ms. Yuskavage toys outrageously with conventions of soft pornography. She dares viewers to admit to elemental desires and fantasies that the ideologically enlightened would deny.
Ms. Yuskavage's Edenic, sexualized landscapes really are battlegrounds of moral and spiritual war between judgmental mind and polymorphous id. In the triptych's middle distance stand about a half dozen severe-looking women in long dresses and buttoned-up blouses, forming, it seems, a chorus of disapprobation.
They might stand for those who would disavow sensual hedonism and the infantile consumerism it leads to—those who would put art to the service of critical intellect and political rectitude. But it is the tension in the paintings themselves between the elevated beauty of fine art and the debased, yet often hard-to-resist beauty of kitsch that gives Ms. Yuskavage's work its comical, uncannily seductive allure.
I've been to Yuskavageland–an improbable zone at the intersection of the European painting tradition, religious iconography, porn, and, I'll argue, performance art. Most probably, given its origin in the early '90s, so have you. The creation of a painter with a director's sense of narrative and character, this alternate world is populated by an ensemble of defiantly hypersexualized babes seen through a mutable gaze that, while female, often postures as a male gaze for kicks.
Yuskavage was once famously accused of being "too much." To this we owe her artistic breakthrough. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips's thoughts on being too much inevitably come to mind: "we are too much […] because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves." From this hot spot at the junction of psyche and picture-making emerge Yuskavage's pinups. They irritate and enthrall viewers precisely because they refuse to be pinned down. We're perplexed by their sexual orientation; are they hetero, lesbian, or bi? At once gorgeous and grotesque, frivolous and multilayered, debauched and coy, self-engrossed and pleased with themselves yet forlorn and longing for someone to regard them, Yuskavage's animated fictions do quite a number of things unambiguously. For one, they hook us. Like in-your-face human performers, they make us feel a discomfort in their presence which is impossible to dismiss. They beckon and confront us with the problem of looking, as in the flasher to the voyeur: "What are you looking at?"
Did I bring up the humor in Yuskavage's world, the dark, David Lynch sort? Not to mention its unsettling intelligence, manifest in its ability to hold, and open itself to, multiple, and often clashing, points of view?
Lisa Yuskavage: The Journey of an Art Star
I was just finishing up a flamenco class at the 92nd Street Y surrounded by women jabbering in Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Farsi, Italian—proving the international allure of accessing not only your inner pole dancer but your inner flamenco dancer—when I saw people had already begun lining up for the presentation by artist Lisa Yuskavage, she of the va-va-voom paintings. As I hurried to change, I could hear protesters outside inveighing against the appearance of General Petraeus who was already holding forth in the auditorium downstairs on the various wars. With the juxtaposition of the castanets, the tits, the anti-war chants and the stars and bars, I hardly knew which way to turn (that is the problem with me in flamenco class, I am never knowing which way to turn).
But what I was most eagerly anticipating was Yuskavage—finally having the chance to see and hear what this deliberately provocative artist would say. She, in turn, opened her remarks by joking—probably not entirely!—that she had hoped the protesters were there for her. Part of Yuskavage's journey as an art star has been to learn to cede focus to the work instead of herself.
In your newest paintings, it seems like landscape is becoming particularly important. What accounts for the change from your previous work, which has been more focused on nudes?
I think for a long time I've been trying to find a way to throw the emotional intensity off of the figure, because it's so laden that it doesn't have much to do. What I'm doing with this latest work is using the body as a frame for the landscape. It won't appear to anyone's eye that I was thinking about Synthetic Cubism–as my mother would say, "That's far-fetched!"–but the thing that I find fascinating about that style is the way that everything is a frame for something else. Everything happening across the picture has an assertive role. What creates an analogous tension in my work is that the things that come burdened with assertiveness are not the only operators. With the viewer and the nude, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Someone asked me, "When will you move on from the nude?" And my response is, "When you stop having the reaction that you do."
Most people have pretty strong reactions to your work. Are you bothered by that?
No. But something that does disturb me is when someone tells me I'm a good painter, and they mean technically. That's like telling someone who flies an airplane that you're good at it. If you're painting–or flying an airplane–you should be good at it! High-quality craft is a part of what we do as painters. If it was merely technique or being provocative with the imagery, I'd be totally disinterested in what I was doing. I'm not trying to make merely a spectacle. There are two kinds of reality–there's the reality of the painting and the pictorial language of all that is happening there–that part's not that interesting. How those things interact is what is potentially really interesting.
Who or what has most inspired you?
I had a teacher, Andrew Forge, an art historian and painter. I remember sitting in front of this Rothko at Yale in his class. We would just sit and look at the painting. For hours. That's the amazing thing about great teachers. Forge would entertain all comers, he took everyone seriously and had a good sense of humor. We would let the painting talk to us and let the layers unfold. The particularities of the paint. The fact that it was dry and didn't reflect light. Someone made a comment about how the painting looked from the side. At the time I thought that was sort of a bullshit comment, but I was also struggling with the belief that we weren't just all pretending to see the rapture. Because of my admiration for Forge, and also the people I had chosen to surround myself with at that school, I allowed myself to be influenced in a way that I wanted to be. I was like a person trying to believe in God with no evidence of God. We would just sit and look at the paintings and let them come to us. I try to make paintings that you could sit for a long time and look at that way, kind of like in honor of that experience. I learned to make paintings a long, slow read.
In his poem "Portrait d'une Femme," Ezra Pound draws a parallel between the tangled mass of seaweed choking the Sargasso Sea and the catatonic inertia of a washed-up London society lady. The poem is seen as uniquely unflattering toward women, casting its unwitting principal as an ornamental and passive dilettante. For her latest show, the painter Lisa Yuskavage has put many of her signature pneumatic nudes within landscape settings–a move that only partially places them within the hoary art-historical lineage of artworks comparing the unpredictabilty of nature to the wantonness of the feminine psyche. And yet the facile analogies to pornography that have always dogged her efforts seem increasingly hard to make with these new canvases.
Yuskavage has stepped up her game, producing a body (no pun intended) of work that reads like an abbreviated questionnaire of our own pleasure preferences, with every element thrown into question. The results are often surprising and, to Yuskavage's credit, derive squarely from the lure of painting instead of the subject matter.
Travellers frames a Brobdingnagian, sand-colored, big-breasted woman silhouetted by the tawny sky of a warm-weather mountain sunset, making a direct connection between body and landscape. On the left, a trickle of spectral tourists trudges across a low wooden bridge that traverses a river cutting through the middle of the scene. They seem oblivious to, or perhaps exist on a different metaphysical plane than, the bouquet-wielding, foregrounded giantess, whose wisps of hair dance and curl before snatches of thin clouds. The tourists could just as easily be walking directly into her eye-level vagina. While deliciously rendered, the central figure is uncomfortably large, deflated and off-putting. She sits slumped and resigned.
In Yuskavage's previous show at Zwirner in 2006, one brilliant work, Persimmons, seemed lit from within. Nearly every painting in this exhibition fits that description. While the hues are slightly more subdued this time, they are worlds more complex than in Yuskavage's earlier work. In this respect, other standouts, besides Travellers, include Snowman and The Smoker. More than most elements in her painting, the successful use of color elicits a visceral reaction, and Yuskavage's astute employment of it makes one swoon even in the face of insalubrious or even neutral subject matter. The impassive features of the titular nude in The Smoker are so slight as to teeter on erasure; yet the deep emerald blanketing the piece evokes a mood, an atmosphere to be penetrated, like walking through the penumbral glow of a rainforest's undergrowth. How often does one see such green in a painting? Similarly, Snowman's icy-gray winterscape is laced with fiery tangerine, but still chills to the bone.
There are other leitmotifs that pop up repeatedly in this show: Naked babies are on the loose, as are the stark branches of bare trees zigzagging across windswept skies. For all these concrete touches, there is a noticeable move toward abstraction, precisely through an increased reliance on the intricacies of landscape. Cairns pile up in towering, precarious monuments that loom with anthropomorphic urgency, and Yuskavage often sets the tone for her outdoor settings with washy cloud treatments reminiscent of Turner's roiling heavens or the calmer swaths of the Hudson River School. When a figure does feature prominently, her countenance is often obscured by a new element–a pie in the face. Human representation is repeatedly thwarted by obfuscation, or overpowered by nature.
Yuskavage's work is undergoing a curious progression that can best be described as following an inverse course. While her compositions are increasingly laden with detail, and the descriptive train each one trails appears longer and longer, it's becoming more difficult to draw a coherent story from her figurations. At the same time, the cinematic quality of her works and the appeal of their color and painting technique is greater than ever. As logic gently separates itself from the skeleton of her narrative structure, it's as if the individual pieces are emerging more crisply delineated from a representational standpoint, while withdrawing into the mysterious alchemy of painting with a capital p.
On the occasion of her solo show at David Zwirner, on view till March 28, 2009, the painter Lisa Yuskavage paid a visit to the Rail's Headquarters to talk to Publisher Phong Bui about her current work.
Phong Bui (Rail): I read that right after your first one-person show at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery in 1990, during which time you didn't paint for one whole year, you read Patricia Bosworth's unauthorized biography of Diane Arbus. Somewhere in the book, she said in reference to her work, "I really believe there are things that nobody would see unless I photograph them," which affected you deeply. Could you talk more about that?
Lisa Yuskavage: I didn't like any of those paintings in the show. But after getting depressed, I realized there was a personal need to see something that would be created only for myself, no one else. I really needed to make works that revealed that sense of urgency, and I didn't care what it was as long as it could come out of that urgency. It's what one would call inevitability. We don't even know that the inevitability exists until you make things that are purposeless but nevertheless inevitable. Diane Arbus's urgency is part of what comes across in those pictures.
Rail: And that inevitability compels different readings, interpretations, or criticisms. Especially when it is created by a woman and deals with the fairly provocative subject matter of sexuality in painting. Western erotic art had always been about nude women that were made by and for men; Linda Nochlin wrote brilliantly in the early 70s about the general social expectations against women seriously pursuing art. In the 80s the NEA attempted to censor Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and many others who were famously inflammatory. As far as women painters who have been similarly controversial, I would only count a handful, besides you, including Jenny Seville, Cecily Brown, etc.
Yuskavage: Artists of my generation came up right after that NEA episode and I knew there was not a chance in hell I was going to be supported by the government, nor did I ever have that expection. I expected the opposite. When I decided to stop painting as a result of trying too hard to make a likable gourmet object. I had some dumb idea about what my relationship was supposed to be to painting; great painting was at the top, and I was at the bottom. Painting was big, and strong, among other things, and I needed to get on top of it. I needed to beat it down and say, "No, I'm the top." So how do I do that?
The Overwhelmer: An Interview with Lisa Yuskavage
In a conversation Lisa Yuskavage had with Chuck Close in 1996, she came up with a characteristically colourful way of describing her tendency to put her talent to such poor use: "like a nun with a foul mouth." Raised in a working-class, Catholic home in Philadelphia, she briefly entertained the possibility of becoming a nun, but ultimately decided to go to art school. Whether she retained the other half of the description she offered to Chuck Close, only her intimates can know with certainty, but there are critics of the art she has produced since the mid-'90s who wouldn't be surprised to hear the figures in them utter language as colourful as the canvases they inhabit.
Viewing Lisa Yuskavage's painted world is a confusing experience. We are presented with all manner of possible gazings, from the teasing liquidities of girl on girl, to the delicate performance of looking and touching that constitutes the act of masturbation. Hers is a woman's world (more accurately, a girl's world), where chronology hasn't caught up to groinology. And while the upper bodies of her females don't match the extravagant proportions of the women in the art of her friend, John Currin, there is still a noticeable degree of exaggeration in her paintings. She is capable of pushing certain portions of the body beyond conventional depiction. "I have an interest in full-throttle, full-on engagement," she says. "I like the idea of overwhelming."
Early in her painting career, she let her tributary side show; there are works that have the sensual insouciance of Bonnard, like Sleeper (Fragile), 1984; or the cheeky concupiscence of Balthus, like Girl with Skewer, 1996, and Cookie, 1998. In these works, Yuskavage was trying out both styles and subjects: she has been concerned in equal measure with how she paints and what she paints, although she would have us believe that "all my paintings seem to be about painting." They are also about looking and desiring; it's just that we're never really sure how much tongue we should have in our cheek when we focus our attention on the operation of desire in the work. It would take an unusual degree of objectivity to appreciate only the aesthetic qualities of paintings like Shirtwaist and Nipple, both from 1999 and both lifted from the uncomplicated domain of soft-core porn. Nor would she be satisfied with that narrow a reading. She doesn't think anyone should ever be praised for their technique; being a painter without technique "would be like saying you're a pilot but you don't know how to fly a plane."
Yuskavage has remarked that one of her intentions was to combine Rembrandt with colour-field painting, to which she might have added, and the sensibility of early Penthouse magazine. Among her most notorious paintings is Screwing Her Pussy on Straight, 1997, in which a very busty blonde, naked except for a shrug, pays reverent attention to her very bushy nether region. The interior is a reprising of Bonnard; the subject mimics Bob Guccione; and the mark making pays tribute to Rembrandt. The final picture is classic Yuskavage.
If Jan Vermeer shopped at Kmart, or if Pierre Bonnard were interested in what it might feel like to be pregnant, then their paintings might resemble Lisa Yuskavage's new work. As it is, no one makes pictures like hers. Showing in New York for the first time since 2003, Yuskavage proved several things. First, that she is her generation's best colorist, and that her toxic-sunset palette serves to highlight rather than obscure her expertise with heaving, tendril-like line. Second, that the narcissistic nymphets and tit-goddesses for which she has been both celebrated and reviled have matured into complex emotional dyads. In these canvases, even when a figure appears alone, she shares a dream space with iconic props that are her avatars.
A third achievement of these meditative, gorgeously weird paintings is that–dependent as they are on the old equation of luscious paint with female nudity–the metaphor of one kind of pretty matter standing in for another has been sublimed; that is, rendered both beautiful and frightening. These are portraits of thoughts if ever there were any. But the psyche, for Yuskavage, is a pulse in the flesh, and fleshliness is a continuum where human versus inanimate is not an important distinction. She blurs a ninth-month belly or grotesque breast into a nobbly pear, a fake pearl, or a hot sfumato that describes no tangible thing at all. All are envisioned as temporary clumps of the same shimmering, morphing stuff, in which even aggressive physicality evanesces.
The show was organized in two parts. Downtown at David Zwirner Gallery were ten full-scale paintings; uptown, Zwirner & Wirth presented twenty-eight smaller works on canvas, linen, panel, and paper. With a few exceptions, Yuskavage's belle-laide ladies appear in repeating roles. There's the gravid contemplative standing beside–almost within–a not-quite-solid table strewn with plums or pomegranates. In some versions, a tasseled curtain overhangs her; in others, she sucks an indeterminate red berry while butterflies flit about. Another trope suggests Demeter and Persephone, or what Yeats would call the "dialogue of self and soul." A doughy, currant-eyed, rather haggard nude is comforted by a spring maiden with ribbons in her hair. A variation on this theme presents the half-merged couple as lover-twins, joined by matching necklaces, panties, or opera gloves. Clinging to a hillside or hidden amidst branches, the figures grow together like two blooms on a stalk. The pregnant women, similarly, commune with their ripe drupes as sisters.
Naturally, there is trouble in paradise. Notwithstanding the flowers and fruit that surround her, the thoughtful character in Persimmons, 2006, exhibited at David Zwirner, has apparently undergone a mastectomy of sorts. A long necklace crosses her asymmetrical chest, its highlighted beads expressing the same uncanny vitality as the berries that seem to migrate, of their own accord, toward the dark beneath her skirt. In Biting the Red Thing, 2004–2005, also on show at David Zwirner, the fruit bowl filled with translucent orbs is not grounded on the table but levitates in rusty shadow, the same blood-rich passage into which the woman's arm deflates in a handless, trunklike appendage. The baby in It’s a Boy, 2006, seen at Zwirner & Wirth, looks genuinely happy. But where one eye should be there is only ominous smoothness.
The unit of measure for Yuskavage is the small sphere or dot—eye, nipple, berry, bud, bubble, bauble, melon, tumor, brushstroke. These compositional molecules show off her mutant old-master skill and speak about conception, fruition, rot, and dissolution as phases of a polymorphous, universal fact—"polymorphous and universal" meaning not only "painterly," but "female."
Lisa Yuskavage, an endearing jumble of earthy and motherly, feminine and bawdy, voluptuous and stout, is sitting in a café not far from her painting studio in downtown Manhattan and remembering the first time she was invited to lecture at her alma mater Tyler School of Art, outside Philadelphia, in the early Nineties. "I was like a pig in s---," she says, beaming. "I was so happy because I got to be a big-shot artist and talk about my work. So one of my teachers stood in front of the whole school and said, "We all got together, the faculty, at the lunchroom, and we were trying to think of what to say. What was Lisa like as a student?" My memory of being there was I worshipped them. I was happy every minute. I had a 4.0–oh, a 3.9. I screwed up one class when I was in Rome. I got a C- in printmaking. It was just too much work. But I was a total nerd. I didn't even relate to a lot of my peers because they were kind of goofing off, and I would be like, "Shh!"
So, Lisa, how did the teacher describe you? (Interrupting may be rude, but whip-smart and articulate though she is, the loquacious Yuskavage has a way of getting lost in her own stories."
I want to expose a specific state of mind that I have experienced as female: the flight from reality through wallowing in one's fantasies and suffocating in the sticky, candy-flavored sentiment that springs up around this state of mind. It's an extreme case of vertigo–the fear, not of falling, but of the knowledge that you want to fall.
I was born as a painter when I woke and found myself drenched in this saccharin-goo. Simultaneously, I was immersed in the traditional painting theory and technique of the big art Daddies. Instead of looking elsewhere, I opted to make my work ot of personal experiences and desires: shame, guilt, fear, self-loathing, the longing for romance, flowers, a Barbie-doll body, a perfect painting surface and pretty colors.
By exploiting my private knowledge I am taking on the role of victimizer as well as victim in my own ambition.
What I'm describing may not be flattering to womankind, but making something artificially heroic, the strapping-on-a-dildo method of art-making or the relegation of being a good girl making quilts doesn't work for me.
I offer no solution. I don't believe there is one.