Artist Deborah Kass is a pop-culture mastermind, known for her subversive takes on iconic male artists — including her legendary Jewish Jackie, in which she painted Barbra Streisand in the style of Andy Warhol's portraits of Jackie Onassis. That was in 1992, and she's been a major force in the art world ever since, including a mid-career retrospective at the Warhol Museum in 2012. Kass has long been known for using appropriation and minimalism to make witty feminist statements with her work. (A few weeks ago she created a Warholian portrait of Donald Trump with the words "Vote Hillary" scrawled on it as a fund-raiser for the Clinton campaign.)
These days, she's known for her giant, yellow — and very Instagrammable — OY/YO sculpture on the waterfront in New York's Brooklyn Bridge Park. About 8 feet tall and 17 feet long, the aluminum sculpture consists of two perfectly proportioned letters, "O" and "Y." The piece reads as "OY" if you are viewing it from Brooklyn and as "YO" if you are looking across the river from Manhattan. It's two simple letters, but packed into them is a commentary on linguistics, gentrification, and the power of social media. In a little over six months, it's become part of the New York skyline.
Other recent work by Kass is more intimate and much darker. No Kidding, a recent exhibition, highlights the fact that young black men are now nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by the police. The work is urgent and filled with despair, although it maintains her signature visual punch.
But OY/YO is optimistic and has been adopted by New Yorkers as a playful, uplifting destination. Every day, people post themselves on Instagram, hands stretched inside the Y or sitting in the O, using the hashtags #DeborahKass and #OYYO. I actually met Kass on Instagram, where she is incredibly approachable. Later, two margaritas in at an art opening, I got the courage to propose a studio visit for Lenny.
Greeting me on a cold Brooklyn morning, Kass couldn't be warmer. She offers me tea and danishes from her makeshift kitchen and introduces her wife, sculptor and painter Patricia Cronin. The large room is unnervingly neat, though there's plenty of Kass-blue paint marks on the floor. A smaller edition of OY/YO sits on the windowsill, with the orange OY facing us. She tells me to tap "record" immediately and lets iTalk run for over three hours. Because this is Deborah Kass: always on the record.
Jacoba Urist: Let's start with female friendships. Do you have close women friends in the art world?
Deborah Kass: When I first moved to New York, it was the height of second-wave feminism. Conscious-raising groups were happening; I was coming out ... it was a very female-heavy time. I felt connected to other women, especially women artists. But through the decades, the art world has changed so much. My deep and very long-term female friendships aren't necessarily art-world ones — they are the ones I've had forever. I just saw a friend I've known since I was six months old. Her mother was the art teacher in our elementary school. I was always at her house because she had the art supplies.
JU: And she's still one of your dearest friends?
DK: Yeah, she just came in from California with one of her daughters. I met them at her mother's house, two doors from where I grew up. The art world — I'm just not sure it's a world of friendships. I think if you're a Guerrilla Girl, there's probably a real bond there, although there are politics there as well. The politics of the industry, of any industry really, affect friendships.