Sex, culture, pop: Deborah Kass

Before and Happily Ever After, the title work of the exhibit, examines the implications of getting a nose job in the Jewish culture.  (credit: Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum) Before and Happily Ever After, the title work of the exhibit, examines the implications of getting a nose job in the Jewish culture. (credit: Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum)

What do you get when you cross Andy Warhol and a pop-culture-obsessed Jewish feminist? Deborah Kass.

The Andy Warhol Museum is currently hosting a massive mid-career retrospective of the artist and Carnegie Mellon alumna (CFA ’74) called Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After. The exhibit features three decades’ worth of work by Kass — an impressive 80 works ranging from early abstract landscapes to appropriations of Warhol’s famous works.

Kass is a New York-based artist whose work explores the intersection of pop culture, art history, and
self-identity. Most of her work is centered on her own identity as a Jewish lesbian, but the exhibit also includes a good deal of her older landscape paintings.

In Kass’ early work, the technique is as important as the concept. In fact, the conceptual basis for her early paintings, mostly from the ’80s, is often hard to determine without the informational labels that the museum provides. Luckily for museum-goers, the paintings are visually strong on their own, with bright colors and bold brushstrokes that grab viewers’ attention.

Kass’ work took an interesting turn in the early ’90s, when she began appropriating Warhol’s work with a little twist of her own. Instead of featuring prominent celebrities in her works, Kass focused the work on her own heroes, including writer Gertrude Stein, baseball player Sandy Koufax, and singer and actress Barbra Streisand, to name a few. Streisand appears as the subject of Kass’ well-known “The Jewish Jackie” series, which portrays Streisand in the style of Warhol’s paintings of Jackie Kennedy.

At this point, Kass’ work started making clearer conceptual statements about feminism and “Jewishness.” By focusing on being Jewish — as opposed to Judaism as a religion — Kass brings an often-overlooked group into the foreground without religious undertones. Her work shows the cultural stigmas attached to the group.

The highlight of the exhibit is the work from Kass’ series “The Warhol Project,” which she worked on throughout the ’90s. In this series, Kass put her own spin on Warhol’s works, copying his technique of combining painting and silk-screening, but replacing his cool, detached subjects with people who had personal significance to her. These works are scattered throughout the museum, often with Warhol’s original works placed directly next to Kass’ appropriations. It is often difficult to tell which work is whose, since they are visually very similar, but a closer look reveals the pairing to be an interesting juxtaposition of subjects.

One of the largest pieces in the exhibit — and an outstanding example of Kass’ Warhol appropriations — is “America’s Most Wanted.” Playing off Warhol’s “Thirteen Most Wanted Men,” which featured silkscreens of criminals, Kass’ work replaces criminals with well-known curators.

The exhibit closes with some of Kass’ most recent work, from the late 2000s. This work expands on her study of art history and popular culture, taking examples of post-war painting and pairing them with lyrics from songs in The Great American Songbook. The project combines emotionally stimulating song lyrics with modernist pop painting styles.

Throughout the exhibit, Kass’ thoughtful work is perfectly interspersed with Warhol’s, creating an impressive and memorable retrospective of the artist’s career.