Cary Leibowitz

Cary Leibowitz talks about his work, his retrospective, and Fran Drescher

View of “Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show,” Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2017.

There’s a ceramic piece by Cary Leibowitz from 1993 that reads: FUCKED UP HOMO BAR-MITZVAH GAY BOY WORRIES TOO MUCH ABOUT WHAT HIS MOTHER WILL WEAR. “Museum Show,” which runs through June 25, 2017, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is Leibowitz’s first-ever solo museum exhibition and midcareer survey, covering nearly thirty years of the artist’s identity-centric, bummer-rich comedy via paintings, drawings, sculptures, texts, and more. Here, Leibowitz talks about his work, organizing his show, and Fran Drescher.

I’M STILL SURPRISED THAT THIS EXHIBITION MADE IT INTO EXISTENCE. The curator of the show, Anastasia James, is about the same age as some of my work! Putting the show together was nerve-racking, but exciting. I was kind of happy with some of the older pieces. But there was another part of me that kept thinking, Oh my god, I barely changed in thirty years. Admittedly, I was embarrassed about looking at all my old work. I was also embarrassed at how badly I treated a lot of it. I had so much art shoved into the basement of my house from a million years ago. Then all of a sudden, when I needed to excavate and get it all out of there, it’s moldy and crapped-up. I was like, “Oh well, I guess this thing and that thing are going into the garbage.” Thankfully I didn’t need to get anything fixed or cleaned up—I make multiples and often have massive quantities of a single piece.

For the exhibition catalogue, I did an interview with Fran Drescher, the star of the 1990s CBS comedy The Nanny. I did this piece in 2007 called Tondo Schmondo, and it’s a circular painting surrounded by a halo of pink ski caps, and on each cap is a logo reading FRAN DRESCHER FAN CLUB—the “A” in the word “Fran” is a yellow Star of David. Anastasia was able to put me in touch with her because she has a friend of a friend who knows her. So we made a phone appointment, but Fran’s people kept rescheduling it, which, frankly, felt really glamorous. Finally we got around to having our conversation but I didn’t know what to do, what to say. Was she supposed to be asking me questions? I think she knew my work before we spoke—someone gave her one of the fan club caps years ago. But I did get to meet her before our phone date, around the time I made Tondo Schmondo. Doug and Mike Starn introduced me to her—she collected their work. But I could barely say anything to her because I was so shy.

Excerpts from an interview with Cary Leibowitz

Am I an activist? HA HA. There were probably a lot of gay men in the early ’90s who weren’t fond of my work because it wasn’t overtly political. It certainly didn’t look “strong,” like something a guy who belonged to ACT UP would’ve made. And it didn’t participate in the larger dialogue about identity or gay rights in any direct way. I was such a weird loner—I was just creating pieces that felt right and honest to me. I have a couple of things that I would say are AIDS-related, one of which is a little teddy bear wearing a T-shirt that says, “Some day I’ll make a Cubist painting, but right now it’s not important.” My work looks really palatable and approachable, but I always throw in something to disturb people. I need that—I feel like it’s my responsibility to make the viewer uncomfortable. I made some new mugs about this horrible election, too. One says, “PARIS IS BURNING AND I’M STILL LEARNING / THE COUNTRY SAYS BOOO AND I LOOK TO YOU / WHERE DID YOU GO? / CAN I COME TOO / PRETTY PLEASE / Ye olde Candyass Fashion Victim Dictum copyright – on! 2016ish.”

Things are so terrifying now. The country’s being run by six-year-olds who’ve been taught the only way to “win” is to lie, cheat, and steal. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump need to be held to a higher standard for their behavior. Wouldn’t it be incredible if Bernie Sanders ran again in 2020, and won? A seventy-nine-year-old Jewish man saving the United States—how beautiful is that?