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Kaari Upson. Photo: New Museum.
Kaari Upson. Photo: New Museum.

Kaari Upson (1970–2021)

Los Angeles–based artist Kaari Upson, who explored issues of gender, power, desire, and memory through a multivalent practice that embraced painting, sculpture, video, installation, and performance, died on August 18 at the age of fifty-one of metastatic cancer. Her death was announced on social media by New Museum curator Margot Norton. Upson rose to prominence with her groundbreaking “Larry Project,” 2005–2012, begun while she was still in school, in which she investigated hypermasculinity and the American psyche through the imagined and reconstructed life of a man whose personal items she discovered in a burned-out house, before turning her attention to the painted soft, sexualized silicone mattresses and couches for which she would become best known.

Upson was born in San Bernardino, California, in 1970. She would later describe the city as a place of violence—“not just crime, but natural violence—there’s a lot of fires, windstorms, mudslides,” she told Even’s Jason Farago. In the early 2000s, while attending the California Institute of the Arts, where she earned both her BA and her MA in fine arts, she entered an abandoned McMansion across the street from her parents’ home and discovered the belongings of its missing occupant, whom she would eventually name Larry. Nearly every room of the house contained a mattress, and the boxes of photos, diaries, and letters Upson found there revealed that “Larry” had modeled himself on Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and dabbled in the numerous self-help programs popular in the last third of the twentieth century, including Jungian analysis, EST, and chakra cleansing. Taking him as her subject, Upson for seven years examined “Larry’s” hypermasculine personality in context of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, with which she had become intrigued while at CalArts, using it as a lens through which to explore her own gender and sexuality. “The Larry Project” comprised paintings, drawings, and sculptures, including a life-size “Larry doll” she constructed. This doll, along with the sexualized silicone prostheses she made and wore in the series’ videos, foreshadowed her later work in silicone and latex commenting on issues of obsession, desire, and illness. Writing in Artforum on a 2010 show centered around “The Larry Project,” Michael Wilson noted, “An exhibition with a plot is always a worrisome thing, but Upson here positioned the elements of her tale such that they finally assumed the air not of a fragmentary sequence but of an unbroken—if uneasy—dream.”

As the 2010s dawned, Upson turned to the exploration of her own personal history, focusing especially on her fraught relationship with her mother, memorably embodied in a series of works featuring a multitude of cast-aluminum Pepsi cans. At once a commentary on capitalist consumerism and taste, the works are a response to Upson’s mother’s habit of cracking open a Pepsi every day at four o’clock in the afternoon, her first sip accompanied by an audible sigh of pleasure. The sound was “an attempt to communicate externally her internal joy or satisfaction; it was projected out, and it needed an audience, Upson told Artnet News.

Diagnosed with cancer that decade, she poured her energy into full-size scale-replica silicone couches and mattresses, often in contorted poses. She created the airbrushed exteriors of the mattresses, which were often wall-hung, by painting the insides of the molds from which she extracted the heavy works with the aid of several assistants. “The mattresses are not even a strategy,” she told Farago. “I was trying to find a vessel in which to make painting. Also to reactivate the bed and the couch—they started to stand for very negative things for me. It was a cult of invalidism. I was at a point when I was either going to get up from one or die on one.”

Upson, who is represented by Massimo De Carlo, White Cube, and Sprüth Magers galleries, exhibited widely, including in solo shows at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the New Museum, New York; Kunsthalle Basel; and the Hannover Kunstverein, and in group exhibitions including the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and the 2019 Venice Biennale. Her work is held in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

Correction [August 20]: Upson was born in 1970, not 1972.

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