PRINT February 1994


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Rumi, Sufi poet
Karen Kilimnik and Madonna are in my dream, not together, and I’m their friend. Karen is wearing this cone bra like Madonna. We’re in junior high school and we’re going to a strip mall one afternoon to buy art supplies (this really happened). We go into a hardware-type store or a K Mart. There’s a feeling that we both have to go home to our parents. I ask her “Do you have to ask them every time you buy something?” . . . Then I go out with Madonna. I keep on waiting for her to realize I’m not her type but she doesn’t. She tells me she wants a Libra girlfriend. I tell her Watch it, deep down Libras are very stubborn. For some reason I have an album of hers—not a real one. She signs it, “As Always, Libra.”

LATELY I’VE BEEN HAVING a lot of celebrity dreams. While they’re not prophetic or objectively true (e.g., we know that Madonna is a Leo), they are indispensable evidence of how contemporary experience is arranging our desires. Rather than a Dalí montage sequence from a Hitchcock film, my unconscious is starting to look like a psychic dumpster for Entertainment Tonight.

The media have always been the privileged site for economies of stupid enjoyment (power) in our culture; rather than diagnosing them, and trying to “cure” them, rather than psychotically closing itself off from media scariness and pretending to be “above it” and more “pure,” shouldn’t art act more like politicians and ask how best to work it (to give power to the people)? Whenever art and thought truly reflect the affective state of the media and do not pretend to take an “objective” moralizing position outside it (which instantly makes them irrelevant), they begin to look like the work of the devil.

By taking glamour particles at face value and reproducing them in their psychotic disconnectedness, Karen Kilimnik is being an incorrect consumer. The correct consumer is supposed to internalize incoherent glamour fantasies—fill in the blanks, shut up and buy the product—act them out, and walk around and hope that she seems as worthy of them as the people in the magazines (while at the same time quasi-cynically disavowing this). By consuming the shreds of glamour, setting them up as dumb props for her own fantasies with the most minimal intervention, Kilimnik is tapping into the same hot line to power as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, who, also, refuse to reassure us by providing a free moral judgment with every art product. Maybe she has no fantasies at all. Her somewhat zombielike presentation of the froufrou spills onto other subject matter as well, like a faux Manson-family attack scene. In the installation Paris is Burning/Is Paris Burning?, which looks like some kind of occupied Nazi boutique adorned with a swastika dress she made herself, real evil is alluded to as decor. By her total abdication of a critical or moralizing position, we are reminded that good art never judges or moralizes, it expresses. What is being expressed here? The trappings of fantasy, the sensationalism and glitz of the tabloid, the glamour of fashion—minus the subject who is supposed to interiorize, digest, and form an identity around them . . . like a pearl forming its lustrous surface around the founding trauma of the germ. In this case the germ is culture; the “girl” or consumer who is supposed to swallow and ingest it instead vomits it back in wrecked desubjectivized tidbits, strangely desexed into glamour molecules, in pretty colors. Her stuff looks like the mise-en-scène for a character, but there’s no character. Instead we see the seductive germs, the infection, around which one is supposed to sprout.

The installations look like a collaboration between a psychotic shut-in, a star-struck teen, and a witty manipulator of faux naïveté. I especially like the ones with sketchy “trompe-l’oeil” backdrops, like Fashion Shop, 1991, in which ratty garments are displayed on wire hangers against sketchy theatrical “curtains.” In The Correct Way to Kill Dolls, 1992, Barbies hang out in front of two pieces of paper with architectural facades drawn on them; they don’t look more dead than usual. In the “Jane” series, each drawing is like a different episode consisting of a handwritten scenario: “Jane falls asleep at the undertaker’s and is mistaken for the next client.” They look beautiful framed with moiré mats.

The installations seem like the aftermaths of violence. It is as if she had been gently traumatized, impacted by frivolous and important events, enough to want to get closer to them but not inside them. To be traumatized is to be unable to get inside the founding event of the trauma, but, rather, to become it. Me as Sean Penn, 1992, is the perfect trauma scene, composed of a smashed camera, in which the artist is identified with the temperamental actor identified with the camera he smashes because he hates the press. In the installations and in the drawings, it’s as if she’s trying to get closer to these events, to enter or own them by reproducing them herself. The results are as hysterical, flat, and as strangely distanced as they seem in the media. At the same time, the effort at “re-creating” them injects in them a weird memorial pathos, honoring their banal mystery by the very inadequacy of shedding more light on them.

Just told Stephano just died, 1990, is a sketchy drawing of Caroline of Monaco: we see a profile of the freshly bereaved princess surrounded by lots of blank space. We know her gilded life has been pierced by tragedy and her suffering must be great. She is accompanied by Inès de la Fressange, ex-Karl Lagerfeld muse, now a talented shoe designer. This fa-fa Euro-death is treated in the same way as Mary McFadden; in a work subtitled The city’s most exciting estranged couple, Mary McFadden, 51, appears with her ultrahigh forehead, bob, and Kohle Yohannan, 22, her much younger spouse. As in a magazine, the lady designer’s distinctive head is then repeated in a close-up below. “Within days, members of her social set were whispering that her marriage was unconsummated.” Disjointed copy floats around them: “Who’s he? gay? holding hands. . . .” In Father Ritter (No Love, No Affection), 1990, we expect the drawing to be about the Father, already famous in 1991, on the cutting edge of the priest-sex scandals; instead it’s about Carolyn Warmus, the Westchester murderess “hungry for affection,” who “even paid someone $100 to set up a date for her in high school.” The two cases are linked in the headlines, and in Karen’s head, by the phrase “No Love, No Affection.”

While Warhol masterfully lumped the fabulous and the sordid together in the rude democracy of the famous, Karen Kilimnik takes this lesson to heart and personalizes it, actively rather than passively consuming “media reality,” scrawling copy lifted from the tabloids in her own hand, surrounded by blank spots. Though the glamour copy is lifted and charmingly written in an appropriately schizophrenic and nonjudgmental way, it is interesting to note how often the content is rather catty and nasty. One recalls Anne Baxter in the beginning of All About Eve, the ingratiating waif in the neat but shabby raincoat, who stands at the door, peering in at the glittering theater people, astutely studying them, like prey, preparing, unbeknownst to anyone, to psychically cannibalize and become them.

Like the dream, the media are supposed to be this other scene: you can’t get there from here, except by buying the product, which is supposed to represent a piece of the fantasy to metabolize into your life. When you buy just one thing from a yummy commodity scenario and you get it home, the fantasy deflates like a dead balloon: your purchase becomes a partial reminder of a mice-en-scène that becomes increasingly obscure, like a bad sketch, forgotten. By drawing by hand what we are supposed to “get” through media reproductions, Karen Kilimnik is actively consuming what you are supposed to passively receive as it is. The result is as real and uncanny as the sight of the army of people who in fact buy Calvin Klein underwear. They are out there, and they don’t all look like leading waif model Kate Moss: if you saw all these nonbuff, disparate bodies, in their various states of flab and idiosyncrasy wearing the product in their own way, this vision of Calvin Klein underwear in its used, violated form would permanently alter one’s reception of the “original” as it appears in the glamorous ads on buses and in magazines. When we see a commodity, we are supposed to recall this moment of courtship and promised transcendence in the ad, not the actual reality of the way it circulates in real life. If Karl Lagerfeld could see the way the Chanel look has trickled down all over the streets, and worse, into low-end department stores, he wouldn’t stop throwing up. It is the beauty of this reality—the way the glamour fantasy shatters (and splinters into embodiment by a multiplicity of perspectives and body types)—that Karen’s drawings represent for me.

When you see this wrecked heap of glamour residue, de-fused and incoherent, you somehow feel better. . . .

A second-hand climax is better than none.
—Samuel Beckett, Proust, 1931

The weird thing is when you talk to her and you realize she’s suckered into the fantasy, too—genuinely fascinated by glamour, cut off from it, like when you’re in high school. She likes everything. It is totally annoying to go to galleries with her because she likes everything and makes me feel evil. When I asked her which artists she likes now, she named mutual friends and then like every woman artist under the age of 50. (She also likes 18th-century English painting a lot, like Gainsborough, which makes sense in terms of the crazily pretty but zoned-out lusciousness of her pastels.)

It shocked me, in my presumptuous admiration, to think that K.K., with her sure esthetic instincts, would compare herself with other creative people in the usual way: “I always worry that people think I’m the really tacky Cady Noland; that’s no good. . . .” We talked about a show she wants to do about copying; it would be her as other artists, e.g. Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Rita, and Richard Hawkins, an artist who puts Post-it notes saying things like “envy” on magazine ads of beautiful hunky boys: “I want to be these people in person. It must be a fun life being Richard Hawkins. I haven’t met him personally, but it was my impression. . . .” Much of her work is about this conveniently labile capacity to idealize and identify with anything as long as it’s not you. Fully sensing the danger, I persisted in trying to enter her mental world, where all of my interpretive faculties and ego boundaries struck me as increasingly absurd. As a petite Jewesse who likes glamorous things, I was eager to identify with her; my identificatory mechanism was frustrated, however, by her Zelig-like tendency to agree with whatever I said. She was very agreeable. Just as I see every gesture of hers—even her desire to be Richard Hawkins and do his work—as a strong esthetic act, I see my act of witnessing her, seeing her and describing her, as hopelessly unclean: as if perceiving her acts of desubjectified disarticulation left me somehow more screwed up than perpetrating them. I want to be a symptom, too. I want to like everything.

You don’t look Jewitch! I discover she is psychic. When I arrived at her flat in Brooklyn she put down a plate of cupcakes. I was secretly disappointed because I avoid sweets. Without my saying anything she offered something “not fattening.” I said I think you’re psychic, she remarked, “Everybody is, and in the future, they’re going to get more and more psychic.” She set down some sliced honeydew, with deep indigo party napkins that set off the melon perfectly. I thought, that’s a real artist. My cranberry party napkins are a residue of my suburban corniness, I thought, but Karen’s indigo napkins truly beautify this snack. I immediately squelched this feeling as horrible and recalled how Proust once suspected he was invited to a party as a practical joke and asked himself if this were a sentiment a true “man of fashion” would ever have, let alone write. He was able to recall a passage where a young man tries to ascertain whether he is a victim of a social hoax, the writer turning out to be none other than the Comte d’H. Relieved of the validity of his feeling, because a real “man of fashion” had previously admitted to it, he included it in his book.

She seems to have a hotline to the real. Like Warhol, like Holly Golightly, she is a “real fake.” When I asked her if she collected any art, she mentioned the work of a couple of her pre-NYC friends, showing me a rather neat Batman-influenced piece that looked like heavy metal album-cover art. She said the only piece she actually bought was a piece by this artist who to me seemed the height of the trendy Euro-poseur party girl artist. I thought, I’m sorry I just can’t agree with this call. Days later, I realized what she likes about this artist must be her total trendiness: that here Karen, who finds her inspiration in Allure and TV movies, is of course going to choose to surround herself with “fake” rather than “real” art. I saw immediately how this distinction marked my naïveté. Just as Proust observed artists/esthetes who, when they reached a certain age, preferred to surround themselves with flatterers, flirts, and disciples than with “equals,” I realized that Karen, of course, is obeying this esthetic law not with people but with art. The only works hanging up in her apartment were several antismoking posters captioned “Smoking Spoils Your Looks,” showing Brooke Shields with cigarettes stuck in her nose, ears, and mouth: “I like Brooke Shields.” She helpfully told me how to order the posters free from an anticancer organization. The floor was covered in fashion magazines, which she prudently borrows from the library. There was none of her own work around except for a drawing she was working on, on a drawing board.

Things we discussed. Her cat, named Tabita, after the daughter of Bewitched. Photos of her old workroom at her parents house in Philadephia, painted in three beautiful shades of pink, inspired by Natalia Makarova’s house as seen in a magazine. She lived at home until just a couple of years ago, and used to walk dogs and feed cats professionally. She was always embarrassed to be Jewish. We discussed having bat mitzvahs. She said, I had to have one, but my sister didn’t. I said why? She said, She said she didn’t want one! She made these snapshots of herself and “gave herself a nose job” by modifying her nose with a pen. It worked: she looked a little like Amy Fisher. On my second visit, as if she had given it further thought, she said, “I’m always really happy to find out that people I like are Jewish. I think that it’s really good that Calvin Klein is Jewish because I like him a lot.” Her current inspiration: “I’m working on all these Church statues, part of my wanting-to-be-Catholic thing . . . I didn’t want to get known for just pretty fashion things. I wanted to do something nice and gloomy . . . baroque tombs, skeletons, religion, but I hate the word. . . .”

I admire her courage not to have her vision pigeonholed (and marketed) as the art world’s version of the waif look. To me, her work seems more rigorous, as we see it spread beyond explicitly girly subject matter to cover the less explicitly girly but also profoundly superficial question of the baroque, the occult, the spiritual, the macabre. Proust observed that people of fashion and beauty can’t see the poetry or philosophy in their lives and seek it rather elsewhere, placing “those much stupider than they who profess to despise ’society’ (or fashion and glamour) and like instead to hold forth about sociology and political economy” on an infinitely higher peak than artists who make work about glitz. His remarks are equally true about people in the art world today.

I keep on thinking of this Wallace Stevens poem, “After the leaves have fallen, we return to a plain sense of things,” totally unmediated experience—through borderline psychic dissociation. If Proust said that the great artist is not the extraordinary personality but the one most able to mirror a commonplace society, rendering, by the very precision of his or her vision, the clarity of perceiving the obvious, Karen’s extreme openness, her readiness to agree with anything I said, made her very tentativeness the outward sign not of spinelessness but of her superiority as an artist. Her very unoriginality, her tendency not to interpret or synthesize anything conceptually, but to take things at face value, paradoxically manifests itself as the originality of her expression—while I would contemplate brood upon, and try to mentally destroy the weird spells of everything over me—only to repeat this process, perpetually.

Flipping through little flowered albums of snapshots, along with documentation of her installations, I saw she had many pictures of dead animals on the street: “That’s a dead squashed little rat . . . I have tons of them. Here’s some more. . . .” While surfacing in odd coincidence with the recent waif epidemic in fashion, her interest in urchins seemed to run much further back. She had accumulated many snapshots of food found on the Street: “What if you lived on the street like in 18th-century London, or like Dickens and stuff . . . I like to pretend I live on the street, not like a homeless person . . . like a waif—the new waifs. If someone left a crust of bread, that would be bread.” I imagined Kate Moss, the leading waif, sniffing over a sandwich found on the road, or dumpster-diving for pizza crusts. She pointed out a package of raw liver still wrapped in plastic: “That would be food. There were two of them left on the street in front of a well-known French restaurant.” It was hard to see the liver since it was shot at night. Pointing out a marquee with the Les Mis logo from the Broadway play, she continued: “Like the new waifs . . . I read in a magazine that it could he part of the trend.” She showed me a shot of a tarp lying on the ground: “I like to pretend that it’s a cloak left by the fairies—the folds of drapery are like baroque folds. . . .”

Thus, in a half-baked kind of way, this cosmic welter of attractions was coming to stand for the real thing.
—John Ashbery, “The System,” 1972

“We admire in her what we do not at all admire in ourselves.” Kafka observed of the mysterious esthetic effect exerted by Josephine, a mouse diva, upon her fans. A representative of the mouse community is called upon to explain the power of her art: not only is she not a very good singer, Josephine’s “singing,” it seems, is really only “piping,” and as piping, it is indistinguishable from “our people’s daily speech.” Her people are so busy, so oppressed, they could barely develop the faculties necessary to appreciate really good piping, let alone song, so Josephine “gets effects which a trained singer would try in vain to achieve among us and which are only produced precisely because her means are so inadequate.” What emerges is a poignant defense of slacker art, reflecting, by its very inadequacy, a culture “without making the slightest demand upon us,” absurdly demanding, in fact, the most heightened sensibility, precisely because it seems to make the slightest demand. “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” is an allegory or precursor of so much of the greatest recent art that is indistinguishable from the usual whining and wretching of everyone: “many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while.”

In an epoch when the artist is the genius loser who best expresses his or her exclusion from the scene, the loser becomes a participant by being an observer, by being left out. To be the witness of these types—the witness of the witness—puts you in a strange position. One recalls reading the passages at the end of the Search, when the narrator finally accepts the futility of the work he has prepared all his life to begin tomorrow (and you’re totally identifying with him, after he has written like 3,000 brilliant pages of his supposed paralysis). I look at what Karen’s doing—her fanhood, her copying, her desire to he other people—and experience my own desire to be her, to have her thoughts, not as esthetically poignant but as stupid! Just when it seems that losers have become winners (and everyone is even), the weird magic of art kicks in; one considers one’s perspective on one’s own experience and it somehow falls apart. When she wants to lie someone else, she’s a genius; when I want to be her, I’m a mess. Yet expressing my parasitic relation to others has to be as valid as her parasitic relation to others, I tell myself repeatedly and am sort of saved.

Having passed by great works without considering them deeply, sometimes without even noticing them, she had retained from the period in which she had lived, and which indeed she described with great aptness and charm, little but the most trivial things it had to offer. But a piece of writing, even if it treats exclusively of subjects that are not intellectual, is still a work of the intelligence, and to give a consummate impression of frivolity in a book, or in a talk which is not dissimilar, requires a touch of seriousness which a purely frivolous person would be incapable of. In a certain book of memoirs written by a woman and regarded as a masterpiece, such and such a sentence that people quote as a model of airy grace has always made me suspect that, in order to arrive at such a degree of lightness, the author must once have been imbued with a rather ponderous learning, a stodgy culture, and that as a girl she probably appeared to her friends an insufferable bluestocking.
—Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, 1920–21

Proust talks about the lady chronicler of the world of fashion of her day, who in fact was sort of a bookish reject. How could someone addicted to acting out, to “sculpting the void” of the salon (Proust’s formula for hostessing/mondanité), actually have the time and space to adequately reflect it? We discussed living in fact like recluses in order to do one’s work, while at the same time being fascinated with people who don’t do that. Nevertheless, surplus glamour will spill over onto Karen no matter what she does. When she showed up at the Whitney Biennial schlepping several plastic bags filled with stuff, wearing leggings, sneakers, and a quasi-ratty parka, I thought it made even more sense that she was the one who did the most fashiony pieces in the show, the pastel drawings of “supermodels” including then new waif Kate Moss and the fateful story of her discovery in an airport lounge.

Rhonda Lieberman