New York

Deborah Kass


Call Me Barbra: call me an appropriation, a recasting, a challenge to concepts of ethnicity, gender, and patriarchy—call me the work of Deborah Kass. In the “Jewish Jackie” and “My Elvis” series, both 1992, Kass replaces Warhol’s ’60s iconography with Kass’ woman for the ’90s—Barbra Streisand—seeking to subvert the male gaze with the female.

At first the gesture comes off as a humorous attempt to turn the male-dominated world of painting around: a commentary on the medium itself—a recasting of the often camp work of a gay artist into a post-Modern, feminist, queer-theoried, wry bit-o’-revenge. In doing so, Kass brings forth Barbra—the bold, the brash, the beak-nosed, the outsider, the Jew, the “difficult” woman—Streisand. (See Warhol’s Before and After, 1960, and Kass’ Before and Happily Ever After, 1991, a remaking of the Nose Job/Cinderella-if-the-shoe-fits-and-it-better myth.) Here, difficult is a conceptual substitution for outdated concepts of hysteria, for behavior denigrated in a woman that would be applauded in a man.

Nevertheless, upon closer examination, Kass’ substitution of Barbra for three of the tragic figures of our time is problematic. On the most basic level, one Barbra does not equal a Jackie O., the grande-dame of the failed New Frontier, a Marilyn Monroe, the little-lost-girl, or Elvis, King in a land where monarchy has been out since 1776. Nor is this substitution an intensely radical gesture as Warhol himself could easily have painted Barbra—the portraits were what Andy did for spending money, available to anyone who wanted to plunk down $25,000.

Kass’ replacement of the image of a gun-toting Elvis with Barbra as Yentl (a woman who had to make herself into a man in order to gain access to education among Orthodox Jews) raises additional questions. The tremendous significance of this substitution is diminished by the fact that, as a film, Yentl, 1983, is hardly considered the feminist cinematic statement of our time. Secondarily, the artist’s use of the Yentl frame—a preloaded, preread image—to make her point begs for a reconsideration of appropriations that rely on the familiarity of the borrowed image to convey an artistic statement. The questionable effectiveness of this particular technique places this work in an odd nether ground: it is neither the pure appropriation of Elaine Sturtevant’s, Sherrie Levine’s, or Mike Bidlo’s work, nor the searing social commentary of Robert Colescott’s paintings.

Finally, the question this exhibition raised is, What does it mean for an artist, a feminist, to appropriate and rework the art of a male artist? It could be argued that in choosing to work with the drippings/droppings of male artists, one is accepting these leavings and inadvertently playing into the very hands one wishes to play against. Oddly, this issue is less significant in Kass’ earlier works like Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, 1991, in which her montage of Jackson Pollack, Pablo Picasso, and David Salle, juxtaposes fragments of their works in such a way that the recombination becomes an independent, unique, and coherent statement. To the degree that Kass has raised a multiplicity of questions about the relation of women to appropriation, her recent work should be applauded, but then, too, it should signal that it is time to move on.

A. M. Homes