True to Form: Deborah Kass Shakes Up the Canon

By William J. Simmons

Dec. 2015

Deborah Kass is taking stock—a moment of re ection on what motivates her work, coincidentally taking place in her Gowanus studio the day before the  rst Republican presidential candidates’ debate, which over owed with sexist, racist, and transphobic rhetoric. “I’m not interested in me,” she says, “and the world is a mess. There is a general feeling of being bruised and helpless, with real limitations to our effectiveness.”

Kass’s statement is not confined to social circumstances; in her practice, she also hopes to emphasize the formal innovation and deftness—not to mention art historical rigor—that have characterized her career since the 1970s. A self-described closet formalist, Kass, in her newest body of work, “No Kidding,” which opens at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York on December 9, has given herself chromatic and technical parameters of specific colors and regimented sizes, thereby formally distilling the intensity of her social and art historical themes. The result is a set of tall, sobering, black-and-blue canvases adorned with equally hefty neon lettering, akin, perhaps, to macabre monuments or even something more sinister in the tradition of pulp horror movies. This is less a departure than a fearless statement that affirms and illuminates her entire oeuvre—a tiny retrospective, perhaps. Fueled by an affinity for the medium and its emotive and intellectual possibilities, Kass has created a template for a disruptive artistic intervention into age-old aesthetic discourses. As she almost gleefully laments, “All these things I do are things that people denigrate. Show tunes— so bourgeois. Formalism—so retardataire. Nostalgia—not a real emotion. I want a massive, fucked-up, ‘you’re not sure what it means but you know it’s problematic’ work of art.” At the core of Kass’s practice is a defiant rejection of traditional notions of taste.

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