Purple Magazine
— S/S 2010 issue 13

Rita Ackermann

Portrait by Olivier Zahm

interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM

RITA ACKERMANN is surely one of the most inspired artists and free spirits of the New York art world. I first met her almost 20 years ago, shortly after she arrived in the US from Hungary. Rita decided to stay and work in New York City, and it was in this world of excessive drug-taking, fast sex, and perverse commerce that she became known for her drawings and collages of an innocent young girl, perhaps a surrogate of her own pure soul. Rita quickly became an iconic figure of the glory years of the ’90s downtown New York scene, a kindred spirit of Sonic Youth, Harmony Korine, Chloë Sevigny, Bernadette Corporation, and Richard Kern. But she never sold out for fame. Now she’s full of new energy, gathering new people around her — EXPERIMENTING WITH NEW FORMS for her drawings, collages, and paintings; giving performances and playing music. I met with Rita to talk about her romantic, poetic — and often conflicted — relationship with The American Dream.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s begin by talking about Michael Jackson. Why do you have all these images of The King of Pop?
RITA ACKERMANN — Because Michael Jackson is so beautiful. Maybe we should make a cognac toast to him. Rest in peace, Michael Jackson.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What should we drink, French or Japanese cognac?
RITA ACKERMANN — I only drink French cognac, Rémy Martin. But it’s not the best. The best I’ve ever had was at Almine and Bernard Picasso’s house. You were there, remember? That was so much fun.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were more into ODB before, right?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yeah. ODB, Snoop Dogg, and Michael Jackson.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain their inspiration for you?
RITA ACKERMANN — It’s not necessarily the music. The fact that Michael Jackson was an icon fascinates me — the charisma of the work, how his personality was an inseparable part of his iconic entity. When a media icon like Michael Jackson dies so suddenly their absence creates an unfinished legacy, which releases so many fantasy possibilities. Michael’s death just before his “This Is It” tour was a masterpiece in itself. He left open the possibility that this really was it! Michael’s life was his art, one he created single-handedly, in a way that he couldn’t take any further, except by reaching the ultimate perfection. His body, his house, and his children were artworks. As they developed they consumed his life. He inhabited an imaginary world, a kingdom where he was the king who wanted to save the children of the world. He needed to be powerful to protect the weak. But he himself was also fragile, like a child. He loved so much, but he was also full of anger. He was a beautiful, freaky, weird-looking, skeleton-like sculpture. His look served the way he danced, which was unlike anyone else — defying gravity, like walking on water. He was called “the liquid man” because of the way he danced. His voice did the same thing. When he sang he moved every part of his body. His melodies were built from his body and his superhuman gifts. He needed morphine because such a state of existence is unbearable. Listen to the song “Morphine.” He was fragile, graceful, the most humble of people, and at the same time violent and angry. He was able to compress a bulldozer and Bambi into one song. That’s also the main focus of my own work. I want to show such a duality in its most raw form — with a fragility that triggers aggression. That’s what I love about the recent Paul McCarthy drawings we saw. They’re the same for me — Peter Pan or Snow White leading an imaginary army to fight against evil. They show their vulnerability by getting dirty. Michael had either the police or an army marching behind him. Remember his HIStory album?

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the movie, This Is It, there’s a depiction of an army — and a 3-D image of a soldier.
RITA ACKERMANN — That’s from HIStory, from the song “They Don’t Care About Us.” He must have been really angry. Plus, he was trying to protect his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, from his life. Some people don’t like that song because it suggests dictatorship. But my favorite song ever is “Morphine,” in which he talks about his drug addiction. The lyrics are insane. It’s such a beautiful song. For the Macy’s store windows I dressed, I recreated it with Agathe Snow. I tattooed the broken arms of mannequins over and over with the lyrics of “Morphine” — making the words illegible. The song is about Michael getting into drugs and how much he fears Daddy; and taking more and more morphine. He structures the song into two parts — extra violent beats, like screams, segue into a painfully soft melody. You hear him screaming and then he switches to his Bambi-like voice. Like McCarthy’s “White Snow” show — like a little Bambi, Michael makes his voice almost unheard and then he says something about how he’s taking more and more morphine and sleeping his life away. The language he uses is so simple and sharp. All artists should strive for that kind of perfection.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you discover anything special about Michael in the film, This Is It?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, I didn’t realize how graceful he could be when he tried to express his aversion to something. He communicated his feelings without being harsh or rude to people, almost in an abstract or metaphorical way. Maybe the more precise you are about your ideas, the better you’re able to communicate them. I remember one bizarre moment in the movie when he said, “Ouch! My ear! My inner-ear! I feeling like someone’s pushing something inside my ear!” Basically, what he wanted to say was, “The music’s too loud!” I admire that because sometimes when you’re passionate, when you’re trying to get things right, you can easily become impatient and aggressive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can almost forget his singing sometimes because his dancing is so powerful.
RITA ACKERMANN — But you can’t imagine one without the other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I know of at least two other artists who have an obsession for Michael Jackson.
RITA ACKERMANN — Who?

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s Jeff Koons and his porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and Harmony Korine’s movie Mister Lonely.
RITA ACKERMANN — That’s true — with the Michael Jackson impersonator. That’s one of my favorite movies. The scene in which Michael almost kisses Marilyn is the sexiest and saddest moment in cinema.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start from the beginning. You’ve been in New York for about 20 years  now, right?
RITA ACKERMANN — Since ’92. But I spent two and a half years in Texas. So, 15 years in New York total.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about your life before you came to New York. Did you go to art school?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, for two years. But in Hungary you can’t get into art school if you’re not a master of drawing, so I had to train really hard to get in. In this period we were under Communism, as we were for most of the time I lived in Hungary. To get into art school, people started training at 15 years old.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it the only art school in Hungary?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, only 500 spots, and about 5,000 people trying to get in. So it took really serious preparations. I knew someone who applied a dozen times. He already had a grey beard when he was accepted. But with art it really doesn’t matter when you start. I think sometimes that starting later is better. I got in on my second try. But not long after I was accepted I got a grant to go to New York.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What attracted you to art?
RITA ACKERMANN — My parents aren’t artists. I used to play tennis before I decided to train for art — I was on the court every day. I always joke with my friends that if I stop doing art I can always go back to tennis.

Photo by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you really good at tennis?
RITA ACKERMANN — Actually, I was bad, but I had good style. I worked fanatically on my form, which turned out to be really great for my art. All that discipline, the suffering and torture, four hours every day, winter and summer. I learned by working hard and by focus. Without that I probably would have fallen apart over here. I knew how to struggle for what I wanted. Also, coming from a small country — from the East Bloc, moreover — feeds a certain kind of insecurity. I always felt I had to do more, to be better than the locals.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It gave you the desire to achieve.
RITA ACKERMANN — Maybe. I had a lot of energy and was very motivated, but I was ashamed to be Eastern European. But it strengthened my impulse to do better.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it was really so bad to have come from Hungary?
RITA ACKERMANN — No. Hungary was a cultural paradise. You could get a college degree by the time you were 18. And high school was like college: a super education. Also there wasn’t much else to do but study and read. At that time, after you finished school there was no competition because there was nothing to compete for. There were no positions. You couldn’t actually get ahead or have a career. So everyone was kind of watering their gardens. Artists were bought by the government. Every year artists gave some of their work to the state and for that they received a monthly salary. So you could spend your life doing nothing. There was a joke about not producing too much, because it was so hard to store artworks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you really want to leave Hungary? Did most young people want to leave?
RITA ACKERMANN — There was a general feeling that you were a loser if you were still there — that you weren’t brave enough to leave. I was raised with the idea that you had to leave if you wanted to do something better. That was the feeling until the wall came down. I lived in a Communist atmosphere and I was sort of happy. I would not have come to New York if this amazing offer on a silver platter hadn’t been held out to me. My schooling here was paid for and I stayed with a wonderful woman who basically adopted me. Didn’t I ever tell you about this? It was a help-falling-from-the-sky situation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re talking about the grant you received.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. But it wasn’t because this woman saw my art and said, “Oh, you’re so talented! You need to come to the United States.” She just liked me. She was just a New Yorker who was excited to discover Eastern European artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was she a curator?
RITA ACKERMANN — She was a kind of gallerist who needed a translator. My teacher grabbed me and told me to translate for her. We spent a week together going to artists’ studios.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were semi-adopted.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, by a wealthy American Upper East Side dealer! That’s how I was able to come to New York. I guess it was my social skills that got me to New York. I lived with this woman for a little while and then I moved downtown and met some artists. In 1992 I met Rob Pruitt and he introduced me to the art world — Colin de Land, Tony Shafrazi, etc. They taught me how to communicate in the art world. I learned that in this world, the older artists, those already “in the game,” introduce the younger ones to everyone and then everyone helps each other out. I don’t know how I met Bernadette Corporation and Seth Shapiro. A bunch of us moved in together, into an apartment on the Lower East Side. I was lucky. Then I met you — was that ’93 or ’94?

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was in ’93.
RITA ACKERMANN — Right. On 42nd Street. There was an art studio building next to the Hotel Carter and I had my first studio there. I was 21 or 22. That’s the very best age to arrive in New York — you’re old enough to be on your own and young enough to have no expectations. You can forget everything from the past and learn a new language, a new system. The city is like a really big school. Every conversation is an education.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you immediately like New York?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, I liked the energy, the speed, and the perspective. The problem in Hungary was that there was no perspective — especially for people who had energy and needed space to move. I couldn’t have stayed there. Whenever I go back I still feel like there’s no room to move. I wanted to stretch myself, to expand in space. In New York there’s so much space. Anything can happen here. You don’t need to wait too long for things to happen — and I can’t wait.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What were your plans when you arrived in New York?
RITA ACKERMANN — To learn how to stay alive. I wasn’t really thinking of anything other than, “Wow, this is a great place. I want to stay here.” I had no other goal than to be able to stay. I didn’t want to go back to Hungary.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Legally, you were only allowed to stay a certain amount of time, right?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, three months. But after a month I knew I was going to stay longer. So I tried to figure out the small steps I needed to take to achieve that big goal. Like learning to speak English better. Nobody understood my English because my Hungarian accent was so strong. Maybe that’s why I had to rely on my work to communicate.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What did you do to survive?
RITA ACKERMANN — I worked in restaurants. I didn’t have a studio and all my drawings were on small-sized paper. Then somebody said, “Why don’t you make one like this, but larger?” It was at the same time that I got the 42nd Street studio, so I could actually work on very large canvases. Drawings on big raw canvases — those were my first works.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you began with drawing.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, I went from drawing to painting to collage and performance; and finally I came back to compositions, with all media. Starting out from a composition of an earlier artwork is like recycling, or using old auto parts to build a new car. It simplifies things, like scrambling up an alphabet. I rip my old things apart and put them back together. I have this vocabulary and I mix it with information from outside.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you come up with your half you/half Bambi work?
RITA ACKERMANN — Something punched my inner eye and it came out. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a kind of self-portrait?
RITA ACKERMANN — Well, because of my communication problem here, finding myself in a new language, I couldn’t be the person I was in my own language. One’s own language is kind of a crutch to lean on. I wasn’t able to communicate because no one understood me. That image of myself represented the language of a mute. But my images are also dancing images, although the dances are very abstract. The drawings communicate this visually. The figures don’t really do anything and the drawings don’t illustrate a story, although many people have tried to say it was my story, or that it was something about the lifestyle of the Lower East Side. I try to communicate emotions, not illustrate anybody’s story. I wasn’t shooting heroin. They’re iconic images.

BQE/CRASH IV, spray paint, oil stick, paper cement, charcoal, oil, modeling paste on printed paper, 36 x 47 inches, 2009

OLIVIER ZAHM — You did some work for the shop, Liquid Sky. They asked you to do a wall painting.right?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. That’s how I first made money and how I met the model Mary Frey and Chloë Sevigny. Mary was the boss. She would tell Chloë or me to sweep up, or to make this or that, and we were happy to do it for her. Mary was a beautiful boss and she was always right. Seriously. If I said, “Mary, I heard this about that,” she’d say, “Let me tell you a story about that.” She’s funny that way. Carlos, a Brazilian DJ, ran the store. But I think it began in the ’80s and that it was based on the movie, Liquid Sky, which I saw three years later. It blew my mind. The store actually had nothing to do with the movie. The movie expressed a kind of iconic feeling — of being cool, in New York, on the top of the world, on drugs, completely out of it: which is why you seem so attractive. It’s a general New York feeling — that you can only protect yourself if you’re loaded. Then you can be The King of Cool, which is what everyone wants. That movie is full of lies about being on top of the world. Then everyone dies and turns into zombies. The Liquid Sky store was a party place to go and meet people and sell stuff. If you had a little something, you could exchange with somebody else’s stuff and you could survive. The rave scene was like a kind of barbarian trading business.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You did the windows at the bar Max Fish on Ludlow Street. Did you find a gallery around the same time?
RITA ACKERMANN — I didn’t have a gallery, but dealers started becoming interested in my work and I needed help in sales. Andrea Rosen was looking for new artists and she asked Felix González-Torres and John Currin for their opinion. I remember that Andrea said that Felix had said something to her about me, and then John came to visit me at my studio. It was risky for her to give me a solo show because I came from nowhere, but she did.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But Felix came from Cuba, another communist country.
RITA ACKERMANN — Maybe that’s why he liked my work. He came from nowhere, too.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, John Currin studied at Yale.
RITA ACKERMANN — Exactly. Andrea Rosen needed both worlds in her pool of artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this iconic little girl suddenly became famous. You incarnated the downtown lifestyle in this little creature.
RITA ACKERMANN — But, if you think about it, she may still represent the same thing now. There’s no great difference. I didn’t really create the image for that time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But it was seen as an expression of the time, the Sonic Youth period.
RITA ACKERMANN — I didn’t know Sonic Youth. I didn’t know much about New York underground cool. But then I saw “Sugar Kane” with Chloë and I loved it!

OLIVIER ZAHM — You said New York was like a school for you.
RITA ACKERMANN — I learned about Sonic Youth through Chloë and Harmony Korine. I was painting the New Museum’s windows on Broadway and Thurston knocked on the window and asked me if he could have a drawing for the album cover.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was just passing by and saw you there?
RITA ACKERMANN — He lived on Lafayette Street. He was doing his solo album. He liked the window painting and asked if he could use it for the album cover. When I told Chloë about it she was like, “Oh, my God!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember you in your shiny blue miniskirt.
RITA ACKERMANN — Bad style. But at that time it was probably OK. That was how we dressed — miniskirts, Dr. Scholl’s wooden shoes, and tank tops. It was good times at my 42nd Street studio. The feeling in the air was one of violence, danger, emergency, police prosecution, drug dealing, and porn. The Hotel Carter was a monstrous danger-house. It was dangerous but I didn’t know it. Once I went to the Hotel Carter to call my mom. I usually used the pay phone in the back lobby of the hotel, but it was out of service. This guy said, “Come on up. You can call her from my room.” I was kind of naïve and stupid. I went up with him, slowly realizing it was a bad decision. He went to the bathroom while I called my mother — poor mama. It was like being in that street-kids movie, Streetwise.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was the end of the old 42nd Street era.
RITA ACKERMANN — They threw us out. New York isn’t dangerous anymore, although it’s still kind of dangerous in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I can smell it in the air. But I like having a studio in a dangerous area. I think it’s good for the work. Being aware is always better.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you like about having your studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn — out of the city?
RITA ACKERMANN — I like that my studio feels like a sanctuary. I feel safe inside, while outside it’s a war zone. I feel protected by my own madness. I also like the isolation. It might be a tornado in here, but outside it’s scary. I thrive on that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, at the time you were close to Mark Borthwick, Mark Gonzales, Harmony Korine, Chloë Sevigny, and Richard Kern.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, all these people became good friends and collaborators.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were also part of the alternative fashion scene in New York at the time — people like Bernadette Corporation, Seth Shapiro, Susan Cianciolo, Bruce, Andre Walker, etc.
RITA ACKERMANN — Seth Shapiro and I were inseparable for a summer. He tore apart our bathroom, went out for a pack of cigarettes, and never came back. He’s totally disappeared now. Susan Cianciolo and I were great friends and we helped each other in every way we could. She was just starting in fashion and we encouraged each other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you share a place on Canal Street with her?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. Then she had her first fashion show at Andrea Rosen’s gallery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was that the first time a fashion designer had a show in collaboration with a renowned gallery?
RITA ACKERMANN — Maybe. But it was out of necessity. Susan had no money. So I asked Andrea, and she said yes. It wasn’t a concept, like, “Oh, let’s do an artsy fashion show in a gallery.” These people were just artists with less resistance to the bullshit of high-end fashion. At Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, Bernadette Corporation became an art concept, an art collective just like the Art Club 2000 had been. Colin supported them as performance artists. I loved the fashion show they did with the teddy bear and the cheerleaders in Chelsea somewhere, maybe at Pat Hearn’s gallery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you leave New York at the end of the ’90s? Did you feel like it was the end of an era?
RITA ACKERMANN — I don’t know. I fell madly in love with David Nuss [the drummer and founder of No-Neck Blues Band]. We got married and had a baby. We left for Texas in 1999. Disappearing let me restart where I wanted to in the art scene. I needed a break from New York. David was a commune kind of guy, but I’m very private, so there were some misunderstandings. I wanted to keep the studio door closed, and not have people walking through my life and my art.

Photo by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you decided to have a baby with David, did you worry about the consequences it would have on your career?
RITA ACKERMANN — I wasn’t really thinking about what would happen or how things would change. I didn’t know how it would affect things — until I experienced it. But, like you say, life and art live together. And I have never been a careful person.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was nice to see you and David together. He looked so angelic, almost like a character in one of your drawings.
RITA ACKERMANN — He’s a beautiful man.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s like your American brother — pale skin, blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yeah, a brother from another planet. The blue eyes were a surprise.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were a beautiful couple.
RITA ACKERMANN — And we had a beautiful baby — all good reasons to run away from New York.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But why did you go to Texas?
RITA ACKERMANN — David is from Texas, and we needed help and focus to simplify things. New York was made for professional parents. That’s not exactly what we were.Texas represented the raw iconic freedom of the American life — the Marlboro man on the horse with his lasso, the bikers, the trailer park cowboys, the bizarre Christian churches spreading like mushrooms, the pageant shows, and the naïveté of the Southwest. It was exciting to dig into all these inspirations, but it soon became clear that these same sentimental values helped the dumbest man on earth become President. So the fascination disappeared. It was very scary to watch it up close — especially when I knew that before Bush, Texas was actually considered cool.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Texas reminds many Europeans of the film, Easy Rider — they think that artists are in danger of losing their lives there.
RITA ACKERMANN — Maybe it’s the urban fear of American barbarism — the cowboy, the horses, the nature, and the cars — that was part of my visual vocabulary from the beginning. Going down there was something like doing fieldwork. It was like getting into the deep insides of America.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How deep?
RITA ACKERMANN — I already used pop iconography of the American wilderness in my work, so I thought I should go and live in it. It was great that I had a chance to explore trailer park culture and to befriend local Indians and dolphin trainers. But with these curiosities, we created a barrier between the society we supposedly belonged to and the new one we were trying to socialize. David’s family was waiting patiently for us to find a church and become part of a community — to find new friends, to grow into a social life that would tie us to the life of a small Texas town.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re Christian, aren’t you?
RITA ACKERMANN — I’m Catholic by birth, but I don’t go to church.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you believe in God?
RITA ACKERMANN — I believe in a higher power. Right now I believe in gods that are partly human, like the ancient Greek gods. Not like the Scientologists who are shopping for theirs. You can become your own god. In Texas that wasn’t quite the case.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did people give you a hard time?
RITA ACKERMANN — They thought I was a little freakish, but everyone was kind and warm. I created a sort of bubble around me. I had a painting studio in the garage. During the day it would get so hot I’d leave the garage door open and literally paint on the street. That was a spectacle for our neighborhood. I also wore clothes that might not have been appropriate for my social status and I didn’t do the roots of my hair. I made bizarre choices in order to isolate myself and concentrate on my work. Do you remember what I looked like at that time? I looked raw, untouchable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a kind of nun.
RITA ACKERMANN — A nun protesting the conservative Christian social system’s rules for keeping people in line. But I wasn’t really conscious of my behavior or image. It all happened naturally.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where in Texas did you live?
RITA ACKERMANN — Corpus Christi.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Corpus Christi is such a beautiful name. Why did you go there?
RITA ACKERMANN — David’s family. Corpus Christi is unique in that it’s only 15% white — the Counts and the Princes. The rest are Mexicans.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What does aristocracy mean for Americans? Europeans can’t really imagine an American aristocracy.
RITA ACKERMANN — The American aristocracy is different. Did you see the movie, Giant? That movie made Elizabeth Taylor a role model for American princesses. Michael Jackson knew that. Elizabeth was his princess — and he was the king. He was looking for princesses and he found Elizabeth in Giant. Taylor’s character stands up to these aggressive loud drunk American businessmen. A lot of women in Texas still want to be like Elizabeth Taylor in Giant. They even want to have her waist size. It’s crazy. In the film she serves tea to arguing, drunk men. She’s full of passionate opinions, but she knows that she has to remain on the sofa in a corner and not interrupt.

Portrait by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — You stayed in Texas for about three years, right?
RITA ACKERMANN — Two-and-a-half — from ’99 to 2001. In Texas, I quickly felt too isolated. We moved back to New York in September 2001. A week before the towers went down! I also missed the art community, especially what Colin de Land and Pat Hearn created around them. [Colin de Land died of cancer in 2003. His wife, Pat Hearn, died in 2000.] Theirs was the only program that was run by artistic people. I came back at the very end of that period, and through my connections with Lizzi Bougatsos and Jess Holzworth, I felt like I knew where I belonged. American Fine Arts was a utopian art community. Kids could go there and work and show their work, and Colin was like their godfather, holding it all together. Unfortunately, there’s no place like that now. Someone needs to do that again.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Colin’s system was more like an anti-system.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, and it was edu­cational. It was anti but also very pro. I felt very anti-system in the mid ’90s. I didn’t like artists. I didn’t have any established artist friends. I didn’t want to belong to that institutional world. Every time my gallerist tried to invite me to participate in something, I would literally throw a sort of bizarre fit. I still do that sometimes. I don’t feel comfortable at art events — I’m not very good at remembering names and dates, and there’s a lot of that in art conversations. Even if I know the artworks and the shows I’m still not able to translate it into information. But I think that maybe this disadvantage was actually a good thing for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But yout gallerist, Andrea Rosen, was a positive influence.
RITA ACKERMANN — She never pushed. She always told me to just do what I wanted to do. She let me be very independent. We had rough times, and I wish we could have communicated more, but in the end it all worked out for the best.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember that she pushed you to do a large-scale painting show — some of your family from Hungary came to see it.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yeah, the paintings with my brother. That was really an escape, a concept of doing something totally different from the work that I was known for, something more sellable. I had this three-year period that ended with those paintings. Then I began getting deeper into collage and into using more male imagery. I separated myself from the work with these things, moved into new territory, including performance and music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you came back to New York from Texas, you moved to Harlem. Did you do that to isolate yourselves from the downtown scene?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, but it also made the commune idea more of a possibility. I wasn’t very connected at the time. Having a big studio in Harlem and a baby was all I could manage.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you feel isolated again, being far from Downtown?
RITA ACKERMANN — I lived in a communal situation, but I still felt alone. My problem was more how to combine being an artist with having a family. I had difficulties addressing my needs back then. I struggled with the guilt-driven Eastern European tradition, the inferiority, and the values that an Eastern European woman brings to a relationship. That was a struggle. I’m really lucky to be finished with that struggle.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember it was difficult to visit you in Harlem.
RITA ACKERMANN — Did you visit me up there? That’s amazing. David probably had a hard time with you, with the way you relate to women. He didn’t understand our relationship. It was the manly American thing versus the French thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was always a bit cold to me.
RITA ACKERMANN — You fit into a certain category of French men for him. Frog! Down with the froggies! American guys think all you guys are skirt chasers. It’s very competitive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He wasn’t very funny, but he was always nice.
RITA ACKERMANN — Diplomatic and respectful. You’re one of the only long-lasting important male friendships I have. And I treasure those friendships.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I treasure our friendship, too! So, you arrived at the beginning of September, 2011 — just one week before New York completely changed.
RITA ACKERMANN — After September 11th I was panicked to be back, because all my friends were leaving the city to wait out the bad downtown air, to be in a safe place. At one point I was afraid nobody was going to come back. Also, David decided to stop playing music to become a priest. You remember that huge monastery where I lived uptown for three years, on 122nd Street?

OLIVIER ZAHM — I went there for a dinner with David’s professor at the seminary, a Romanian Orthodox priest.
RITA ACKERMANN — I had to decide whether I wanted to be a priest’s wife or an artist — which I couldn’t be in Texas. A priest’s wife helps keep the congregation together, nurtures the community, and supports the priest. Whatever the priest does, the priest’s wife has to devote herself to it. It was impossible for me to be a partner in his calling. I already had a mission. I would have had to give up being a serious artist. When we realized this contradiction our troubles began.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, New York changed and so did your life.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. My life was all in-between. We had an apartment in the church. David was studying theology. I was making art and getting to know the new art community that was more or less based downtown.

OLIVIER ZAHM — After you came back to New York and reconnected with Lizzi Bougatsos, you started playing music and gaving performances with her. Had you ever given performances before?
RITA ACKERMANN — I did some puppet shows before that, which I liked very much. With Lizzi I half-improvised and half-planned the performances. They were based on a dada-pop shrine, which made no sense and had no meaning. We included our bodies as parts of a sculpture we built for the performance, which was like the one we did in Paris at the Purple Institute. That was my favorite performance ever with her.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have pictures of it?
RITA ACKERMANN — Not many. Things were stolen after the performance in Paris — even my lipstick. Lizzi was on your motorcycle, holding a flag and singing. I kept changing outfits, as part of the act. We were busy. Meanwhile, people from the audience were coming up to the stage area and taking things from the shrine like they were souvenirs.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know that.
RITA ACKERMANN — No? But it was a good thing. I remember one guy in particular, kind of hiding behind a column, wearing a big fur hat, looking a little suspicious, but excited. He took most of the shrine. But I didn’t mind.

BQE/CRASH III, spray paint, oil stick, paper cement, charcoal, oil, modeling paste on printed paper, 36 x 42 inches, 2009

OLIVIER ZAHM — So performances were a new thing for you.
RITA ACKERMANN — The improvised, not-making-sense kind, yes! We did our first one in Zurich in 2002, then one in Paris, and a big last one in New York in 2004 at Kenny Schachter’s space. What was new was our using our bodies as material. Then we used artworks as material. The gallery was like an extension of a studio. We curated a show in which every artist was part of the performance — and everything we used was left behind to be the exhibition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t it a kind of buffet dinner?
RITA ACKERMANN — It was a kind of sacrificial dinner. We laid ourselves down on the top of a half-finished dinner, as if offering ourselves to be eaten. There was a pig’s head, and candles burning, so it was all a bit voodoo.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like The Last Supper?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yeah, a pagan one. Purposeless paganism. These performances were like nonsense séances. We didn’t know what we were doing and there was no expected outcome. We were deeply involved in the pure act of playing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But they seemed to reactivate the ’70s performances of artists like Hermann Nitsch.
RITA ACKERMANN — In Viennese Actionist performances the female body has a function. Lizzi and I performed a sort of comic version of that, because our bodies were useless, doing things for no reason.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Performance art is rare these days.
RITA ACKERMANN — But it hasn’t disappeared. I saw a really good one by Kai Althoff last summer. And Jonathan Meese. Lizzi and I were laughing at paganism and loving it at the same time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were also singing. You started a band with Lizzi and Jess Holzworth.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, we started Angelblood together. Jess’s esthetic was very much part of Angelblood. Our first album came out in 1999, right before I moved to Texas. But, Jess moved to San Diego and she now lives in LA. The end of Angelblood came when we started taking it seriously as a musical group. I always wanted to keep it as an art project. I was already writing songs and recording some stuff in Texas. We were good, fast, and instinctual in the recording studio because our process wasn’t about making a real album to tour with, but just about making art.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s get back to New York.
RITA ACKERMANN — After the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center the feeling of emergency and terror in the air was very exciting. It’s my element. Always feeling fragile, broken, on edge, like something might happen. That was also a very hopeful and optimistic time, anticipating the changes it would all bring. I remember having these great conversations about it. Philosophers brainstormed and issued statements about the future. Susan Sontag published a short commentary in The New Yorker criticizing America that was blood-boilingly good. Jean Baudrillard and Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history — do you actually believe in that?

OLIVIER ZAHM — September 11th created a sudden feeling that focused on that historical time, the one we’re still in. It’s a traumatic time — events seem at the same time absolutley horrible and virtual, unpredictable and artificial, ultra-violent and somehow unreal.
RITA ACKERMANN — Maybe this means that history exists only in the imagination, that after this apocalypse we now live without history, or we live beyond it — because afterward everything became available on the Internet: less present in reality, more virtual. We don’t need to print photos anymore, only to delete the bad ones on our cameras. We can kill history. Anything and everything can be immediately erased.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Disconnected from a center.
RITA ACKERMANN — You can have a relationship overseas without leaving your apartment. In New York the feeling was that, if you left your house, you’d be in danger, that anything could happen. On the Internet you can have amazing relationships and connections without experiencing the sweaty hands and the physical confrontation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But slowly, in 2002 and 2003, a new scene started to emerge with Agathe Snow, Dash Snow, Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, and Nate Lowman, and your old scene was gone.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, I met Agathe in this new atmosphere. She was the perfect mover and shaker for this kind of emergency. She’s an apocalypse kind of girl. With my communist ways I only knew how to communicate on a very sort of bring-people-together way, at dinners and parties where you dance your life away, and this was very much Agathe’s way, too — to have fun and entertain yourself and others. We met at the hub of the apocalypse. We started giving these campy, gypsy-style dinner parties, keeping them spontaneous and immediate, in Paris, New York, and Zurich.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of art parties did you organize with her?
RITA ACKERMANN — It wasn’t about playing music then. We were throwing emergency parties to entertain ourselves. But they were artistically and conceptually imagined. We would have lots of fun planning them, wanting to make situations for people. We called our parties The Stone Soup, named after the folktale about poor people who have nothing to eat. A man, poor himself, comes to town and says, “Oh, you guys don’t have anything to eat? No problem. Everyone bring one thing from your house and we’ll cook a soup together.” He puts a rock in the bottom of a big pot to start the soup. Someone else brings a carrot, another one brings an onion, and so on, until there’s a stone soup, the most delicious soup in the world. It’s like a collage soup version of the exquisite corpse.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was like a performance.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yeah, it was a way of communicating. At that point Agathe Snow wasn’t ready to be an artist so she expressed herself by feeding her community.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did this new context of artists around Dash Snow feel like a new movement or more like an extension of what you experienced before you left town?
RITA ACKERMANN — At that time I was just doing things with Agathe and her friends, who were almost like my family. But I was careful not to barge into their mix. They came from a generation I had no connection to. Especially since I’d been hidden away in Southeast Texas. I liked them and I was afraid of them at the same time. I admired how they supported each other and how they worked together, while each of them remained individually strong. I wanted to learn more about them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Many of the younger artists took drugs. How do you manage to stay away from drugs?
RITA ACKERMANN — I was never interested in drugs. I don’t like conversations that last from 3am to 9am. I’d rather dance — without drugs, just with drinking water. Dancing is all about movement. Doing drugs is about sitting down and talking. I’m not very good at sitting down or talking. I’m always in motion, even in my art. I move nonstop, which can be annoying, I know. But it has saved me from drugs.

OLIVIER ZAHM — New York was under construction again and it seemed like artists were being shooed out of Manhattan into Brooklyn.
RITA ACKERMANN — This new group of artists, including myself, was not rich at all… But we didn’t know if money was really going to matter during those fearful times. We were shocked when the money just kept rolling in around 2004 and 2005, more than ever before. Everything became so expensive. Real estate went boom. Lots of new apartment buildings and new hotels. Old Manhattan neighborhoods were torn down. From then on it was really hard for artists to find studios in Manhattan. But Brooklyn still had big spaces.

If You Listen Carefully … I’ll Show You How To Dance, collage, charcoal, crayon, pen, ink and tape onpaper, 25 x 38 1/4 inches, 1995

OLIVIER ZAHM — Another aspect of your work with Lizzi Bougatsos was to curate group shows.
RITA ACKERMANN — We curated two or three shows based on using art as material, on extending our bodies into the performance, and extending our performance into artwork. It was like a chain of media — art objects, our bodies, the space — everything entered into the chain of things we linked together.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To you, was curating group shows a form of art?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. It was expanding our vision. It was a multidimensional work which included material from other artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Who did you include in the project?
RITA ACKERMANN — Louise Bourgeois, Christopher Wool, and even Picabia. Lizzi brought in artists from the Pat Hearn gallery, people like Jack Pierson and Jeff Elrod, artists she knew from working for Colin de Land. We scrambled them all together. We weren’t intimidated by the artworks. We used a piece by Louise Bourgeois that cost $100,000 as part of a collage, a multidimensional one that even had sound. At one point we had this Polish subway violinist play under a Jeff Elrod painting. The atmosphere itself was the artwork. We splattered mud on the walls, as if the earth had vomited mud on the walls. And Lizzi brought in two hamburger buns to use as breasts and a whip to use as a dick.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you feel like you were making a feminist statement — two girls, curating shows in an art world still dominated by men?
RITA ACKERMANN — Lizzi was more aware of that than I was. I’d never really had much interest in it. But sometimes I like being unaware of things so that I can deal with them myself, without intimidation or premeditation. I don’t separate great feminist artists from great non-feminist artists like Lynda Benglis or Y Pants. Feminism was never an issue for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you more inspired by men, like Franz Binder or ODB?
RITA ACKERMANN — It’s not a question of someone’s sex; it’s their charisma. Men can have a strong female side. Just like you do! I’d like to interview you about women, because I think you know a lot about women.

OLIVIER ZAHM — My favorite subject! Was Cicciolina an inspiration for you?
RITA ACKERMANN — She interested me because she also came from Hungary’s Communist working class. And she made it into the Italian parliament, championing the most progressive causes of the time. She also invented a new style of pornography. It was smart of Jeff Koons to recognize that. Her autobiography is in Italian and in Hungarian. I wish it would be translated into English. She led a very sexual and eccentric life, one she created for herself. She made porn films with a photographer friend of hers that were almost like action movies. Once they flew to an island in an Islamic country and on the way they enticed the flight attendants to act in the movie. At the hotel on the island they found more amateur participants. They found this guy with a boat. There she is, fucking the boatman, while back on shore the Muslim police are going bananas. And it was all totally improvised. It was a political scandal. She was arrested. The police searched her hotel looking for the film, but she hid it in the shower drain. She might have had to spend the rest of her life in jail. She has lots of crazy stories like that. It’s fascinating — the way people will risk their lives for the things they’re passionate about.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you finally invited to the Whitney Biennale in 2008. Was it finally a recognition of your status as an American artist?
RITA ACKERMANN — I was very excited! But, In 2005 I had already had a big collage show at Andrea Rosen, which was really the first historical presentation of my work. But it’s often hard to think of your work in a tight historical context. The collages I did in ’95 look exactly like collages from 100 years ago, even though they have pop images in them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You said that you now have a vocabulary you work with, one that you take apart and recombine. Is it like the elements in a puzzle?
RITA ACKERMANN — Exactly. I deconstruct something and then rebuild it, mixing an old composition with something new, for example. I like to make things that make me slightly uncomfortable. I don’t like to know where things are heading. I don’t want to make things that are too easy or simply satisfy me, but rather things that surprise me. Now I build things I haven’t seen before, from the elements I know the most about. I like it when I have no idea where a work will take me — to have trust that it will take me somewhere. That’s the perfect moment, one that hopefully will last forever.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the female figure you’re so known for? You let her go for a while.
RITA ACKERMANN — That female figure is part of my language. She’s as abstract as Pinocchio or Bambi. It’s a pop icon about fragility, not sexuality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of paint do you use?
RITA ACKERMANN — I’ll paint with anything. There’s no limit. I’ll even use spray paint and dirt. I like spray paint because I’m not very good with it, not like the graffiti guys. I love the accidental results you can get with spray paint. Spraying is a violent gesture. I use it when I want to take a painting out of the comfort zone — maybe it will take a long time to clean it up. Spray paint also has a dangerous side — the smell of it makes me lose my mind.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about oil paint?
RITA ACKERMANN — I don’t like to use a brush that much. I use my hands most of the time. The brush is really an extension of the finger, which is an extension of the hand. Actually, my first painting was a finger painting of a dancing fairy with creatures around her playing music. I won an art contest in elementary school. I used Tempera paint on Styrofoam. I was eight years old and that painting brought me success, which is a great feeling.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You recently went back to Texas.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, to Marfa, a small town down by the Mexican border. The closest city is El Paso.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like the end of America.
RITA ACKERMANN — Exactly — out in the desert, where all the tension between America and Mexico occurs. There’s a lot of drug trafficking, for one thing. It’s a dangerous place. You can easily get shot by mistake. But the locals protected me. I was working at the Chinati Foundation, a foundation set up by the Donald Judd Foundation for artists to come and work in Marfa. He fell in love with the place and then split his time between Marfa and New York City. Nearby, in the desert, there was an airfield and a camp where Second World War German war prisoners were held. They actually lived very well in these concrete barracks, which now house a museum and apartments for artists. Now it’s The Chinati Foundation prison camp. [Laughs] Basically, I lived in a prison. A very monastic lifestyle, as you can imagine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A rigid existence.
RITA ACKERMANN — All the lines are vertical or horizontal. There’s only one road in and out of Marfa. You can’t miss it when you’re driving through the desert. [Laughs] Giant was shot in Marfa. No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were both shot in Marfa, at the same time. They both won Oscars.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It must be very cinematographic country.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, but there’s also something brutal about it. My brutal side exploded. There’s a tiny Andy Warhol museum there. It has only three paintings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you meet men?
RITA ACKERMANN — I stayed there for a month and half and had an amazing time with straight men. There were only men there and they all became good friends. It was a bit like Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, in the way Marilyn Monroe’s character is so dominating — she’s powerful but also needs to be protected by these three men, men who reveal their best and worst sides in relating to her. All this happens in five minutes — the desert, wild horses, three men, and Marilyn Monroe. I felt something like that in Marfa. You become one body and then you’re undone from that body. There’s so much space. It really eats you up. So much sky, so much desert. You become non-human.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You became part of nature.
RITA ACKERMANN — More like an alien. You can even start fantasizing about UFO landings and extraterrestrial abduction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did this Marfa experience give you energy?
RITA ACKERMANN — It gave me the energy to make a three-meter tall painting. It’s gigantic. And look how small I am! [Laughs] It’s everything I wanted to make. I came back in April and I took the studio in Brooklyn so I could create a little bit of Marfa for myself. I needed to go there. I was doing Plexiglas collages for two years before that. I titled them “Under Pressure” because I pressed brute energy between two pieces of Plexiglas, like making a sandwich. My Brooklyn studio let me undo this jam — gave me a chance to do something big. The lights in Brooklyn, over by the highway, are almost like those in the desert. Highways are like the desert. You can’t stop until you get somewhere. You have to keep on going. You have to proceed. And that’s me! [Laughs and sings] “Don’t stop ’til you get enough!” And I never do get enough.

END

[Table of contents]

S/S 2010 issue 13

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