The Hungarian artist Rita Ackermann arrived in New York in the early ’90s and has been part of the city’s art scene ever since.
She has been featured in numerous issues of Purple, modeling for the magazine but also working as a long-standing contributor, giving us images, collages, and ideas, and supporting new artists. With her confidence and constant dedication to painting, she is a marvelous illustration of how an artist can evolve without compromising a highly personal approach to art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What made you decide to leave Hungary for a life in New York? Were you following your dreams?
RITA ACKERMANN — It wasn’t really a dream, but I always had a sense that Hungary was not the place where my des- tiny would unfold. Budapest is a marvelous city, though. Even when I left, it was a great place to be young. It was full of energy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which is what’s happening again now. The apartments are inexpensive, the quality of life, the public baths…
RITA ACKERMANN — It’s a city full of possibilities. Yes, the bath parties. The minute you arrive at the airport in Budapest — I don’t think there’s another city in the world like this — there’s a commercial travel video showing beautiful Hungarian youth bathing and partying in ancient Turkish baths filled with bubble foam, and intoxicated dancing to techno music. Welcome to Budapest!
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, how did you happen to move to New York at such a young age?
RITA ACKERMANN — It was September 1991. It was one of those miraculous accidents that makes your life take a giant leap. A New York gallerist from the Upper East Side, Susan Caldwell — whose program was active in the ’70s and who worked with artists like David Reed and Carl Andre, American post-minimalist and conceptual artists — had the idea to travel to Eastern Europe to find artists behind the Iron Curtain.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Incredible.
RITA ACKERMANN — She wasn’t looking at students’ work, though. She was interested in our professors’ ateliers, and she needed someone who spoke English to accompany her on these visits, and she found me. I was the Hungarian-English connection.
OLIVIER ZAHM—The translator.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, and while I was translating for her, we learned a little about each other’s lives, and it turned out her daughter was exactly the same age as me. That motherly sentiment, and the circumstances that I was the only one she could communicate with directly, gave her the idea to invite me to NYC to study art, and she would let me stay with her for a couple of months. This incredible offer sounded like something from a fairy tale, and I didn’t give it too much thought, rather assuming that the minute Susan got back to America, she would forget her crazy idea, and I would never hear from her again. A month later, I got an invitation letter with a year of paid tuition at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture in Greenwich Village. I didn’t know then, but this school was unlike any other American art school. Philip Guston and Morton Feldman used to be on their faculty, and Joyce Pensato and Christopher Wool were students there. It’s a private art school that was founded on a classical training practice, working from live models in an atelier setting, like in the European academies. The building was built for outsiders who wanted to exhibit art outside the system. I arrived to study in an art school for outsiders. This was my new setting, with zero experience of the big city.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did it compare to Budapest?
RITA ACKERMANN — NYC was, to me, the capital of the world. But Budapest had a similar vibe to NY, raw and sophisticated all at once. It was a transitional city between the East and the West, where curious Western visitors could still feel safe in the civilized bubblegum communism of Hungary. All Western cultural movements slipped through the cracks of the Iron Curtain, and we had an authentic Hungarian underground version of the icons of the New York City underground. There was a Hungarian Bob Dylan who sang mystical metaphors. Deliverance and content were often hidden; you had to seek out and dig deeper to find forbidden Western underground art, films, or music that were already integrated into the Hungarian underground. There was a band called Trabant. The way they reworked the New York avant-garde into their own poetry and their simple but complex melodies — it was first-class hypnotism of melancholia. In the late ’90s, I had a chance to play their music to Tom Verlaine of Television on a car ride. He listened to it carefully and said, “I’ve never in my life heard such amazing music.” These guys never had an album. All their home recordings were circling on mixtapes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And what was the art scene like in New York when you arrived?
RITA ACKERMANN —
The last leg of the ’80s left its imprint on the early ’90s… The scene was still oversaturated, vibrant, and glamorously star-studded, but AIDS tamed the wild animals, and you could feel the breeze of the changing shift.
It was becoming more and more introverted. There were secret flamboyant drag parties in the basement of the Carter Hotel, like in the film Paris Is Burning, and the kids were going to raves where you danced alone together without exchanging a word. Slowly all the things and the people of the ’80s became irrelevant, like graffiti art or European-influenced figurative paintings. Only the timeless survived. There was a new wave of American Pop Art that excited me. It was crisp, cool, violent, like a loaded gun, but also funny, critical, and playful. I loved Karen Kilimnik’s early installations and drawings, and just about everything that Richard Prince made. And, of course, there were great American artists like Larry Clark, Cady Noland, and Christopher Wool.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you immediately figured out who the interesting artists in New York were?
RITA ACKERMANN — No, not really. I was mostly just waitressing in the beginning. I had a job at a diner on 8th Street, the All-American Café, my first full-time job. On the weekends, I worked in a very cool jazz bar/café, run by an Egyptian chef who was almost always high on heroin, and his girlfriend, a jazz singer who was so talented that the finest jazz musicians of Lenox Lounge came down from Harlem to the East Village to play with her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you always knew that you wanted to become an artist?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, but I needed to be part of a community. First, I had to find people with the same passion who wanted more than simply working a full-time job. I found a group of young people who were fresh out of Cooper Union, and they needed an extra roommate. That’s how I met the wonderful artist Richard Agerbeek and the photographer Cris Moor, who was one of the founders of [the fashion and art collective] Bernadette Corporation. In fact, Bernadette Corporation was founded in our apartment on Houston Street. That’s how Bernadette Van-Huy and I met.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the Art Club 2000 kids?
RITA ACKERMANN — Exactly. Gillian [an artist and model] was part of both Bernadette Corporation and Art Club 2000. She was the beautiful muse. My first studio in New York was on 42nd Street, next to the Carter Hotel. I took it together with Seth Shapiro, a young and eccentric fashion designer, and the cousin of Bernadette, who burst onto the fashion scene with truly visionary shows. He was a mad utopian obsessed with Martin Margiela and who, practically mirroring Margiela’s concepts, developed the first American Constructivist fashion line. There were other young artists in the building: Sarah Morris and her boyfriend Ricardo, who organized exhibitions in our studio building on 42nd Street in the summer of 1993.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know that you worked with Sarah Morris.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, Sarah was a force. She and Ricardo had vision and the ambition to organize and produce a series of summer shows with proper vernissages. I painted stained glass windows in the space.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, that’s how you ended up doing the window at the Max Fish bar — because people noticed it?
RITA ACKERMANN — That was a slightly different story. The legendary Max Fish was on Ludlow Street, and Bernadette and I lived next door, sharing a futon and a full-length mirror and a small TV set in an otherwise unfurnished living room of a crowded one-bedroom apartment. It felt more pleasant and productive to spend my time painting the windows of Max Fish than just sitting at the bar drinking.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Everyone would go to Max Fish, but your windows were a sort of flag for the place.
RITA ACKERMANN — Oh, boy! I wish I had a picture of them. One night, a drug dealer threw a junkie boy through the painted window. Ulli [Rimkus], the owner, tried to tape it up, but later it broke again, and they had to replace it. Around 2004, I repainted both panels, but they didn’t have the same magic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the time — in ’95, ’96, ’97 — there was a sense of artistic community in New York. You became friends with Chloë Sevigny, Harmony Korine… How did you meet them?
RITA ACKERMANN — We all became friends from running into each other on the streets. And since the phone was still wired to the wall, and pay phones were such a pain in New York, you just rang people’s doorbells or ran into them on the street.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s New York. You bump into people. You have a drink, and you exchange ideas, imagine projects. It’s not something you plan.
RITA ACKERMANN — That spontaneous city was such an amazing driving force. I remember Harmony Korine and Mark Gonzales were always on the street, and they were always doing candid-camera acts. Making real-life comedy skits with random people on the streets. Walking up to people, cracking jokes, or picking stage fights. It was hilarious.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you were moving from one domain to another. You would do photos with Richard Kern, then a music cover for Thurston Moore’s album, model in a fashion show, collaborate with other painters.
RITA ACKERMANN — I don’t think anybody thought about it. It was the spirit of the time and being young and generous with my creativity. It was not even bothersome if somebody took your ideas because nobody was getting paid. I mean, that’s why I liked working with Purple — because it was never about “How much are you going to give me for this?” Being part of something great was the payment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was such a rich context, and you’re right, without money, which means without branding. Because today, collaborations are so branded or prefabricated.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, it’s weird. Everything seems to be oversaturated by social media.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We went to Veselka this morning for breakfast, and they sell t-shirts. Then you go to the café, and the café sells t-shirts. Every store, everything is branded with t-shirts, sweatshirts, a cap.
RITA ACKERMANN — How many caps or t-shirts can you have? At least, if they could make underwear or something more interesting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still love New York? You have a studio in Brooklyn and also one in upstate New York. Like every New Yorker who has been part of the city for years, you need to escape to upstate New York.
RITA ACKERMANN — New York never ceases to have an exuberant energy. The pace is faster here than anywhere else in the world. People who want to make a change are the intelligent youth who quickly figure out the front and back sides of dogmas that are currently shoved down students’ throats at the universities. Repeating ideas that are not their own and canceling whoever is not saying the same thing are the main characteristics of the ones attending university. They will be the last to bring changes because they are the new conservatives. Which is weird because usually the universities had all the radical, vanguard ideas. Now, it’s exactly the opposite.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about your paintings. When you started, at the beginning of the ’90s, the genre was under attack by young conceptual artists who deemed painting over, even if Jean-Michel Basquiat was such a success.
RITA ACKERMANN — Basquiat was an outsider. He was like a meteorite, coming from another planet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And he wasn’t accepted because he came from the street and graffiti scene, not really from the painting academy. But that was the ’80s.
RITA ACKERMANN —
Suddenly, there was no money. Suddenly there was this vast freedom to make great art instead of money. Conceptual art could breathe again because making art wasn’t about robbing the bank.
Dan Graham, who was an educator. Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy were social critics, but they were also very classical, American, amazing artists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you try to give a conceptual meaning to your first paintings and drawings?
RITA ACKERMANN — My first works on canvas from ’93 were large ink drawings. I wanted to make sure that they did not look like paintings, but rather like silk-screen prints. The first concept was that there were only three colors — the color of the raw canvas, the black ink lines, and American red. To me, they were more conceptual Pop Art than paintings. I didn’t want to overthink what I was doing because, back then, the goal was to survive and stay grounded, and not to disappear. Making art is a way of communicating. And the only plan is to use that ultimate freedom to communicate that freedom without overthinking it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And at a certain point, you were fascinated by Gerhard Richter, who was able to make the transition between photography and painting.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. Gerhard Richter’s works were a great example to look at paintings as conceptual works even if they are masterful paintings. Around that time, the end of the ’90s, I had to abandon my Pop paintings. An Antonin Artaud exhibition at MoMA around ’96 had a strong impact on how I wanted to proceed with my new works. I completely abandoned those compositions with the young girls because their acts drove me into isolation. Suddenly, through Artaud’s self-crucifixion in his insanity, I could circle back my passion to theater and the avant-garde.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The theater of cruelty.
RITA ACKERMANN — Exactly, Artaud’s essay “Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society” and his letters sent from Rodez during World War II. What an incredibly genius madman he was! All those writings and his drawings opened up the ballpoint-pen painting series I was doing at the time. This was a brand-new concept for painting without actually being too concerned with making a painting, but slipping through the filters of categorization. My work was overexposed in the first years of my career — I didn’t want to become a brand.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With those little nymphets, innocent and self-destructive young girls, the icons of your work who look a bit like you.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes. But I don’t know what to call them. People try to describe them in different ways, but nothing really fits. They magically appeared out of my imagination. I just had to record them as they were coming, and then their flow stopped. They lasted only three years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were also influenced by Communist Hungarian cartoons, no?
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, I had my favorites. Russian cartoons, American, the old Disney cartoons. I shamelessly copied them with tracing paper.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s something you share with Paul McCarthy.
RITA ACKERMANN — [Laughs] That’s right. We love drawing Snow White’s bow. But you cannot copy Paul McCarthy. When a paradox is so perfect, how he plays with innocence and dirt, there is no way to copy it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s one of your favorite artists, no? What did you learn from him?
RITA ACKERMANN — I like Painter a lot — his video from the ’90s. It’s so funny. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s another great thing about him, like Harmony.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To go back to your work, would you say that there’s a radicality to your paintings? Your paintings feel free. And you’re not scared to experiment. You still use the nymphet, even if you could be criticized for this representation of nudity. Do you identify with the word “radical”?
RITA ACKERMANN — Regarding nudity in art nowadays, I find it overwhelming and very accepted. The oversaturated body consciousness in figurative paintings, with different body parts shoved in your face in the pictures, is not my taste. But trends must run their course to disappear in a flash. I want to be more subtle with my paintings and conceal as much as possible in them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With your paintings, it’s not about doing something beautiful or charming or seductive. You use these shocks of violent colors, like yellow, red, pink, weird green. You mix different genres, and you refuse to be put into a box, including being labeled a woman painter, right?
RITA ACKERMANN —
I’m a woman, and I paint, but labels never worked on me. An artist’s role in society is to be free. My work does not need to create a manifesto about gender.
For some generations before me, it might have been a burning issue, but I didn’t pick up on it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s interesting that, today, a lot of young women, like your daughter, are spontaneously using this medium that has been dominated by men for so long, including when you started in the end of the ’80s, with the big-gun German and American Expressionists.
RITA ACKERMANN — It’s true. Now it seems that we went through a new wave of emancipation, and maybe the good side of the coin is that we don’t have to categorize art by gender and can focus on quality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about youth culture because you’ve always been part of it. You’ve done several collaborations, with Supreme and Bernadette Corporation, who were among the first to approach fashion through the perspective of street culture and the hip-hop scene. Are your nymphets or little girls related to youth culture?
RITA ACKERMANN — The work that I made in the early ’90s was for my friends, to make something that they would like, so I could be part of the young American culture. It was a vessel, definitely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And a vehicle for emotions because they are both very innocent and self-destructive.
RITA ACKERMANN — They were enigmatic — invincible and full of contradictions, like a young person feels. They felt irresistible and suicidal all at once. They were rediscovered with my recent Supreme collaboration.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You continue to collaborate on paintings with Harmony Korine. He showed me a painting on the floor of his studio in Miami.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yes, we keep busy. He just asked me to do an interview with him, about his teddy bear paintings. He rang me up one night before midnight to send him some questions for an interview on his new paintings for a 9 AM deadline the next morning. It was the perfect timing. I was in the middle of a dumb movie, sipping on my second martini, ready to talk some nonsense on paintings with Harmony. It’s important to be in a light and mischievous headspace when you think of art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re also much more relaxed these days. You were sometimes searching, struggling, trying different possibilities. Now you seem more relaxed. You’re more confident in your work, maybe?
RITA ACKERMANN — The idea is to grow upward and downward over the years, right? [Laughs] A lot of things happened. It’s good to be able to learn and unlearn. Like, when you’re down, to be able to see the possibility that you’re going to come back up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re so relaxed that you’re even open to doing a new fashion collection. Why do you like making clothes?
RITA ACKERMANN — Because I like to make things that elevate. It should not be about feeling powerful. Fashion can go so wrong with its competitiveness — it can weigh you down with power and greed. And it should be affordable, and fun, and relevant. My new line, called McLaren, is a collaborative project with Bernadette [Van-Huy], my friend of 30 years. We have a long history together, where each has participated in some form or the other in the other’s work, We work together, I do the drawings, she does the photography. It may have started while watching old interviews with Malcolm McLaren. We like to compare this fashion project to coming upon an instrument, one that doesn’t belong to you (in this instance, clothing-making), taking it up, and improvising for a while. In other words, handing yourself over to the moment, to the movement, without control or forethought, and without planning or defining.
[Table of contents]
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bernadette corporation (part 9)Read the article
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dominique gonzalez-foerster (part 10)Read the article
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