interview by BILL POWERS
portrait by EJ CAMP
all artwork by LISA YUSKAVAGE
copyright the artist, courtesy of the artist and david zwirner
painting radiant puberty as an island of subversion, erotic provocation, and emerging desires, encapsulated in an intensely colorful fairy-tale world.
BILL POWERS — I’m talking to you at your studio on Long Island. Do you plan to ride out the winter there?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I’m definitely not a country girl. We’re trying to get back to New York City, but my husband’s studio in Chinatown was destroyed in a fire in October. Fortunately, he only lost one small work. All his stuff was on the North Fork [of Long Island], but it put a crimp in our plans.
BILL POWERS — This issue is about islands. Thomas More described Utopia as an imaginary island. Does that resonate with you?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I’m not a subscriber to the idea of utopia. In fact, I’ve always bristled at anything of that sort.
BILL POWERS — Is your bristling in response to viewers wanting to apply that term to your paintings?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — If they do, I just ignore it. Other people’s interpretations are fair, but I don’t have to accept them. When I was a young artist, I was super clear about what I wanted to do. I was surprised when my work got traction in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. I got spun around. It was being used to promote ideologies and all these other agendas, from the left and the right, both negative and positive.
BILL POWERS — Do you like this period of confinement and isolation?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — For me, life is all about variations, about experiencing a range. I’m not the only one to use the Groundhog Day analogy this year, but we have to suck it up and do this a little longer. I’m not going to be the last person to die just before armistice is called. We’re almost there, so I’m trying to stay calm. I just bought some snowshoes, which I haven’t tried yet, but I plan to put them on later today and go traipsing around outside. I would like my old life back. I like being in the city and being able to get away to nature every once in a while.
BILL POWERS — We can romanticize our escapes, whether it’s a country house or a desert-island paradise, but then the reality — at least in literature and cinema — always seems to take a darker turn, be it Lord of the Flies, The Beach, or Cast Away.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Humanity is pretty flawed.
BILL POWERS — You claim not to be an escapist, which surprised me, given the overt reliance on your imagination. I’m thinking of how your Bad Babies series had figures culled straight from your mind, or your Tit Heaven watercolors.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — They were angry paintings. And there were arguments within the paintings.
BILL POWERS — I see you influencing a whole generation of artists after you, from Louise Bonnet to Anna Weyant, maybe not always stylistically, but in your call to be unafraid as a painter.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Am I really influencing someone like Louise Bonnet, or am I influencing the possibility of a reception for her work? When I was first making these paintings, I was told point-blank that nobody is painting figurative paintings, women are not painting figurative paintings, and no one is painting a nude that matters. I was willing to be a failure. This is what I want to talk about. I want to make these bad diabolical objects, and, in fact, they were seen that way. When I was criticized for that, half the time I didn’t disagree.
BILL POWERS — Which reminds me of your friend John Currin saying that his main problem with bad reviews is that they’re usually right.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — It’s kind of like that Billy Joel song lyric: “Your mistakes are the only things that you can truly call your own.” I heard it on the radio one day. I think my mistakes are something I can recognize as my strengths, and I try to capitalize on them instead of talking about originality, which is actually another way of being on an island — asserting yourself as an individual, such an iconoclast plowing your own road. But what I realized is that to “get it right” is to be an academic, to check all the boxes. I’m disappointed sometimes when I read rave reviews of “new art” that often reminds me of something else that I’ve already seen, and how rare it is for someone genuinely original to get support.
BILL POWERS — I’m hearing you say that, sometimes, artists are done a disservice when they’re celebrated for clinging to their predecessors’ achievements.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I call it “baking cookies.” Who doesn’t love a nice chocolate chip cookie? We can argue if it should be gooey or crispy, but everyone loves them. It’s satisfying. Great art introduces a new flavor so foreign that most people spit it out at first. What the fuck is this? And then, the next thing you know, it becomes the flavor that no one can live without. It’s almost like a child spitting out coffee or wine, thinking it’s disgusting, only later to become addicted to it.
BILL POWERS — Did we used to have more tolerance? Like listening to a Talking Heads album you hated at first. Or am I fetishizing the past? Who are the artists you didn’t like initially that you came to recognize as genius?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — He’s such a popular artist to champion right now, but I do remember walking into the Whitney in 1981 and seeing [Philip] Guston for the first time and thinking it was kind of bad. I was studying with the painter Stephen Greene, who had been a student of Guston, and he told me to look more carefully. So, then
I read everything I could find about him. Guston’s influence on me has been more intellectual than visual, and this goes back to the question regarding originality versus copying another artist’s style. One thing I noticed early about Guston is that he was like a Siren to Odysseus. You cannot touch his style with a 10-foot pole, or you will crash on his rocks because he’s so enigmatic. You have to take something from him in spirit. I was so obsessed that I even read all the authors he loved, trying to figure out his relationship to, like, Philip Roth. It’s been a very fulfilling part of my life, trying to figure out Guston’s brain. I cannot believe how shunned de Chirico was in America, whom Guston ripped off so voraciously. I lived in Rome, so I got to see a lot of de Chirico’s work that is less seen here. American museums only allow certain periods: the palazzos with the long shadows. The guy’s œuvre is so bizarre and original and crazy. I really think it needs to be brought out of the closet and examined. He and Guston hung out in Rome together all the time, and that’s not talked about.
BILL POWERS — Do you ever worry that there’s less outrage around your work now? Because if it’s not pushing buttons, maybe you’ve become a caricature of yourself? You’re showing at blue-chip galleries and are beloved among the art world. Is that level of success a kind of mute button?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Of course, I have thoughts like that. If you’re smart, you have that thought. Hey, there’s still plenty of resistance to me. I’ve never been elevator music. I have a ways to go before I’m considered Muzak.
BILL POWERS — It seems to me that your reputation is on solid ground. I don’t see you bowing out anytime soon.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — In 2013, I was getting a massage, and the therapist paralyzed my painting hand. She crushed the radial nerve. It was the scariest several days of my life, not knowing whether I would paint again. My hand was droopy. I was seeing stars. It all turned out okay. I found out it’s a condition called radial nerve neuropathy. I saw how quickly everything could vanish for me as an artist. And even if my career is rock solid, if we learned anything this year, it’s how easily we’re all in danger of being wiped off the fucking planet.
BILL POWERS — Do you think art will be able to teach us anything about this moment? To memorialize what we’ve gone through in 2020?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I would assume it probably occurs in some medium other than painting. I don’t have a hierarchy in terms of what I get inspiration from. It could be sports as much as poetry.
BILL POWERS — Is there such a thing as “bad” inspiration? I thought of the Balthus painting Thérèse Dreaming at the Met, where a petition was started to have it removed.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I understand why it’s painful for some people to look at that Balthus painting, but that doesn’t mean it should be gotten rid of. I’ve often said that we should not police our dreams, and art is an extension of our dreams. It’s a slippery slope. Look, I’m glad I’m not in charge. Who should decide for everybody what’s suitable? We live in such a diverse culture. I think it’s one of the reasons New York is such a successful place. I love riding on the subway in New York and seeing all these different types of people crammed into a subway car. When I grew up in Philadelphia, it was much more classist and racist. So much for the City of Brotherly Love. I think we live in this city because there’s a level of tolerance in New York you don’t always find in other cities. I would hope this could extend to artistic and cultural tolerance as well.
BILL POWERS — Do you think it’s dangerous for an artist to be too easily self-satisfied with their work?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Absolutely! I am my biggest critic. And I’m also willing to fail. You have to be. I know that no matter what I do, I’m going to disappoint someone. I had a guy come to my studio in 2017 who didn’t like my new paintings and said, “I like when your work is really raunchy.” And I said, “Great, but I have a range of what I want to express.” I also see a lot of moral high ground in art these days, a certain presumption. I really loathe the moral high ground in art. I want to do the opposite of that. I can and have embodied being a “bad object.”
BILL POWERS — Do you think our attitudes toward sexuality have significantly changed since you started painting the Bad Babies in the 1990s? Or is it that, when we look back on the work, it’s through a different lens?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I don’t think of my Bad Babies paintings as sexual. They are dark, angry paintings that use the body, but they are more about helplessness versus control. I used an experience I had when I was a preteen. I remember this unbelievable horror and shame and not being prepared for my nipples to betray me, which is what it felt like. I remember putting Band-Aids on my nipples, and I got made fun of for that. I decided then that it was better to be mocked than to have someone see my nipples. It was better for me to actively divert than passively be a sexual object. Later, I learned how to make the image a personification for the painting itself. Basically, I started talking to the painting and asked, “So, how does it feel to be one of my paintings?” And the thing on the wall said: “Actually, pretty humiliating because you get stared at and then walked away from. You get used.” Which reminded me a lot of puberty. That’s where the sexuality comes from. That universal moment in everyone’s life where we switch from becoming a child into something else. Then I used this sfumato to express the reticence of the image to come forward, but to simultaneously want to disappear.
BILL POWERS — Are you still asking your paintings, even now, what it feels like to be looked at?
LISA YUSKAVAGE — Yes, but differently. One has to evolve as an artist. You can’t stay in the same space. But you do go around and around almost in a spiral, never on the same plane. My paintings literally make me nauseous, now, when they’re not working. I was working on this one painting recently called Night Classes at the Department of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, which is loosely about my experience as a nude model, when I was an art student. I was a model to help put myself through school. It also allowed me to know what it’s like to be both the subject and the object of an artwork. So, I decided to make paintings about art school, which is almost like the puberty of an artist’s life. I started this massive painting over two years ago and thought it was finished. But whenever I left the studio, I started feeling terrible when I thought about it. So, I went away from the painting for a few months, came back, and cancelled the whole canvas with Old Holland Cadmium Red Purple, then redrew the entire thing. I wound up working on the painting for two-and-a-half years. My body was being told by the painting that something wasn’t right, and that never used to happen to me. It goes back to this other thought I had about art that I didn’t like, when I was first exposed to it. Let’s say, somebody like Mike Kelley. I didn’t know what to make of him. What I came to realize is the way other people’s art works on me: first, I take it in through the eye, then I go away and start to think about it. Almost like a virus, it starts to unpack itself, take root. Then I go back and take it through the eye a second time.
BILL POWERS — It sounds like you need to give your subconscious the opportunity to weigh in.
LISA YUSKAVAGE — I think my subconscious is a genius, and I need to give it a lot more space. My early work was very brainy, but now I’m more intuitive first and then think it over. My work now is pushed along by my instincts.
[Table of contents]
by Olivier Zahm
cover #13 chanel s/s 2021Read the article
essay by Édouard Glissant
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an island of one’s ownRead the article
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la cupolaRead the article
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pleasure islandRead the article
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island undergroundRead the article
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