Kurt Kauper in Conversation with Jacob Hicks

Maria Callas at Covent Garden #3, 1997

I see in your work a levity reached through naivety and then grounded in cynicism with a magician’s trick. Let me explain: you create a beautiful homage to a cultural nostalgia, say, a president’s wife, an attractive hockey player, an actor or a diva.  You paint true that feeling of falsity and kitsch that all powerful propaganda musters in a celebration of it. Finally, you deviate-magician’s trick-by removing the hockey player’s clothes, or maybe heightening the color to a too dream-like tone, or maybe increasing the sense that all flesh, concrete, environment are made of plastic, are eerily unreal. How do you respond to this reading?

I do like that you used the word “levity,” in that it suggests humor in relationship to subject matter that typically demands seriousness; I certainly wanted that in relationship to some ideas I was interested in–the male nude, presidential portraits, even sexuality. And that’s a good definition of satire, which I’ve always been interested in–I love Hogarth, Goya, John Currin, and, above all, Picabia for that; even Ingres, although I don’t think his satire was intentional. I don’t think of my paintings as cynical.

I hope that the last points you made are true about my paintings. I want them to come out of well known traditions–both artistic and otherwise–but in a modified form. Not radically modified, and maybe even modified without it being apparent to the viewer, so that the expectations associated with those traditions aren’t quite fulfilled. I love the Russian Formalist concept of “estrangement.” The idea that the role of art is to estrange reality so that perception doesn’t become automatized. For me, that constitutes the art experience at its most profound. I always try to create that experience for the viewer by making paintings that occupy an indefinite place somewhere between the real and the artificial, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the obvious and the oblique.
Man Lying Down, 2015

Are you a political artist?  I think the two options are…a) you are truly celebrating the dream bubble of this Americana, and b) you are poking holes in it by augmenting its surreal nature. And, I guess c) a little bit of both a and b.

I like the description “poking holes in it by augmenting its surreal nature.” I would be happy if my work did that!

Having said that, I don’t think of my art as political in the typical meaning of that phrase: I don’t intentionally make work that is meant to address a specific and present political condition and advocate for immediate change. Not in the sense that John Heartfield or The Guerrilla Girls or Dread Scott are political. But in another way, I think that all good art is political, in that if it’s good–and experienced authentically–then it alters consciousness. And that’s ultimately political. I think the question of the political (broadly defined) value of art is particularly relevant now: Trump’s election has made it absolutely clear that Adorno was right in his analysis of art and the culture industry: that by and large cultural experience in advanced societies is one of mass distraction, and that has destructive consequences. I take an old point of view: that there’s such a thing as high art, and experiencing it offers an alternative to the manipulations of the culture industry. I don’t think that anybody who consistently challenges themselves with complex art experiences could ever fall for the mass manipulation that led to the election of Trump. I think a sustained engagement with art forces people out of habitual patterns of thinking. That helps create a social consciousness that has critical thinking at its core. In that way, Wallace Stevens is as valuable politically as any overtly political artist. I would hope that my work operates politically in that way. Whether it does or not is a different question.


Michelle Obama, 2010

The imaginary clothes removal makes me think of Goya’s clothed then Nude Maja. Tell me about your influences (literary, musical, visual)…

The artist I love more than any other is Ingres. From very early on, he was my favorite artist, and that remains true to this day. I adore his color, his form sense, his reinvention of the body, his unintentional but gloriously perverse way of seeing the world; I love the way his paintings push resolution beyond the point of the real, into a destabilizing artificiality; I love that he thought of himself as upholding the glorious classical tradition of the Ancients and Raphael, but was in fact producing a kind of proto-modern uncanny. There’s nobody I’d rather look at. I also love Holbein and David. I find them both strange in some ways similar to Ingres, though there are many differences; I also love many individual paintings by artists whose entire bodies of work I don’t necessarily love: for example, at the National Gallery in London, there are paintings by Vincenzo Catena, Thomas DeKeyser and Hendrick ter Brugghen that I am obsessed with. Among Modern Artists, some I’m most moved by are Lyubov Popova and Russian Constructivism in general, Florine Stettheimer, Alice Neel, Meredith Frampton, Picabia, Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Richard Artschwagger, many others….

I’m not sure I can clearly articulate his influence on me, but I’m obsessed with Bach’s music. I listen to him almost to the exclusion of anything else. I don’t think there’s any art of any kind more moving and inexhaustible than his.

And then my favorite writer is probably Roland Barthes. I’m reading his book “The Neutral” right now, and it’s a stunning example of his idiosyncratic, inexplicable, poetic intelligence. I love that he shifted from a kind of disenchanter in his early semiological texts to a writer who, in his late work, created an entirely new way of analyzing and understanding enchantment. I also love Kant, Marx, Adorno, John Donne, Wallace Stevens, many others.
Cary Grant # 1, 2001
How did you get gallery representation, and how did you get involved with Deitch Projects?

Somebody once said to me that there are as many ways to get gallery representation as there are Artists. And I think there’s some truth to that. I was very lucky. When I was at UCLA, Randy Sommer from ACME., a terrific gallery in LA, came to UCLA to do a lecture on the Artists he represented, and to do studio visits. He visited my studio, and showed some interest. He took my card. A year later, after developing a body of work, I called and asked if he would do a studio visit. He came by, and we started working together. ACME. was my first gallery, and they still represent me in LA. One of my first Diva paintings was reproduced in Flash Art, and Jeffrey Deitch saw it and got in touch with me. I started working with him after that.

Portrait of Mie After Harpers Bazaar July 1958, 2012
Who are your favorite contemporary painters; what do you foresee for our field of practice in relation to the age of the internet, and contemporary political maelstroms?

Some favorite contemporary painters: Kerry James Marshall is brilliant. He’s a humanist painter on an epic scale, which is rare today. I was really moved and confounded by Tomma Abts’ show at the New Museum several years ago, and have continued to think about her work ever since. I love Cynthia Daignault’s attitude toward painting, and the simple gestures she uses to generate bodies of work. Maureen Gallace’s weird familiarity and unexpected formal sophistication is something I’ve been moved by since first seeing it 20 years ago. I love Nicola Verlato. I think he’s an incredibly accomplished, idiosyncratic technician, and I love the way he builds emotional content through layered historical references. I think Alexi Worth is a really interesting painter: he genuinely creates objects that defy easy categorization. Many LA painters I was introduced to when I lived there remain important to me: Judie Bamber, Monica Majoli, Ginny Bishton, Lari Pittman, Tom Knechtel. And I’d just to add that I love Christopher Williams and Charles Ray, even though neither are painters.

As far as how painting will change in relationship to the internet? I’m not sure I can give a good answer. New models of thinking and new technology obviously change painting. But I’m not sure I can make a broad prediction about how that will happen, at least not now. Contemporary politics? The disaster that we’re experiencing? I think I addressed it a bit above. I’ll just say that it’s more important now than ever for Artists to make work that does something more than reflect back to viewers the reality we live in, or that just adds to the meaningless noise of most culture; artists have to offer an alternative way of engaging with and experiencing the world.

Diva # 4, 1994

Do you have any upcoming projects/exhibitions?

I have a solo show scheduled at Almine Rech Gallery in January of 2018.