Since her arrival on the art scene some twenty-five years ago, Lisa Yuskavage has made a name for herself with paintings that use classical techniques to depict unabashedly taboo subjects. Her creations—awash in radiant, hallucinatory colors and featuring hedonistic heroines unlike anything else in art today—are instantly identifiable. Her latest show, which opened last week at David Zwirner in New York, explores the idea of the incubus and succubus, and includes images of men—Dude Looks Like Jesus, for instance—a first for the artist. “I was thinking a lot about Dürer,” she says. “There’s this obsession with a certain look, which has to do with a revolutionary kind of guy.”
I met Yuskavage, who is fifty-two, at her spacious Brooklyn studio earlier this month, where our talk touched on a variety of subjects, including her process, her past, and her experimentation with Grindr, the gay dating app. We’d intended to take a trip to her favorite bookstore, Ursus Books, afterward, but we stayed at her studio instead, conversing as pale yellow light crept along the floor.
When critics discuss your work, they talk a lot about gaze—whether the figures depicted are inviting us to look or whether we’re intruding upon something private.
It’s interesting because in order to make some of these paintings of men, I did something a few years ago—I didn’t realize why I was doing it at the time. I joined Grindr. I had a Grindr persona. You didn’t think I was going to say that today, did you?
Do you remember your username?
I don’t remember, but I eventually took it down when I almost hooked up with someone. I met someone by accident. My husband has a very nice body, and I took a picture of his torso. He had pants on. I didn’t want to be that vulgar, because I didn’t want to present myself as being just interested in sex.
So I was at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street having my stupid vegan soup. I was looking at Grindr and imagining the Dionysian possibilities of life. It seemed like the air was full of sex. Not just sex, but hopefulness. Then I see that there’s someone who, whatever you call it, poked me or tapped me. He was ten feet away. I was like looking around and then I saw someone looking around. He was looking for me, and he couldn’t find me because I didn’t exist!
Do you still have the app?
I immediately deleted it. I realized it was a strange thing to be doing and I cold-turkeyed it. I suppose when you asked about gaze, something I’ve been working a lot with is using my own fascination with what turns people on. Which is why Grindr was so interesting to me. I had no idea why I had done it. But I think the thing is—in a way, everything is enchanted, if you can just let it be. I was doing that because I was enchanted—to make the work that I’m making now. These are a series of paintings about the incubus and succubus.
I’m curious if you ever feel the urge to paint as a result of something that’s happening, “out there,” something political.
I guess I really hate political arguments because of the way I grew up. My father was a teamster, and it seemed like he was on strike most of the time. We used to eat food that said GREEN BEANS—black letters on a white can. We were always on a budget because of my dad’s job and his convictions. My mother was a Republican, the old-fashioned kind of Republican. But they used to fight at the dinner table about politics all the time.
I learned something interesting recently. Two days before September 11, on September 9, I was at the World Trade Center to upgrade a plane ticket. I had never spent time there. It was a beautiful day. I thought that what I was doing was enjoying New York City the way tourists do. I ended up spending most of the day riding the elevator. I had a Diet Coke at Windows on the World, and I looked out. The buildings were connected by these glass atrium–type things. And there was an enormous art collection there. Very little is said about it today. I remember seeing specific art works. I remember the people, TV sets constantly projecting the news. I walked around and I was like, Well, that was delightful. And I had lunch outside in the yard where the bodies later fell, exploding on the ground. People said you could hear this horrible sound—the sound of bodies hitting the ground at a hundred miles per hour. But I sat right there, and I was getting sun, and then I went back to my studio.
There’s that Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I think I grew up during uninteresting times. Not the rest of the world, but in the United States. It was pre-AIDS, it was postwar. We had Nixon, and obviously there were unpleasantries, but it was peacetime. The curse, I really got that later. Because I was like, Oh, no, what else is coming? What kind of an artist continues to stay in her studio when these things are happening? But that’s what all of these people always did—Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, but you have to think about what it was really like in Rome at the time. The world was going to hell in a hand basket through most of these things—wars, famines. Their job was not to fix that. In some cases it was to entertain.
Can you tell me about your life as a young artist?
When I first came to New York City, I had this painting show that was the culmination of a lot of ideas I’d had as a student, and it was a big flop. I don’t mean a big flop commercially. It was a big flop for me because I walked into the opening and I hated the show. And I stopped painting for a year.
What was it that you didn’t like?
It didn’t represent what I felt. It was like a show for a person I was pretending to be and not my real self. I was trying to ape to something that I was supposed to be doing. I come from a working-class family. I kind of have a potty mouth. I have a lot of crazy energies that I didn’t know you could put into art. I thought art was for classy people, and I was going to try to be one of those people. That’s when I put on my painting beret, my little pinkie went up, and I was a fake. I was a fraud. And I didn’t know how to do it any other way.
I realized later that I could include all of my aspects and that that would actually be important, but it took this year of not painting. I just walked around SoHo, and I looked at art. I saw some really important art that changed my understanding of what was possible, like Mike Kelley. But then I was also seeing a lot of films. I was doing a lot of film festivals because I had a lot of time on my hands. Film Forum was doing a Fassbinder festival and MoMA was doing a Pasolini festival, or a Tarkovsky festival. I spent time at the New York Public Library. And I was teaching something like watercolor and patching together a living. I thought I was just filling my time because I was depressed, but what I realize now is that I was actually building my armor for what I wanted to do and feeding myself in a way. The real-world school, not the school school. I think by going to all the festivals, like the Fassbinder festival, I felt that I had met a friend. And I just wanted to stay. I felt less lonely. I think that when you’re an artist and you’re dropped in from outer space, you’re spending the rest of your life trying to figure out who your people are—Who is like me? Who am I really? Because your family is only part of the picture, and you cannot reject that. But who you become has to be something that never existed before.
You went to Yale for graduate school. Was there a sense of community?
I met my best friend there, Jesse. He and I were immediately friends. He was a six-foot-four, 280-pound queen, erudite. He had been an art history teacher, he had been writing art criticism. And all his life he wanted to be a painter. And he finally got up the nerve to go to art school. He was younger than I am now, like forty-three. He was very late. He and I didn’t fit in. When he died I was like, Woah—where did all of that go? Shit. That was the thing about AIDS. It was like all these extraordinary people who knew so much. They were the people you wanted to know. I was with him when he got his diagnosis. He died within five years. And I was not much older then you, trying to figure out what to do with a person’s body who did not want his family to know because he was afraid they would throw away his paintings. A whole lot of wrong in this world has been done by people able to pretend and imagine and believe that someone, another human being, is not in any way like them. But Jesse had this thing—you could never bait him. He never foreclosed on any possibility of what he could be. He was many things at the same time until he was no more.
How do you react to your critics?
I’ve gotten cease and desist letters. They’ve called me pornographic, like it’s a bad thing. We are living in a world where you have to go to battle to have an open mind. People are a little more used to seeing what I do now, but when I was making my early work they were really not prepared for it. And I loved what I was doing so much, because I knew it was right. If it feels so good, it’s got to be right. I stopped thinking about making art that looked like anything else. I had a direct line to this thing inside of myself. It’s like cooking and saying, I have a hankering for this and a little bit of that. You’re not working from a recipe because the goal is not a known goal. You’re putting something together based on cravings. I wanted to make art that I was hoping to see and hadn’t seen. To be able to get back to painting was a real act of defiance for me, especially against myself. When I got back to it I felt like I was breathing air for the first time.
So do you still feel as though you have to stifle doubt?
Always. For the rest of my life. You know, not that long ago, I lost a lot of weight. I don’t know if you have seen any older pictures of me. I was a big girl for a while. You really learn who your friends are. Suddenly people want to be friendly with you who didn’t want to like you before. There was one person who said to me, God, you must be relieved to be getting rid of all those big clothes. Alternately, there were people I knew who said, I thought you were always beautiful, I didn’t even notice you had any weight on—I just thought you were tall!
There aren’t that many big people in the art business. Weirdly, it’s an aristocratic business. Aristocrats are not supposed to be big. I would have people make clothes for me. When I lost weight, I had all these beautiful clothes because you know I had to go out a lot, for these benefits. I was always dreading that side of things. I would spend time thinking about how to not feel anxious about being photographed. I found a charity for girls who didn’t have the money to pay for prom dresses. I took these clothes and I wrapped them in tissue paper and I said good-bye to every last one. But that experience, for twenty years, was like hiding out.
How much of a painting is clear to you in advance?
Well you have to make a decision. You can’t be flopping around. You also have to be willing to change directions. I started Bonfire about three years ago. And the thing is, the painting was about ninety-eight percent finished, but I knew it needed something, and I looked at it for three years. It wasn’t until I saw that movie, Mr. Turner—there’s a scene where he sticks the red paint on the canvas and then wipes part of it away. I loved that scene. So I came in here after having seen that movie, and I was eating an orange. I walked by the painting and had the orange in my hand and flicked my hand. I got my paintbrush and took the most perfect yellow-orange color and stuck that on there like I was Mr. Turner. I’m going to be sorry to have to leave this world. It was a good world to be in for a while.
“Lisa Yuskavage” is on view at David Zwirner in New York City through June 13. Her show “The Brood” opens at the Rose Museum at Brandeis University on September 12, in conjunction with a new book.
Thomas Gebremedhin is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is currently at work on a short-story collection. His writing has appeared in Vice, Vogue, and other publications.