Suck them in with beauty, knock them out with the truth: An Interview with Kathe Burkhart

Clad in her signature all-black attire and plum-colored lipstick, with a pensive disposition and a laugh that can only be described as infectious, the artist Kathe Burkhart presides regally over the massive paintings and wooden haiku letters that fill her light-dappled, paint-spattered Brooklyn studio. Black-and-white stills from Elizabeth Taylor films, old love letters and lists of materials are pasted to the walls; tubes and cans of acrylic paint, mannequin parts and other random artistic accoutrements litter the desks and floors. Burkhart takes me on a tour through the studio—which is gargantuan by New York standards—first the room mainly occupied by her infamous Liz Taylor paintings, which are awe-inspiringly large in person; then the living room area, the walls of which are adorned with several of her nude photographs (mostly taken on a nude beach in Spain); then the bedroom, which houses her S&M Series—a collection of paintings of various medieval torture devices, each inspired by and named after a different ex-lover (“I stopped because I ran out of boyfriends!” Burkhart confesses); the “print room,” in which Burkhart keeps many of her prints, drawings and photographs from the pornography series (a collection of photos chronicling the changing window displays in Amsterdam’s red-light district sex shops). Since the mid-1980’s, Burkhart has been known throughout the art world and beyond as the original “bad girl” artist. Her work is political, nonconformist, deeply personal, acerbically witty and intensely provocative—one need only refer to her performance video piece American Woman (2001-2) in which the artist dressed herself in a burka made out of an American flag, then sat motionless in front of a screen onto which original footage from the September 11th terrorist attacks was projected; all the while blasting The Guess Who’s American Woman. Burkhart is arguably best known for her Liz Taylor series, a collection of iconic, extremely large-scale portraits of the notoriously audacious, often profligate violet-eyed screen siren (who Burkhart calls an “unapologetic hedonist”) interwoven with autobiographical elements from the artist’s own life. Drawing inspiration from actual film stills, Burkhart emblazons each Liz Taylor portrait with a different provocative phrase, making a tongue-in-cheek commentary on women’s sexual emancipation. Throughout the series, Liz oscillates between the roles of abject victim and dominatrix heroine, playing out each seemingly unshakeable stereotype that persists throughout Hollywood and the media. In Junkie, we find a middle-aged Liz on a street corner, draped in fur (made from dozens of real minks Burkhart glued to the canvas). On the dirty sidewalk surrounding Liz’s high-heeled feet, the artist has attached real syringes, used condoms, discarded heroin baggies, a Vicodin prescription label, pill bottles, razor blades, temporary tattoos, plastic croissants, a sterling silver spoon and cooker, an abortion flyer, a cervical cap and other miscellaneous paraphernalia. The word “JUNKIE” is stenciled in giant red block letters across the canvas. In Blueballs, Liz reclines seductively on a large brass bed with a dealt hand of tarot cards spread in front of her on the teal duvet. It’s the small, personal details Burkhart adds that bestow yet another layer of meaning upon the work— the ones I might not have even known were personal without speaking to the artist herself—the tarot card reading in front of Liz was Burkhart’s own actual reading; on the bedside table rests not only a stack of Burkhart’s own books but her then-boyfriend’s prescription for Cialis; in the upper right-hand corner of the wall behind the bed hangs a subtle framed painting that appears abstract upon first glance but is actually a scanned and printed photograph of what Burkhart calls “my strange hoo-hoo.” Burkhart is also a prolific writer—she has published three books of fiction and poetry (and, I might add, a series of chocolate haikus!) and has plans for a possible film project in the future—an adaptation of her novel Between the Lines, which she describes as “sort of the female Brokeback Mountain.” Much like her muse, Liz Taylor, Burkhart embodies the role of the noncompliant subject— utterly unapologetic for her own “unladylike appetites,” she breaks down accepted notions of femininity, reevaluating the role of the woman artist throughout her body of work.

ANNABEL GRAHAM: What is your conception of feminist art? How do you think perceptions of feminist art have changed since you first began your career as an artist, both for you and for the public?

KATHE BURKHART: Well, I think I’m an artist who happens to be a feminist. I don’t know what “feminist art” is anymore. I mean, it had a certain connotation in the 70’s and now, it just has a totally negative connotation…  I think that the more women are shown in the art world, we have more of a presence, but feminist issues, feminist art, feminism and the social field - the art world is just a reflection of the rest of the world. And we’re in a period of terrible retrenchment right now, where your generation has to think about the right to control your own body again, which to me is insane. In 1992, I did this installation called The Abortion Project, with the signatures of women who had had abortions, and you guys have to fight this still… On International Women’s Day I posted stuff on Facebook with it, I was like what happened in the intervening years, was the intervening generation asleep at the wheel, or what? What happened? George Bush, but women were still sexually active and maybe needed an abortion from time to time, no?

KENDALLE (Burkhart’s studio assistant): Not on his watch.

BURKHART: Right? [LAUGHS] That’s good! We’ll be putting that one in, Kendall… that was excellent… good call. So… I think that there’s a real negative connotation to the word [feminism], because we’re in a time of retrenchment, but that’s silly…

GRAHAM: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people equate the word “feminism” with bra-burning, men-hating…

BURKHART: That is so incredibly old-fashioned. I think that now we see feminist issues are being addressed in culture… in art, in movies, in literature, and the reason why is because women are consumers. That’s why. So parity will be built through that. But I do feel like the previous generation was maybe a little bit asleep at the wheel, because we have like half-hookers now, and that’s really sad. I would think that a young woman in 2012 would be able to buy her own cocktail, you know?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s quite the case yet.[LAUGHS] So what’s the climate like for women artists today? How has it changed?

BURKHART: We have more visibility but we still don’t command the same prices at auction as men do; women are still considered a “bargain.” You know what the new market is? Old women. So, if you don’t die, you’ve got a chance in your 80s to make a market.

GRAHAM: Wow. Okay. So there’s hope for us yet!

BURKHART: [LAUGHS] There’s hope! You can be Alice Neel. I always wonder, what the heck will I look like?

GRAHAM: It’s interesting to think about. You work with a number of different mediums; painting, writing, installation art. Would you say that you have a favorite, or one that you gravitate towards more than others? Do the different ones help you express different things?

BURKHART: Yeah. Different ones help me do different things. Come, we’ll take a small tour. So this is… we’re in the painting studio now. [We walk into the other half of the studio, where several of Burkhart’s photographs are hung] These are some of the nudes… This is funny. [She gestures towards a photograph of two men sleeping naked on a nude beach in Spain] These guys were sleeping… I went away, and came back, and they were still sleeping… [LAUGHS] Nice nuts, you know? So, having such a big space, I’m able to break up the bodies of work a lot more; I can really turn it into… [We walk into the bedroom. The walls are lined with paintings from Burkhart’s “Torture Series.”] TThese are all paintings from the Torture series, so these are all old boyfriends.

GRAHAM: So you title them with the ex-boyfriend’s name?

BURKHART: Yeah. First name only! There are more of these… but I stopped making them at a certain point because I ran out of guys. [LAUGHS] That could always change again. But I made these from about 1992 to 2000. [We walk into the next room].This is the “paper room,” where I have all my prints and stuff, but also photo prints are kept in here… This is the porno series… in Amsterdam. I started shooting them in the early 90’s. So I was really shooting porno shops in the Red Light district in Amsterdam, and the weird thing was that I had kept the negatives shelved because I couldn’t afford to print them for years, but I then I had access at NYU to make these prints, which was great, and I did a show with them in 2005.

GRAHAM: Wow. So you had no idea what they looked like until you printed them up?

BURKHART: I knew what they looked like, but not this big… and all the ones that were shot on film had to be meticulously cleaned, because they were full of dust and scratches… and then I started shooting digitally, and, you know, that took care of that. But the odd thing is that now, all of that’s online and there are fewer and fewer porno shops… they’re being overtaken by young clothing designers and stuff. The whole neighborhood’s being gentrified; people buy this stuff online now. So a whole visual culture is disappearing. Something that was at first kind of documenting my reaction to this, what seemed to be openness, but is really just commerce… started out that way, and then I realized, wow, I’m kind of documenting a moment in history that is going to disappear eventually as everything goes online. And now it looks like this. [Gestures towards a photograph of a “tasteful” window display in an Amsterdam sex shop] That was taken this summer, in that neighborhood.

GRAHAM: It looks like an installation piece, almost.

BURKHART: Doesn’t it? I know. Here we have your tasteful tit and ass prosthesis for rich trannies, or something. It’s got that… I mean, it’s still the surrealistic kind of mash-up, but it’s all… everything costs more. I’m going for a residency this summer at the Center for Contemporary Art in Majorca, so I’m going to shoot a ton more of these nudes. I’m going to be a photo machine. I am a camera.

[We go back into the painting studio through a secret passageway]

BURKHART: [Gesturing towards one of the Liz paintings involving a voodoo doll and pins] And this one has pins… Many many pins. You can really see how many if you look back here.

GRAHAM: Wow. Guess you have to handle that one with care. So… what’s your reaction to the perception of you as a “bad girl” artist?

BURKHART: Well, it really morphed into something that I didn’t intend very quickly. We didn’t have words like “gender nonconforming” when I was your age. You were gay or straight, or you didn’t exist, basically. Now, fortunately, we have that word, gender nonconforming, which encompasses sort of what I meant by being a “bad girl.” It was picked up and marketed… it was strange, it was like suddenly to be a bad girl was to be a lesbian. I didn’t get that, I mean, there are plenty of “good girl” lesbians. So, I wanted to represent a kind of woman who wasn’t represented, who wasn’t complicit, who was a noncompliant subject… and that’s what I meant by it, more or less. Gender nonconforming, a noncompliant subject with agency…  Liz Taylor’s a good container for me to dump all that personal history into, because she’s unashamed about having appetites… for sex, for food, for money… for all of the material things that we associate… with hedonism, really. So, in a sense, it was like an unapologetic hedonist, and a linking-up of a punk sort of resistance. It wasn’t about cowgirls, or lesbian mothers, or any of that… What happened was, I was on the cover of Flash Art, the article was called “Bad Girl Made Good,” it’s the first time that term was used in contemporary art. But then it was picked up on by the media and applied to artists like Lisa Yuskavage, Tracy Emin, etc...people who really wanted to be…'good'. So some women who basically wanted to be part of the tide seized upon the “bad girl” mantle, which also for me encompassed a bit of performativity; that the work would come out of the life, and for that to work,  the life had to be interesting. So it was all of those things and more, but it quickly spiraled out of control when the Bad Girl shows happened. So it was considered stupid… Laura Cottingham wrote an article called “How Many Bad Girls Does it Take to Screw In a Lightbulb?” and… it really spiraled out of control and became totally negative, of course. I mean, you say “bad boy” and people just snicker. Soon it became kind of feminist infighting. Like, “I’m not a bad girl, that’s stupid, whatever, I’m a prisspot intellectual. I’m neuter.” [LAUGHS]

GRAHAM: Can you really be “neuter” as an artist?

BURKHART: There is that kind of position. There’s a neuter position, women who are not attractive and so they can’t factor their sexuality into it, because they don’t have it, so they’re not threatening. So, when you’re a young woman you can have a lot of success with your sexuality up until you’re about 35 and you have power. So then it’s like, you have a little bit of power and you’re sexual and good looking and smart? That’s really fucking scary. So they put you out to pasture until you’re like 50, and don’t pay any attention to you.  That’s how it is. Because they’re figuring that you’re going to breed and leave the field. And if you don’t breed and leave the field, or if you breed and make money anyway, after you’re about 50 and you’re not dead yet, then they can… then you’re harvestable.

GRAHAM: So it’s a bleak future.

BURKHART: I’m sorry.

GRAHAM: No, it’s good to hear. My next question is about your Liz Taylor series. Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind the series, and how it’s maybe changed throughout the process of these… how many are there?

BURKHART: Oh, god. I don’t know. Three hundred and something? It’s been 25 or 30 years… Crazy. I don’t know how many I’ve got. There was a photograph, an advertisement from The Little Foxes, which was on stage in LA, and that was the very first Liz painting.

GRAHAM: And then from there, did you have the idea that you’d do a series?

BURKHART: No… I guess that’s when I started to collect the images. And then I did another one, and another one… you know, and then I kept going. But I was doing other things at the same time, of course. I was taking pictures and making videos and writing.

GRAHAM: So what is it about Liz Taylor that merits such extensive exploration?

BURKHART: Well, it’s a way to talk about myself without being really solipsistic, and to talk about the woman artist. She really represents a woman artist who continually played herself, so it’s completely performative, and, that’s what I pretty much do as an artist, is kind of unpack my own life through the work, but also to talk about the limited range of roles and representations of women. Things have changed a little bit… but not that much, clearly. We don’t have stars like that anymore. I mean, who plays themselves every time? That doesn’t exist. They’ll just play whatever role for money. It’s not like you’re following the star anymore in the same way. The star system’s all over. But what it spawned is that now everybody is a star, of course. Everybody is for sale, for free.  So celebrity culture… I mean, who knew how it would open up, the way it has? So I think that the series, in a way, anticipated that… tracking of ourselves that we do all the time now, how we refract ourselves through culture, through the movies or through what we see in the media. There was no YouTube, there was no Facebook or blogs… I mean, for example, for the film stills, I would go to the still store; I had to collect them. Now I can just do an image search and print them out. Of course, I still get books and stuff like that, but… she’s provided a way for me to talk about myself and also about media, and also to be able to make paintings when you’re not supposed to make paintings. Conceptual artists aren’t really supposed to make paintings, so there’s that too. When I was in school, painting was like the worst thing you could do. It was declared “dead,” you know? At the same time, a painting appreciates faster than a photograph, and gets the highest amount of money at an auction. So it’s kind of a “thumbing my nose” at all of that monumentality, and ideas about mastery. Am I making sense at all? [LAUGHS]

GRAHAM: You are! Definitely. [LAUGHS] You’re also a writer. How do you feel about writing versus visual art? What can you express through writing that you can’t through visual art?

BURKHART: The really personal stuff. [Painting] is a real process, I have to get the picture, and then I project it, and then there’s the painting part, and the collage part, and I have to put the word with it… but with writing, you know, I just write. I always go back and edit; I’m a fastidious editor. Writing’s great, all you need is a piece of paper and a pen. It’s much lower maintenance.  I’m able to do stuff in writing that would be too graphic visually, you know, problematic… and wouldn’t work. I mean, the only way that comes together is in the Haiku series, and those are made with chocolate letters… and there are a few in wood. This one is going to be… “What I want to do/ what I have to do and what/ I don’t want to do". It's the id, the ego, and the superego. This one will be in wood letters, so it’ll last.  The chocolate will melt or discolor. It’ll turn eventually… the milk chocolate will get white streaks, and the white will… parts of it will yellow… the white lasts longer, it’s nothing but sugar. The dark and the milk die the worst.

GRAHAM: Do people ever eat them?

BURKHART: Oh, you know, people kick them and break them. It was very interesting, I did this solo show in Belgium in September, and there was one broken letter, and this museum curator that I worked with was doing a speech or something, and you know, we worked our asses off for this installation; I got there, they had the opening in the afternoon, so I was late to my own opening… and he just started harping on the broken letter. Oh, it was just like… Oh, god. Like it had a special meaning or something. The special meaning was that the letter was broken and we didn’t have time to get another one. [LAUGHS]

GRAHAM: He was talking about it like it was supposed to be that way?


GRAHAM: That must have been interesting to listen to!

BURKHART: That’s why I try to teach my students to try and control the intention of your work, because of all these weird things that can happen that you totally cannot control. You can’t control what people are going to think anyhow.

GRAHAM: Yeah. People can read the weirdest things into art.

BURKHART: They certainly can. So in the haikus, I was able to find a visual form for the writing. That was important for me… but I can’t do it with narrative. I can’t do it with fiction. I write in between fiction and nonfiction anyway, and sometimes I write straight nonfiction. But the fiction is all drawing on life… it’s all true, so I guess it’s in between. I don’t know how I would use narrative in any other way than I have already. When [the Liz paintings] are all put together some day like they should be in a museum show, what will occur is that there will be a narrative of my life… and the people who really know me, who have worked closely with me, will know and will be able to talk about how the life informs the work. And that will be cool… and I actually had a thought, a great idea to do as a piece, to have an audio tour, but the audio tour would be just me reading stories from my books. I mean, it would be filthy sex,…  when I write about sex… I could never do it visually the way I write about it, or it would just look like… porn. And that wouldn’t work.

GRAHAM: Can you tell me a bit about your background? Where did you grow up?

BURKHART: I grew up in West Virginia. I should have never gotten out… most people never leave. It’s about an hour and a half away from Washington, in the Shenandoah Valley.

GRAHAM: When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?

BURKHART: Oh, really young. Yeah. I mean, I learned to read early, so I started writing fairly early, and I started making art fairly early, and I directed plays that I wrote… so I guess that was the performative part of it very early on. I can’t remember why I stopped the play directing…

GRAHAM: Well, you can always pick it up again!

BURKHART: Correct. [LAUGHS] Well, there’s a movie in me yet. There’s one of my books that I’d like to adapt into a screenplay.

GRAHAM: Oh yeah? Which book?

BURKHART: Between the Lines, which is a book about my great aunt, who lived to be 100, and between 1927 and 1929 she received 79 love letters from a woman in South Carolina, so they had like a romantic friendship… or lesbian relationship, and I published a book in Paris with Hachette,and then a small section of it last year in Esopus… I’ll show it to you, it’s in the front… but it’s really like a female Brokeback Mountain story, so I’d love to make a real movie out of that. That’s a back-burner project. Gender radicals in the family, going all the way back.

GRAHAM: You should do it! So then how did you begin your career, where did you go to school…?

BURHART: Let’s see, I left West Virginia and went to University of Pittsburgh just for a semester… came back to West Virginia and went to Shepherd College, which has an okay art department, but it wasn’t big enough for me, so I applied to CalArts. I found out about the feminist art program… in the library of Shepherd College, I found this catalogue for CalArts, about the feminist art program, and I was like, oh, I want to do that! So of course the catalogue was old in the library, and by the time I called the school to find out if those people were teaching there, they were like, “Who? What program?” [LAUGHS] So there’s the answer to the feminist thing. “What? We only have men teaching here.” They didn’t say that, but that’s basically what it was. So, you know, I set my heart on that school and it was a total conceptual art boys’ club, it really was. There were very few women teaching there. You had to have a personal interview to get in… it was a big deal. They lost my portfolio, they rejected me the first time… so I went up there to meet with somebody and then finally they accepted me. So I guess I had two years of college, about, when I went into CalArts. I lost one year as a transfer student. And then I finished my BFA and got my MFA there too. So once I was there, it was like the citadel on the hill. I had an excellent studio, and I really developed my practice at CalArts; it was really hugely important in my development, and I still pretty much identify as what we call a “CalArtian.” [LAUGHS] There were two things that we called ourselves, the CalArtians and then the CalArts mafia. That’s still operative, because you have all of these wonderful people who came out of CalArts in those years. You have Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Steve Prina,Chris Williams, you know, they’re all guys, right? It’s crazy. Only a few chicks. Where are the women? So I get to be a CalArts token, kind of. There are other CalArts women, Ericka Beckman, etc..but we seem to get treated differently by the art world.

GRAHAM: And then you stayed in California for a while?

BURKHART: I stayed a year after school. And the scene in LA was really taking off then, and while I was in school I worked at LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, which was a lot like artists’ space in those days, it was a very well-funded nonprofit artists’ organization. I started a bookshop there, and then I came to New York in ’85. I think I’ve had this space since ’86.

GRAHAM: Wow. So you live in the Netherlands part-time as well, what’s the difference between the artistic climate here and there? Can you compare the two?

BURKHART: It’s really different, and yet things are changing to make it more the same, in a sad way. You know, when all that “bad girl” stuff erupted, like ’94 or so… it’s funny because that was delayed… when that term was used, it was around the end of 1990, and then people picked it up around ’94. It’s funny how things linger, you know, in its original potent form, nobody wanted anything to do with it, but dilute it down a few years later and everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon, kind of. Around that time I left and started to immigrate to Holland. I was going back and forth, and spending more and more time there each year, and around ’95 I officially started to immigrate. And that’s when all that stuff took off here, and this market in figurative painting for people like John Currin, and all that stuff which I considered to be incredibly reactionary, and, you know, my work was too conceptual for that, it didn’t really fit in. So I found a lot of support in Holland, there’s a wonderful grant support there. I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for my studio in New York if I hadn’t gotten Dutch grants. So they were incredibly supportive, they understood the critique of American culture, the sort of political stance in the work, the anti-capitalist stance… they got it, you know? That you could be personal and political at the same time, that it didn’t have to be prescriptive. So that was really freeing and great for me… also to be in a place that was seemingly much much more tolerant than the United States, and much cheaper to live, with a higher quality of life and a lower cost of living. It’s kind of like an escape from New York, so that’s been good. But things are changing there now, and they’re dismantling the support system for artists, and the individual grants may well be gone in four years. So I don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s very conservative there now, there’s a lot of anti-immigration sentiment there now, and that’s being extended to people who have dual citizenship, it’s being extended to artists… artists are the next to go, and that’s sad. I hope that the E.U. kicks in to put more money back into the system. Now they’re like, “We’re going to follow the American system.” I mean, what system? We don’t have one. So there, up until now you could have a career without having a big market. IT was possible. But now they want the market money too, and it’s kind of disgusting. It’s changing a lot. There’s a lot of support there though, because people are smart.

GRAHAM: Who are some of your favorite artists?

BURKHART: Louise Bourgeois… I just saw a beautiful Hans Bellmer show, can’t stop raving about it… Cady Noland, Barbara Kruger... and some of my favorite writers are Hélène Cixous and Clarice Lispector.

GRAHAM: Last question. What inspires you?

BURKHART: Popular culture, films, literature, daily life, relationships. Suck them in with beauty, knock them out with the truth…

Text and photography by Annabel Graham for Pas Un Autre