There was a time before trigger warnings and safe spaces when it seemed the best way of addressing hypocrisy, lies, and, most of all power, was to find a way to undermine the authority of whatever it was you were pissed off at by getting into it, subverting it, and most of all, participating in the dialogue of culture. It might be called irony, satire, or parody, or, for lack of anyone ever defining it, “The Poetry of Hating Shit.” Some of our cultural institutions, like Saturday Night Live, Punk Rock, and the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis, and David Foster Wallace are examples that have become canonical. Painting, as well, can show us something we think we know in a new way, taking known visual forms and re-presenting them, using the vocabulary of something oppressive and liberating new ideas. The current work of Liz Markus shows this tradition has not abated.
I have known Markus for nearly two decades, and am always amazed with the ways she draws from a disparate variety of sources then weaves them together with such clarity that her paintings seem to have always been there. The past couple years have been some of her best in the studio, and it seemed to be the right time to reconsider what she has done and where she will be taking us in the future.
Liz Markus, Improved (Plaid), 2010, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 60 x 72 inches
Bradley Rubenstein: I want to talk about some of the recent paintings, the Trump ones. But let’s frame that discussion, in the context of your work, with two groups of work that I think are important. First was your show at ZieherSmith, Are You Punk or New Wave?, and at the other end of the spectrum was your Girlfriends of the Rolling Stones paintings.
Liz Markus: Yeah, they both express the rebellious side of me. The Punk/New Wave show specifically reflected my experience of the 80s, both in high school and art school. “Are you Punk or New Wave?” was an often-heard question in high school as we tried to best understand and categorize ourselves. I think of New Wave as more conceptual and Punk as more angry. Both served as a counterweight to our preppy lives at a private, all-girls school. In the show I think of Plaid, the Johnny Rotten paintings, and Kate as punk and maybe especially Relax and War as New Wave, though I wasn’t specifically painting them to fit into those categories. My portrait of Basquiat makes a good visual bridge to the Girlfriends of the Rolling Stones portraits. As my Punk/New Wave paintings were a reaction to my more staid daily life in prep school, the Girlfriends served as a release from the stringent women in my portrait series of iconic socialites. The latter were very buttoned up and sought to appear perfect. The Girlfriends are sexy, powerful, and though I named the series for whom they dated, they are women who are really interested in pleasing themselves rather than a man.
BR: You folded a lot of ideas into simple images. I remember being really struck by the pieces, your use of color was spot right, and it was both color and subject matter coming together perfectly. In a similar way the Girlfriends pictures use period colors, like something remembered, but you weren’t there then, so there is this weird immediacy combined with a sense of distance.
LM: Yeah, I liked how punks took plaid away from conservatives and made it their own flag. War in pink colors is really a nod to ACT UP’s pink triangle in their Silence = Death posters. Using the words “relax” and “war” (both Frankie Goes To Hollywood songs) at a grand scale was actually inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s New York, NY painting that hung in the Albright-Knox when I was growing up in Buffalo. I love how that painting flickers between abstraction and representation. Mine failed on that score. They don’t flicker. I still love them.
Liz Markus, Relax, 2010, Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 51 x 84.25 inches
BR: There is also something in your work that reminds me of Schnabel—combining portraits and genre work, with strange personal references.
LM: Ah, Schnabel. I hated his work when I saw it in the 1980s. Then, in grad school in 1995 I fell head over heels for it. I love the epic scale, both of his work and his ego. He is like a wizard who can summon great forces to come together on the canvas. I think you’re right about our work relating both in our variety of genre and also in our attention to beautiful and poetic mark making. I think one of the benefits of Post Modernism is our ability to sort of pick through the history of painting, cafeteria style. I insist on my right to paint whatever I want, whether it’s “confusing to collectors” or not. My “side paintings” are some of my favorites. That said, incorporating portraiture with genre work with strange personal references is straight out of Picasso.
BR: There is something in your work that keeps it from being straight satire, but there is a sense of exploring celebrity, or taking the piss out of “high art” there.
LM: Yes. There was a pervasive gallows humor in my house growing up. It came from my dad. He was a holocaust survivor with a wicked sense of humor. I’m not sure he used it to get through the holocaust. I doubt it. I’m guessing he had it before and that it came back, and maybe that’s what kept him buoyant and happy in the face of having witnessed a total loss of humanity.
At any rate, it’s this dark humor through which I view life. I think that comes across in the work not because I’m trying to imbue the work with it but because all of my work is somewhat biographical, in that I place a high value on painting from within. In 1999 I made a wall painting with the words “It’s all about how Liz Markus responds to work.” I had taken the gray grid of modernist graphic designer—I think it was Josef Müller-Brockmann—and created my own modernist poster about myself. There were two identical grids on each side of a door. The only difference was that one was matte and one was glossy. I had used the vocabulary of graphic design because I was thoroughly researching it to teach myself about design for my day job. But I also fell in love with it. So it came out in my artwork. I wanted to explain, within an artwork, what it was that my work was all about. That it is my response to something, to other art, to what’s around me, to being a woman, to fashion, to politics. My take on all of those things is cynical but hopeful. There is a great t-shirt I have from Buffalo that I think succinctly explains my work. There is an emblem with a buffalo in the middle, and around the circle it says “BUFFALO, CITY OF NO ILLUSIONS.”
Liz Markus, Anita Pallenberg, 2014, Acrylic and pencil on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches
BR: Oh yeah, you can see this in your paintings of “ladies who lunch” [Town & Country], as well as the Girlfriends of the Rolling Stones… We have talked about your interest in Sargent as a reference point, but there is also some Warhol, although in the case of Sargent’s portraits that isn’t as large a gap as it might seem…
LM: For about two weeks every year or so I become re-obsessed with John Singer Sargent. I read up on his technique, study his portraits, find lectures on him, make a pilgrimage to the Met to see the work in person. Usually I become so absorbed in his genius that I lose my connection to my own work, think it’s terrible, wonder how anyone bothers to paint after Sargent, lament that I wasn’t born in the 19th century when I would have gotten the grand academic education that he had. It gets intense. [laughing] Then I remember Warhol and who I am, and I can go back to my own work, probably having learned yet some more from the master.
Liz Markus, Bianca in Yellow, 2015, Acrylic and pencil on unprimed canvas, 48 x 35 inches
BR: I think there is something here that art can do, let’s call it “High Art” or whatever, and it is what I see at the heart of what you are doing at the moment that puts your work into a category of “significance.” I think there is some art that—at the moment or maybe it has finally become institutionalized “protest art”—that somehow takes away the idea that art is just…powerful. Art can be complex. Painting, that oldest of media, can be incredibly powerful, and complex. One of the things I was immediately struck by with the Girlfriends was, yeah, there was this ironic twist the work was taking on the idea of “girlfriends of…” but when the album Some Girls came out, there was this quote by Keith Richards after he was asked “Why did you name the album Some Girls?” And the pithy answer was, “Because we couldn’t remember their fucking names.” So the idea of going back in time to retrieve these women from being a punchline has a political or social point that is really concise. The idea of pairing the two series of work in [your] show was political in a way that seemed complex. You were making a type of painting, like an updated form of History Painting, that evoked David, or Ingres, or Gericault and combining that with an Annie Leibowitz style of fashion documentary photography is conceptually really, really sound…
LM: I love the way you put that. That art can just be…powerful. While in grad school I was wandering through the Philadelphia Museum of Art and came across an amazing Polke resin painting. And I had the singular thought that “This is a Great Painting.” I understood in that moment that some paintings, of whatever kind, are just Great. They didn’t have to be a particular type of painting, they just had to be really good. And I took it upon myself to try to create one of these.
I put up an eight-by-ten-foot canvas tarp on my studio wall at Tyler and started to paint. Dona Nelson was my professor and she knew what I was up to. She’d come in now and then, look at the painting, and then say, “Needs some more work. Keep going.” And she’d laugh in this particular Dona Nelson way. I felt encouraged, the way a prizefighter feels when they’re back in the corner after a brutal round and their coach is giving them a pep talk. It was a struggle. Finally one day she came in and pronounced that it was done, I could rest. I made two of those paintings and still like them a lot.
And then Stanley Whitney taught me to never let them see the struggle. The painting shouldn’t look like it was a struggle. In a way I extended that into my subject matter with the Girlfriends. I felt there was something strong and interesting about these women and that if I painted them, they would show me and others what that was. My job wasn’t to construe meaning, but to paint in such a way that the women themselves could offer us some interesting questions and maybe answers.
Liz Markus, November 9, 2016, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches
BR: Getting back to Trump, this one painting [November 9, 2016] caught me by surprise when I saw it on my Facebook feed. There was surprisingly little art that really captured my interest with regard to the election and its results. Deb Kass did a Warholian take on the election that I thought was brilliant, but then there were a lot of things that looked like satirical political art but were, well, something else. Eric Fischl drawing clown noses on Kellyanne Conway. Stuff like that…
LM: I had been in the middle of a series inspired by fashion when Trump won. Specifically I had just painted a model in jeans and a flannel shirt with her arms out to the side. After the election I was furious and hurt, in mourning for what felt like a death, of Hillary. I needed a place to channel the rage. So I just started to write on my canvas. Later I saw that the model is in a classic crucifixion pose. Though I would have never intentionally painted a woman as martyr so directly, I thought it was terribly apropos. I think it works because I wasn’t trying to make a political painting. Those ideas tend to be lame. This one came from the same place all the rest of my work comes from.
BR: I don’t know how much you can force that intention. We were talking at your studio about Joan Dideon. She has become this new, fascinating, oblique problem I keep turning around. I just read a bio on her and started her new book [South and West]. I had always thought her work to be the closest thing to High Satire I would ever see…I love her prose, and Slouching Toward Bethleham has informed a lot of my writing on art. But I had always seen her “narrator” as this fiction. In fact, she was that character, Republican, didn’t know shit about music…hated pop culture… There is a sense in your painting that you are sincere, or at least that is how I see it. You paint the surface of things, but in doing so you seem to be trying to find a deeper truth to these images…
LM: Yes. Someone once said my paintings are deeply shallow, or something to that effect. I’ve always been fascinated by painters who seem to offer the viewer relatively little surface-wise but whose work resonates deeply. Specifically I think of Warhol and Christopher Wool. There are two ways in which I’m engaged in “shallow” painting. My paint surfaces are physically thin whether I’m staining or working on primed canvas. I’m very interested in getting my intention across in a painting but I don’t seem to require much paint in order to do that. It also keeps the image, rather than the medium, of paramount importance—and my pop sensibility likes that. I think it’s important to stress that these aren’t conscious moves on my part. It’s just the way I naturally paint.
Also, my subject matter can come across as shallow at first, even to me. But I’m truly fascinated by portrait painting. And you could say that a portrait is just that: a likeness of someone. It’s not inherently political and certainly not cool. But I believe that, while painting, the unconscious gets involved, even when you’re primarily focused on creating a likeness. And that can lead to something that feels deeper than the surface. And I don’t feel the need to find words to describe it. It’s indivisible with the paint. This process is one of the reasons I always thought you had to live a little before you could be a really great painter. You must have some experience of the brutal nature of existence in order to create a painting that has depth. That may come from the fact that my earliest painting heroes were the Abstract Expressionists.
Liz Markus, Nancy 11, 2009, Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches
BR: There is a key element to high satire that seems rarer and rarer: the idea of being inside of, or part of, something that you are willing to simultaneously love and critique at the same time. That is the brilliance of Restoration theater, as well as Philip Guston’s Nixon drawings. This is something you seem to understand, and it kind of ties all of your work together.
LM: I know what you mean. Maybe that began in my Nancy Reagan portraits. Although I was using a photo of Nancy as reference, I never meant for people to recognize her as Nancy Reagan. When they did, I stopped painting her for a while. Later she fit in with my exploration of WASP culture, and I picked her up again, this time intending her to be Nancy. As I saw her face distort under my bleeding stains, I began to have some empathy for her. Often in my portraits of her she looks like she’s really brittle and just barely (or maybe not even) keeping it together. Nancy was a woman who figured out how to attain power at a time when woman were not allowed access to that arena. I respect her for that. I also disagree with her politics. I don’t think the paintings would have worked had I intended to make fun of her. They would have been so one-dimensional. High satire must start with some sympathy for the devil.
Bradley Rubenstein is a New York-based artist and writer.
(Image at top: Liz Markus, Jane Birkin in Red Boots, 2015, Acrylic and pencil on unprimed canvas, 60 x 42 inches. All images courtesy of the artist)