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Commencement Address: Deborah Kass, 2011

Commencement Speaker Deborah Kass
Deborah Kass was born in San Antonio, Texas, and received her BFA in Painting at Carnegie Mellon University. She studied at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and the Art Students League of New York. Kass's work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; The Jewish Museum, New York; The Museum of Fine Art, Boston; The Cincinnati Museum; The New Orleans Museum’ The Weatherspoon Museum, as well as numerous public and private collections. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Venice Biennale, the Istanbul Biennale, and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Kass is a Senior Critic in the Yale University M.F.A. Painting Program and is represented by the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York CIty, where she most recently presented a new body of work entitled MORE! Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times in 2010.  "Deborah Kass, The Warhol Project" traveled across the country from 1999-2001. In 2012 the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh will present a mid-career retrospective of her work curated by Eric Shiner. Ms. Kass lives and makes art in Brooklyn, NY.

Deb’s work is smart, initially seductive in color and message, it pulls us in with intriguing popular culture appropriations and beautiful surfaces, and it keeps us engaged because it exists on so many levels. Is the work about pop culture, pop art, feminism, gay and lesbian issues, Jewish concerns?  It’s really about living in a society that values style and longs for content. And her work richly satisfies on these very different levels.

Irving Sandler, the noted writer on contemporary art has said about Kass’s work: “Kass’s pictures were homages…But above all, Kass’s canvases are an homage to the art of painting.”



First I should tell you that I have never heard a commencement speech.  Not a bad one, not a great one till I started Googling them in preparation for this.  I didn’t go to my own graduation.  I was that kind of kid, a product of my non-authoritarian times. So what does one say at these momentous occasions, this rite of passage?  Should I inspire you?  OR should I tell you the truth?  That art isn’t easy, like the great philosopher Stephen Sondheim says?  I’ve decided to do a little of both.

Deep recession, high gas prices, cities devastated, rampant unemployment, war, corrupt politicians, monumental abuse of power and public trust.  Sound familiar?  I might be talking about today, but I am describing the world I entered when I graduated Carnegie Mellon w a BFA in painting in 1974 and it has been a wild ride since. Your trajectory will be different than mine by virtue of time, of course, but also by space.  Being a life long New Yorker, I can only speak from my experience.  The east and west coast art worlds are different places.  And the world is certainly a different place then when I was your age.

No one can prepare you for what is to come.  No one could have prepared me and I wouldn’t have wanted them to.  I attended the Whitney independent Study program in its earliest years, while still in undergraduate school, when it was in the basement of an old abandoned bank building, in a neighborhood yet to be named TRIBECA, before the program was the bastion of conceptual postmodernism it is today.  I was lucky to be part of a generation that could move to New York and live cheaply for decades, in the perfect loft, before “loft” was a real estate designation, in the very same neighborhood before it was a destination for young Hollywood.  That let me live off the infrequent sale of my work, once I got fired from my long time waitress job at the Broome St Bar in Soho.  I received a large NEA Grant when they still existed. In the 80s two young guys started a gallery on tony 57th Street.  They found my slides at the famous “ARTISTS SPACE UNAFFILIATED ARTISTS SLIDE FILE.“  Mine was the second show that Baskerville + Watson Gallery mounted.   They went on to show not only me, but Richard Prince, Carroll Dunham and Sherry Levine, as well. 

For us being an artist was not a career choice.  It was a calling.  Things are really different now.  I don’t have a clue what the art world will be like for you.  I only know that like everything else it will change over the course of your lifetime.  When I moved to NYC in the 70s in the middle of a recession I would never have predicted that the art world become the multi-billion dollar industry it is now.  I certainly wasn’t in it for the money.

It seems to me that culture is always swinging back and forth between the same poles, left to right, right to left, open to closed, liberal to conservative, war to peace, democracy to fascism, prosperity to bust.  AS WE ARE ALL PAINFULLY AWARE, THIS IS the toughest moment of most of our lives.  This is the world you guys are stepping into.  Your art will have a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the world, since like all things, art is a product of its times, a reflection of the world as it or as it could be.

Since I know that you all are graduating with BFAs today this is my first piece of advice for you:

Get your MFA.  The more years you have to do your work without having to enter the real world, the better.  Teaching jobs might be scarce, but you will need that degree even for an adjunct job.  MOST of all, it gives you more time to do your work.  Stretch out school as long as you can.

At the risk of being brutally honest, I would like to give you some VERY PRAGMATIC ADVICE ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST:  Martha Graham famously said, “DON’T DANCE UNLESS YOU HAVE TO.”  The same goes for you.  Don’t do this unless you are 150% committed.  Seriously.  This is not a life for the ambivalent or faint hearted.

TALENT IS NOT ENOUGH.  You really have to be really really smart about the following things: your work, other people, the world, yourself.  People skills are a definite plus.  Be as nice as you can to as many people as possible. Chances are you will know the people you’ve gone to school with and the new ones you will meet for a very very long time.  In fact, YOU WILL NEVER GET RID OF THEM!  These are your peers and this is your community.   Try not to give anyone a reason to dislike you.  Even if you think that you are the greatest artist to ever exist, keep it to yourself.  A little humility goes a long way.

DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ANYONE!  Do not write anyone off.  The art world is the revenge of the nerds.   The biggest nerd will end up on the grant committee, job search, or become the art critic that you will need.  The person you think least likely to succeed inevitably will become the most successful and powerful person you know.  They will never forgive or forget that you treated them like the loser you ONCE thought they were.

Despite what you may think about being an artist: in the real world, perhaps at your university teaching job, the most important thing is not expressing yourself, it’s MAKING YOUR WAY IN THE WORLD.  Let me be clear, your WORK is where you express yourself.   Everywhere else, not so much.   Do not see this as any kind of compromise.  It’s just smart.  Your personality is not as important as your work.  Be smart about knowing what you are making. Only let your work out of your studio when you are very sure of it.   Make your objects compelling.

THINK ABOUT YOUR AUDIENCE.  Art should communicate.  Think of it like sex, would you rather be doing it alone, by yourself in a dark, or with someone else?  It’s more fun with someone else, right?

MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO HELP YOU.  If you are lucky enough to have someone who believes in you walk into your life, DO NOT MAKE THEM SORRY!  Keep your questions to a minimum and your insecurities to yourself.  You will appreciate this later in life when people start coming to you for help.

No matter how talented you are, LUCK has everything to do with how your life turns out, so be on the lookout for it.  I know Oprah says you make your own luck.  But only really really lucky people say that.  Some people have all the luck, most of us have a little.  Do not miss an opportunity if you are lucky enough to be presented with one.

LADIES: the world has not changed nearly as much as I would have liked since I was your age.  We still do not get equal pay for equal work anywhere, especially in the art market.  Starting with graduate school, you will watch your male friends get the benefit of every doubt.  You probably won’t.  They will coast as you continue to struggle.  As Louise Bourgeois said, a woman has to prove herself over and over again.  No one can be an artist without ambition.  Men, you know this and it is expected of you.  WOMEN, if it hasn’t already, the world will quickly let you know how unattractive your ambition is.  NO ONE EVER talks about this.  Remember that, despite the extraordinarily mixed messages the culture sends us, AMBITION IS YOUR FRIEND.  EMBRACE IT.  OWN IT! It will be harder for you.   If you are lucky or smart enough to make a living you will make less money than your male peers.  Nietzche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  And Elizabeth Murray said you have to be 100 times stronger and tougher than any man. 

ARTIST OF COLOR, a certain kind of work will be expected of you.  Beware if you are not making it.  QUEERS: the boys will be fine, the bois, lesbians, and trannies, not so much.  Your difference will make you suspect, unless you are smart enough to figure out how to market it.  Although constructive criticism is important you will have to learn to distinguish it from someone else’s unconscious prejudice.  Although it will be presented as criticism of your work, TAKE IT WITH A LARGE GRAIN OF SALT.   Don’t internalize.  JUST KEEP WORKING.

My generation is still running things, art museums, galleries, art departments, magazines and was not educated about the mechanics of sexism, racism and homophobia, as was yours.  Understanding the politics will really help protect your talent, keep things in prospective and keep you moving forward. 

Most of all, if you insist on becoming artists, enjoy yourself as much as possible and most of all, SURVIVE.  Love what you are doing, eat well, drink well, exercise, and give up smoking.  Living well is the best revenge.  And DO NOT GIVE UP if you don’t achieve instant success!  Being the last one standing brings a remarkable amount of good stuff your way.  By then, you will have outlasted everyone who made your life miserable and will finally be incredibly grateful and satisfied for your much deserved success.  In the meantime, start developing the thick skin and the political analyses you will need to keep yourself sane and make your work once you are on your own.  Only the strong and lucky will survive.


In preparing for this, I thought it might be a good idea for me to ask my dear friend, the eminent art historian and art citizen extraordinaire Irving Sandler, what he thought would be good advice for you.  Irving, at 86 years old, has seen it all, he’s been involved with everything to do with advocating for artists, starting at the Cedar Bar and The Club in the 1940s, to founding Artist Space and countless other community institutions, till now. 

He said these are the most important things for young artists to think about, and I quote:

1. Why are you making art?

2. What do you want to get out of it?

3.  and what you must know: Each artist is on her or his own.

#1.  SO, why ARE you making art? 

#2.  What do you want for yourself?   Is it money?  Is it fame?  Is it love? Is it truth?  Is it beauty?  Is it to make history?  Do you want to inspire others?  What do you want your art to accomplish once it is out in the world?  What are the values and ethics in what you make?

#3.  When Irving says you are on your own, this means it is entirely up to you to create your work, your community, your life, yourselves.   There are no rules to rely on, no guarantees, no relaxing into a prescribed system.  If you don’t come from money or marry it, you are CHOOSING to live on the edge, which takes a huge amount of courage, energy and creativity, because you have to be firing on all cylinders all the time.  This can make you into a better artist or it can defeat you.

SO, CREATE YOUR OWN COMMUNITY. Bad times produce great artists’ communities.  The abstract expressionists were dirt poor and traumatized by the depression, emigration, World War 2, genocide and Hiroshima.  After a day alone in the studio, they gathered at the Cedar Bar.  They showed their work in co-op galleries they founded.  They started The Club on 10th street right around the corner, to gather together for lectures, contentious panel discussions and wild dance parties.  Aesthetics and egos clashed, but it was a community.  Now they are all part of art history.  Today creative communities flourish in far more conducive places for making art than New York City.  Technology and the economy have changed everything.  One can live a creative life anywhere.  Artists are moving to cities like Detroit, New Orleans, LA and Portland because they are affordable.  A necessary decentralization is happening now that is great for art in America.  The internet connects everyone.  Locally there are many ways to gather: local publications, university art departments, co-op and commercial galleries.   You and your peers can make your own creative environment OR BE PART OF AN EXISTING ONE.    A community will sustain you.  Make friends with writers, critics, musicians, poets, farmers, academics and keep your world view as large as possible.  WHEREVER YOU END UP, DON’T ISOLATE YOURSELF.   

A common complaint is  ‘there is no audience here for my work.”  BECOME A GOOD AUDIENCE.  GO to SHOWS, bring your friends and talk about what you’ve seen. Organize panel discussions, pot-luck dinners, parties, curate exhibitions, write blogs.  Enthusiasm is infectious and you can turn anywhere into a place that feeds your art.  Express your creativity in as many ways as you can.  The internet has changed everything.  You can reach millions of people on YOUTUBE, you can self publish anything you want, fundraise for yourself with KICKSTARTER, and you can go retail with ETSY .


In my opinion the best defense anyone can have is to understand the context of your times, the moment in history into which you are entering.  Compared to you guys, we had it easy.  The world is way worse off than we found it.  So on behalf of my generation, I apologize to you.  Between the criminal behavior of banks, Wall Street, members of the church, and the BP spill, the nuclear nightmare in Japan, corporate takeover of government, greed and shortsightedness, your generation has every reason in the world to be furious.  You didn’t ask for this, but it is what you will inherit: the incredible mess we made.

To live in this world as we find it NOW is not going to be an easy thing for anybody.  There are no guarantees anywhere anymore.  For instance, who could have foreseen that becoming an elementary school teacher, the most benign, most absolutely selfless career, would lead to an embattled existence?  So why not live your dream of a life in art?  Why NOT be an artist?  Even if you don’t have a job, you will always have your work to do!  Surrounding yourselves with like minds will make you feel like you aren’t crazy.

My friend, Chuck Close, a great artist citizen, says many brilliant things.  After the markets crashed a couple of years ago everyone was asking him, “What’s going to happen now?”  He said, “Artists are going to go back to their studios and try to figure something out, just like they always do.“  Chuck continued, “You don’t hear about anyone going back to their offices at Bear Stearns for free for a year to see what they could figure out, do you?”

EXCEPT FOR the REALLY FAMOUS ARTISTS whose names we all know, CHUCK CLOSE, CINDY SHERMAN, JASPER JOHNS AND DALE CHILHOOLY, living the life of an artist is a circuitous individual thing.  No two careers are alike.  People support themselves in all kinds of ways.  It takes incredible amounts of ingenuity and creativity.  A huge amount of courage.  And that’s just the survival part!!  Then there’s your work itself, whatever it is you make: the painting, the sculpture, installation, video.  The real reward; The object of the exercise: the joy of making art.  Trusting your self, your brain, intuition, heart, exploring your work, inventing, letting your work tell you where to go, going to places you could never imagine.  Finding yourself PAST the impasse… in a completely unexpected new territory.  Your very own EUREKA MOMENT.  Is there anything better than this?  

When I first started appropriating Andy Warhol my dear neighbor Alvin came upstairs with his martini, as he did almost everyday at 5 and asked me, “What if this Warhol thing really takes off, kid?”  Do you think I knew then or even dreamt that I would ever have a retrospective at the Andy Warhol Museum 20 years later?  As a young artist, Cindy Sherman was the receptionist at Artists Space when it first opened in the 70s.  Everyday she wore a different disguise to work.  She sat at the front desk in her get ups and answered the phone.  That was Cindy’s day job. Do you think Cindy Sherman, answering phones in a nurse’s outfit with a stethoscope around her neck, had any idea that she would get famous for dressing up and become the most important artist of her generation?  So artists, trust yourselves, and parents, even if it looks crazy or however unlikely, support your child’s uniqueness and dream.  Because you just never know, it might be your kid who is the next great game changer.

At the end of the day all of us together, artist and civilians, are going to have to come up with new ways to deal with the world as we find it today.  THAT is your advantage as an artist, especially now.  It is going to take a lot of invention, creativity, agility and thinking out of the box to get out the mess we are in.  AND THIS  happens to be EXACTLY WHAT artists do best.  Andy Warhol said: “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  This will be your challenge.  I think the majority of artists are remarkably like everyone else, creatures of their moment in history.  Some artists are brilliant at describing the zeitgeist.  Some are brilliant at challenging it.  Challenging the values that got us into this mess is exactly what any serious young artist and citizen must do right now.  It may not make you money, but it will make your life rich.   

How will you accomplish this?  Can art change the world?   YES IT CAN The greatest art has come out of extreme historical conditions: the blues, jazz, the movies, Abstract Expressionism, Picasso, Goya, Kollowitz, Bourgeois, Warhol, Dickens and the entire canon of western literature.  It can be done.  It has to be done.  We old people need you.  The world needs you.  It will take every bit of imagination your generation has to change the course we have been on.  And what an incredibly fertile ground that is!  Here is the gift of a MESS like this: you are being presented with a lifetime of subject matter and content.

So do things in a new way, whatever that means.  Remake this world in YOUR image.  PLEASE.  Make it beautiful, make it better, make it sustainable, make it fair, make it yours.  That is your job.  What kind of artist will you be?  What kind of citizen? What are your values?  How can you make things that reflect those values?  How can you remake the world?  How will your work contribute?

I cannot wait to see it.

Congratulations, and god speed.