The Lenny Interview: Lisa Yuskavage

The iconic artist on inspiration and why "bimbo" is the wrong word when it comes to her figures.

The 20 or so minutes it takes me to walk from my apartment to artist Lisa Yuskavage's studio in Brooklyn are pure agony. I am the most nervous I have ever been. Why do I do this to myself?, I repeatedly mutter under my breath. I've loved her work for a long time. I have a vivid memory of looking at her work in the pages of a magazine as a teen. Even then, I knew her work was controversial to many people. Her paintings of naked female figures catch your gaze, while you're probably distracted by their bare breasts. Even the ones whose eyes are looking away from you still make you feel guilty because you're gawking. Weeks before we meet, I am organizing a pile of magazine tear-outs from God-knows-when when I find an image of her iconic work Little Day, Little Night among old tax forms and cut-out fashion editorials.
You should never meet your idols, I think as I approach her studio.
She greets me at the door, asking, "Would you like some tea?" For some reason, this puts me at ease, and my fears dissipate. Soon after, it's just the two of us talking like this isn't the first time we've met. She walks me to a table full of her childhood memorabilia, which is part of a massive archival project of her own work. She has put a lot of that work on her website already: you can search by subject, by year, by dimensions, even by color. It's remarkable, all the more so because it seems rare for an artist of her stature to have such a robust website.
Lisa picks out a junior-high report card from a messy bunch of papers on top of a folding table in her studio. Her grades are all satisfactory, and there is a note from the teacher: "Lisa needs to talk less in class." She also shows me a special report she wrote around the same time on the overpopulation of pets, which is hysterical in its seriousness, especially because she collaged the folder with images of things like dogs in outfits and advertisements for pet-cemetery plots (the undeniable proof there's a pet problem). The irony, she says, is that when her dogs recently passed away after a long illness, she told her veterinarian, "You just lost your best client."
Finally, we walk into her main workspace. It is bright and airy, and there are three paintings in various stages of progress, all on opposite walls. The studio is glamorous in that it's so bare-bones. The middle of the room is mostly empty. There is enough space to have a party, maybe roller-skate a bit, but there is an unremarkable black office chair and a stool right in the middle of it all, and that's where we sit to begin our formal interview. We've already been talking a mile a minute, but I haven't yet started recording, so it feels like it doesn't count. We talk about going to an all-girls school, discovering feminism through dream prophecies, and Madonna songs, all with the constant hum of the aboveground train in the background. It's a beautiful day.
Laia Garcia: What did it feel like when you made the first painting where you realized you had found your point of view, the thing that made your paintings special, like, "Holy shit. This is it"?
Lisa Yuskavage: It was so specifically "Holy shit. This is it." It was a painting called The Gifts. I did everything against the rules, and it made me really happy. I decided to take on a different persona to work, sort of like shift persona. Blue Velvet had just come out in the theaters. There's this character, Frank, the guy who sucks gas and says "Show me your pussy" to Isabella Rossellini. I was frightened by him, but I thought he was funny.
I decided to just make a painting where I was pretending to be Frank and scare the image, like, "Show me your tits." It was a funny conversation, and the paintings started to talk back. I felt so engaged for the first time. That was probably 1991. It was the first time a painting truly came alive and got up and almost walked around.
LG: This was about five years after you finished grad school?
LY: Yeah. I'd done some work before that. I got to grad school as a young woman full of bravado. I graduated from Tyler School of Art, and I was not a special student in any way. Not extraordinary. Nobody would have noticed me. I [did my] third year in Rome. I had a hard time settling down. I was mostly chasing boys and stuff. I was a somewhat serious student, but the minute there was a really nice, smart, talented, also cute guy drawing next to me, I was distracted. I think that's the struggle a lot for girls, is to know how to harness your seriousness and not worry that you're never going to have a life with a family. "What's to become of me?" was my constant refrain.
In Rome, I got even more distracted and got even more lost, because then I was wandering around looking at masterpieces like, "I'm never going to be an artist if this is what art looks like, because I'm so bad." I felt much more diminished. I thought I'd be an art teacher, which would be a perfectly great thing. I did not plan on being what I am in this studio here alone all day making big paintings.
I went to bed one night, and I had this dream that I was at the Mercer Museum and I was hanging back behind in the crowd. The tour guide said, "This expression on the staircase is in Latin, and I don't speak Latin so I don't really know what it means." In real life, it's all in English. It says stuff like "A penny saved is a penny earned." All of a sudden, a spotlight came on me, and I said, "I know what it means." Everybody turned around and looked at me. I said, "It means 'She conquers who conquers herself.'"
I woke up. I was bathed in sweat and hyperventilating. It was like my subconscious called me. Many years later, I realized that the phrase I saw on the staircase, Vincit qui se vincit, was my high-school motto. I went to a high school called the Philadelphia High School for Girls. Of course I never paid attention to it, never. I was too busy getting high or fucking off, doing the bare minimum. I was going through my old yearbook, and I just was like, "Oh crap. That's where I got that." I was like, "How do I know Latin in my dreams?" The expression "She conquers who conquers herself" was my call to feminism, which was "Rather [than] point the finger at anyone else, begin with yourself." That was what I started to do that day.
LG: How long did you go to the all-girls school?
LY: Four years. I wasn't one of the top students. I was kind of muddling through for a long time. I think that's the interesting thing.
LG: I went to an all-girls school too.
LY: Where?
LG: In Puerto Rico, where I grew up. It was an all-girls Catholic school from seventh grade to senior year. Our school motto was "Strength leads to honor." Do you think being surrounded by all women during that time had something to do with your approach to art later on?
LY: The fact that I made so many paintings of women?
LG: Not so much that you're painting women, but painting without caring what men think.
LY: I think that was a big part of it. Also there's a series of watercolors I made called Tit Heaven that directly come from my high school. [The girls in my] high school were from all over Philadelphia; everybody was slightly nerdy because you had to be smart to get in. [We had] Ukrainian girls that would come to school dressed in their Ukrainian national garb a couple of times a month, white girls from South Philadelphia that were Italian. It was very multicultural.
We were obsessed with Playgirl, and everybody thought we were crazy because we were reading the sexual fantasies in the magazine. We were so anxious to grow up and to become sexual creatures, trying really hard not to be embarrassed by penises, and to understand what was going on. We would read the sexual fantasies out loud to each other and we were completely hysterical.
I started this project, it was called "The Tit Papers." I tried to get everybody to draw what their boobs looked like from every possible angle. We were just obsessed with bodies, and we were like, "What do your tits look like when you lay down? What do your tits look like when you're kneeling?" Of course people were, like, just being silly, and they were drawing crazy boobs, but there were variations on all different sizes and shapes and things.
Many years later, actually very close to the time I made The Gifts, I made these watercolors called Tit Heaven, and they were loosely based on my memories of that kind of play, with disembodied breasts having adventures. I thought it was funny and kind of a great subject. It also had art-historical roots, like this surrealist sculptor and photographer Hans Bellmer. Anyway, you can probably find some sort of fictional or historical roots for pretty much everything, which is usually what I try to bring together. I think that [going to an] all-girls school gave me a sense of solidarity, a feeling that smart women are my people.
LG: Your first work in the '90s was very controversial, but it seems that with this new show that's now at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, which gathers your work from the past 25 years, the critics are starting to "get it." Do you think it's because the audience has changed, or that now that they have a large body of work to look at, it makes more sense to them?
LY: I think it's a bit of both things. My husband, who I have known since graduate school, when I get negative blowback, he says, "Lis, you're still not Muzak." This is the kind of work that is in some ways intended to be problematic. I understand that people are not used to hearing my voice. At first it probably sounded really bad, and I just kept on going. I've had people say that they used to hate it and now they're addicted to it.
LG: You always want to have those strong emotions either way.
LY: Yeah, and if people are open to change or being open to change themselves, that's really an exciting thing. I have felt that way myself about certain people's work. I went from not liking it to loving it and being really absorbed by it. If you find yourself hating something, be on the lookout for the possibility that you might actually find yourself loving that thing, because there is no such thing as a strong emotion without it relating to you somehow. We're so flooded with information that if somebody has a feeling, that's amazing. I don't feel bratty about that.
I had a long period of time where nobody was responding to my work and nobody was looking. I do intend them to be little troublemakers in some way, in the sense that I'm not going to back down if there is something I want to say that people don't like. I always just want to tell some sort of a story that seems relevant and truthful to me. It may not be the most pleasant story. I'm not here to glorify 100 percent of the time, and I almost get the feeling that some of my sisters out there hold me accountable for the fact that I [don't always] glorify women or tell the nicest story about them. I just tell a story that is partially true; it's not the whole truth.
There was this one period where I decided to work from models. I had been painting, inventing a figure, which I was calling Blonde This, Blonde That. When it came time to rethink how I was going to approach the paintings and I decided to try working from a model, I didn't just go out and hire any old blonde. I decided to get in touch with my best friend since grade school, KK. She lives in Philadelphia, drives a local train, but she's this really profound person. In my imagination, she was always the ideal blonde. In high school we always have, like, "Who's the pretty one? Who's the smart one? Who's the funny one?" She totally got what I was doing. She intuitively understood why it was important for me to use her. It's as if she was the person I had learned what a certain kind of character was like and the complexities of her character.
There were people who wrote about those paintings and called her a bimbo, called the paintings, "Lisa Yuskavage paints bimbos, bimbos this." Once a person says bimbo, then everybody starts saying bimbo. I got really offended by that because I never called her a bimbo, and I don't think about her as a bimbo just because I said blonde and a nude woman. A lot of that was like that Madonna song, "Don't lay your shit on me."
LG: "Human Nature."
LY: Yeah, "Human Nature." Don't lay your shit on me. That's part of it. People were really projecting a lot of their feelings about blondes. I was like, "Lordy, I did not say bimbo, not once." In talking about those paintings, I said, "Listen. This is how I feel about them. I feel that if the figures are low, they are not, like, lofty. I am painting a girl who came from a low place like me and I'm painting her not as a goddess, but say I'm making her seem much more accessible. If she's low, the way I paint her is that I get down into the ditch and I'm digging us both out of the ditch together. I'm trying to get us out. Through painting it, my real attempt is to bring us both up not so much through glorification but [because] once something is made into an artwork, it is raised because a spotlight has been put on it."