Deborah Kass is an American multimedia artist whose work combines pop, politics, art history and humor, reflecting the changing role of women in the world of art. She was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1952, while her father was serving in the Air Force. After his discharge, the family returned to Long, Island, New York, where he had a dental practice (and was an amateur jazz musician) and her mother was a substitute teacher. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants, from Belarus and the Ukraine. Her Jewish heritage has had a profound influence on her work.
Kass used her babysitting money to take art classes at the Art Students League when she was 14. During her trips to Manhattan, Kass visited the Museum of Modern Art and the Met, where her works are now part of their permanent collections. She found inspiration in the works of post-war artists like Willem de Kooning and Frank Stella. It was a Stella retrospective, that she saw when she was seventeen, that made her decide to pursue a career as an artist.
Kass attended the Whitney Museum Independent Studies Program and went on to receive her BFA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (Andy Warhol’s alma mater) in 1974.
Deborah Kass garnered considerable attention around 1990, with her Art History series of paintings, in which she appropriated, and combined, Disney cartoons with works by twentieth century artists like Picasso, Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell. Her painting, Before And Happily Ever After combines Andy Warhol’s 1962 Before and After painting with a cartoon cels from Disney’s Cinderella. The Art History series looks at the relationship between men and women in art, society and politics.
After the success of the Art History series Kass created The Warhol Project, substituting Andy Warhol’s pop icons, like Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, with images of her own favorite female icons, like Barbra Streisand and the artist herself, who don’t fit the mainstream model of cover-girl beauty. Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After was exhibited, alongside the works she appropriated from Warhol, at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2012.
Working in a variety of medium, including neon, Kass followed Before and Happily Ever After with Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, a nostalgic look back at the twentieth century from the perspective of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
What pushed Deborah Kass into the public eye was OY/YO, the eight-foot-high sculpture that was placed at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in 2015. Spelling OY when looked at from Brooklyn and YO when viewed from Manhattan, the sculpture became a favorite Instagram spot for tourists, selfie-takers and almost everyone who passed the sculpture.
OY/YO is even available as cuff links and a necklace (that can be turned to OY or YO depending on your mood) in New York’s Jewish Museum gift shop. Another monumental version of OY/YO will be installed at Stanford University in front of the Cantor Arts Center in the fall. Kass’ work is in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum (New York), the Smithsonian and other major museums and galleries.
Deborah Kass lived and worked for more than twenty years in a studio in Tribeca. Kass and her wife, sculptor Patricia Cronin, moved to Brooklyn in 2003. The couple married in Manhattan on July 24, 2011, the first day that gay marriage was made legal in New York.
Hallie Sekoff. Deborah Kass On Appropriation, Barbra Streisand, And The Dissolving Middle Class. Huffington Post. October 27, 2012.
Hrag Vartanian. YO, Deborah Kass! Hyperallergic. October 4, 2018