Late in October, when I entered painter Rita Ackermann’s studio in Brooklyn’s Navy Hill, she was working on three works on paper on the floor, pouring thinned cerulean blue paint, stopping, looking, working the paint into forms with a wide brush, then stopping and looking again. Surrounded on all sides by monumental red and blue fluid, figurative forms on both stretched and unstretched canvases, we spoke about her upcoming exhibition, Bakos Rita Ackermann at the Ludwig Múzeum in Budapest, Hungary, November 17, 2011 to February 12, 2012.
Rita Ackermann: I’m so busy. I’m trying to finish this up. I’m having a major show in Hungary, the first ever and the most amount of work for me. I’ve never shown in my own country and I’m really self-conscious about that. Plus there is work for the texts in the exhibition that I have to write with the curator, Kata Oltai, and translate some text from the Rizzoli Book (Rita Ackerman, a survey published this year by Skira Rizzoli) and other things like that. So, you know, if I don’t work——
Anne Sherwood Pundyk (Rail): Will the show cover your entire career?
Ackermann: Yes. It is a survey. A big, giant survey. It is in the Ludwig Múzeum which is a very, very nice space with super nice architecture. It’s really beautiful inside.
Rail: How does it feel to be showing in your native country?
Ackermann: I’m afraid of the audience. I haven’t shown in Hungary, and I haven’t really worked in Hungary ever, except in art school. Which, as anybody would tell you, is not the work of a developed artist. Also, I’m not exactly considered “Hungarian Hungarian.” Hungarians can be skeptical of outside artists, a little bit. They have their own ideas. Plus my work is very different from the work there now.
Rail: How is it different?
Ackermann: For a long time they were not exposed to the most contemporary trends in art, although now they are following the main trends. I’m not even sure they are interested in painting there. My show will be mostly paintings.
Rail: So video, installation, and performance are more what is going on there?
Ackermann: Yes, they have a couple of painters I know. Back when I was studying there, Abstract Expressionism was something that was coming from the West and thoroughly understood by the East. By the time I left the Academy in 1992, when all the revolutions were happening in each Communist country, including even our country, things opened up toward contemporary trends from Western culture. Video and installation art became new media for students and young artists to express themselves. The only problem was that since they didn’t reach back to their own roots from the Hungarian avant-garde of the ’70s in performance and conceptual art, but referred instead to the Western popular movements of the moment, this work was a bit unoriginal to me. And the original work often dealt with subjects that were connected to the country, to the land, or to the political issues in the country. I think in Hungary they put up barricades for their own idols.
Rail: The exhibition serves as a bridge between your personal roots and your professional work here in the United States. What will it be like to go back after 20 years?
Ackermann: It will be like a crash finally landing at the place where I took off. I will tackle down my origins and be able to start with my roots. These roots aren’t about my nationality or my education, but they are from my past that I built through my work that needed to be claimed by the place where I come from as well. I almost feel guilty that I had that opportunity, compared to other Hungarians, to leave and develop a free aesthetic and an original style. I think that it was much harder in Hungary to do that. Everything was very self-referential, and everyone there was overly self-conscious. It was that kind of atmosphere. It was really hard to work. To be free and to be open-minded, to create a style. It was much more difficult. The other thing about being an artist at that time was there was no risk because there was no way to make money with your art, ever, because of the Communist government. There was no point in building a career, because there was no means of recognition. It was very different. I’m sure now it’s not. But I think people are still self-conscious. I don’t know why it’s that way. It may be part of the culture.
Rail: Bonnie Clearwater (Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami) writes in her essay in your book Rita Ackermann about Hungary’s longstanding popular interest in psychoanalysis, almost as a national pastime.
Ackermann: Yes. It is true. I was talking with Bonnie about certain Hungarian artists from the ’70s and ’80s, especially with the artist Miklós Erdély, who dabbled in psychoanalysis and his work influenced a type of performance art. But what was interesting in Hungary was that back then it was used as a way of concealing something in art. There was a kind of subversive way that psychoanalysis was used. It was considered to be “educational.” So there would be these classes for different groups and there would be these performances that would have all these different layers. Psychoanalytical study also had a hidden sort of crazy counter-cultural purpose.
Rail: Did Erdély’s work make an impact on you?
Ackermann: I was a little too young to appreciate his work. I didn’t come from an artistic background, so I didn’t know that much about him. But because he was so influential, when he would hold these class meetings, it would affect the whole art educational community. When I was a kid, I went to these art night classes. One of the teachers who worked with Erdély, worked specifically with children. He would collect a group of children—kids who would be more interested in making art than others—and they would come together for these nightly classes where we would do different kinds of performances that the teacher asked us to do.
Rail: Did you enjoy these classes?
Ackermann: Having to perform really disturbed me. I was really shy, and I wished there would be more activities with the hands because I always loved drawing and doing things with my hands. And this whole performance, storytelling, and collective thing was what we were supposed to be interested in. I just wished we could sit down and make something.
Rail: The apprehension you feel about the upcoming exhibition may be partly based on your recollection of what it was like years ago in Hungary. I think the response to the show will reveal almost as much about the current audience in Hungary as it does about you and your work.
Ackermann: That is very interesting. It will be, I think, pretty much a 50/50 split. I am confident of the work I am showing there since now I have the book and I am able to see all the work, both past and new together, and how it interacts. It is exciting to take the next step and arrange them in a space and see how they will hang next to each other in room after room. But, of course I have to see my work through other people’s eyes. I will be able to listen to what they have to say about the work, and that will reflect the country and the current state of art there. The work will have to deliver, though. I will be able to see that, too. I will be able to see directly how much the work delivers.
Rail: In keeping with the impact of your experience living under different forms of government in transition—communism in Hungary and democracy here in the United States—plus the fall of communism and the potential fall of capitalism, I see the idea of self and society as important to your work. The earliest works you made in New York were paintings of indolent, pleasure-seeking girls such as “Cold Turkey with Bon Bons” (1993) and “We Mastered the Life of Doing Nothing” (1994). In these paintings the world you evoke has no authority figure; there is nobody in charge.
Ackermann: Yes. I think that is true. It is a feeling of the enfant terrible. Looking back to those times when I made my first works, I could say that that first flow of three years from 1993–96 in painting was as naïve and fearless as it was thriving for attention. The paintings arrived in a very uncalculated way. I was shocked that they were immediately conceptually so well received. It was a way of sort of getting in.
Rail: Those paintings were your first bona fide artworks?
Ackermann: I arrived, in a way, “crashing” this system from outside, without really being aware of the effect on the whole system. It was a crash for me, too, which was a great benefit for me artistically because I could also learn from this crash. You know, that is how I work. You saw me working here on one “mistake” and I will keep working on it, cleaning it up until I experience a new result. Then I can bring that experience into the core of my practice. So it was always very beneficial to try a new medium and to crash with it and then take what I’ve learned from that back to the spine of the work—which is painting. And then sort of reinvent myself in that medium. As far as the idea of society and self, yes I did refer to society, but nothing about the artistic society. Maybe society interested me because I was also feeling like this acting is a counter-act. The world of the girls is so free and it represented freedom. And freedom was the most important element for me. Having my own voice, working on that, crystallizing that.
Rail: What about the larger role of art in society? Is it predictor, indicator, or instigator? You have worked with artist John Kelsey and the collective Bernadette Corporation. Curator Bennett Simpson wrote about Bernadette Corporation’s film, Get Rid of Yourself (2003), which is about art, fashion, and social protest. He observed that from a conservative point of view, artists are sometimes looked at as entertainers, or children, but in fact they can be seen as catalysts for creating a way to engage with larger social issues by honing the subjectivity of the individual.
Ackermann: Of course. I think that art has a role in society. Artists actually have the freedom to do anything. And that’s the most painful thing about being an artist as well. You are just so free; you don’t even know what to do with that freedom. So that is why sometimes a lot of artists just box themselves in right away. Artists sometimes take up a role in society like a businessman does, or like an educator. They pick up roles. And I think there is a possibility that you don’t take up a role. When you just say, “I am working on this.” I found this. And I am going to work from that and I will see how far I can go with this and hopefully this will do something to some people. And the role is art itself. So, that is interesting when you have to deal with the freedom, so then you really have to be original. You always have to root everything from the self. But it is not from the ego, of course. I think there are a lot of artists these days who are designers. They are doing great design, you know like for Ikea.
Rail: That reminds me of your statement for the group show you curated at White Columns this year with Parinaz Mogadassi, Perfect Man II, which comments on “designer art”:
The focus of this exhibition is on those men who are on a quest, on the cold and sharpest blade of a knife, represented by their personal studies of construction and their struggle to defeat the elements that society’s subculture dictates with its common sense of aesthetic mediocrity (designer art). They are ruled by the laws of self—seeing the subject of modern art only through the unique mind of the individual. The conquest can be destructive and useless but it leads to a complete knowledge of himself. Brutal fragility in order to be untouchable, free of references and without compromises but with the resolve of a hard-fisted clarity.
Ackermann: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. But, you don’t have to be a man for this sort of thing, it’s not about gender.
Rail: You refer to crashes, or abrupt changes in your work, such as changing media or incorporating new subjects, but the first time you were in Marfa, for a residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, 2009, you returned to an early painting from 1993 of the girls as source material. Cultural theorist Viola Kolarov considers the idea of tracing ghost transmissions in images as the most ancient technique in painting. You were taking a piece of yourself from your artwork and calling it back. But connecting to it in a new way.
Ackerman: I had been doing work based on the composition of my painting “Cold Turkey with Bon Bons,” (1993) for a year prior to my first stay in Marfa. It is composed of female figures and I continued to work with it while at Marfa. It gave me a great chance to really get rid of the figure and to get rid of myself. I wanted to really figure them out and to make a painting with them as an abstraction. I didn’t really see the figures anymore, I just saw the composition.
Rail: Having chosen that painting as a subject, it must have had significance for you.
Ackermann: I did choose it. It was important for me. I wanted to paint the figure. I did not do anything else. I was always asking myself, what is it about these figures? I started breaking down my own composition of figures into different elements to use. But it was very organic. The figure disappeared, and then it reappeared. It was really important that it was my own. I get stuck with a composition. It can be my own composition or a found composition or a combination of the two. For example, there was an early Picasso painting of a children’s picnic that I worked into my own composition for “Cold Turkey with Bon Bons.” I worked these two compositions together, each coming into the other. Then, years later re-working the composition, I ripped it apart many times and I ended up with a face. And then there was a figure in it as well. That is how the new series, “Fire by Days” arrived, by destroying the figure from earlier works. At that point there was only one composition and two colors and those elements have kept me busy and motivated. Despite these limitations, they have provided endless possibilities for me to continue.
Rail: While collaborating with filmmaker Harmony Korine for the 2010 exhibition Shadow Fux at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art, New York, you also combined compositions. The collaborative pieces involve a literal collage of your work and Korine’s work.
Ackermann: Yes, this is true. I wanted to make works for this collaboration without making marks as an individual. I wanted, rather, to make something that seemed to be done by one person, something that hadn’t existed yet as if there was no person behind it. I had to loosen my approach and become more focused on the doing. We didn’t spend much time in the same space. He sent me printed vinyls of his photographs and I worked on them as I liked.
Rail: You and Korine have similar lead characters, for example, you have the checked-out girls, and Korine has the masked hooligans from his film, Trash Humpers (2009). Both types are equally lawless each in their own way. With that commonality in mind, did you continue with Korine’s figures after the collaboration?
Ackermann: Right after those figures went into the collaboration, they never came back to my work. I emptied those figures and the collage figures out, as a working source. After the last works I finished using Harmony’s photos I felt a new kind of restless optimism about returning to my very own artistic problems. I wanted to bring to my work all the experience I had collected from working while giving up an individual perspective. This moment came when I made “Negative Muscle” (2010), the first painting after the collaboration. It was refreshing that it was only a painting, without the photo elements or anything given to work with.
Rail: So it was like a touchstone.
Ackermann: Yes, this is a touchstone painting. I always think of it. It has the element of going into my backwards painting cycle where in my most recent work including “Fire by Days” (2010–11) I paint starting on the floor and use layers of markings ending with an application of rabbit skin glue. Backwards with no brush stokes, but making kind of traces and marks. In this painting appears first that look of ancient quality that makes something almost alien, but at the same time contemporary. It is so modern that it is almost ancient, like the cave paintings in the Werner Herzog movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011).
Rail: In another painting from the collaboration, “high powered tramps” (2010) you went back to using ballpoint pen as you had in “World War III Around My Skull” (1996–97).
Ackermann: I knew that for the collaboration I would like to make one ballpoint pen for sure. And so I started making this one very big ballpoint pen work along with a photograph image.
Rail: I associate the subject of war with the ballpoint pen drawings.
Ackermann: Yes, that’s right. That’s really some of the thinking for “World War III Around My Skull” (1996–97).
Rail: There is the idea of war, its challenge and aggression, as the ultimate form of reality testing in terms of a psychoanalytic discussion relating to identity formation. It is interesting to me that it has a specific vocabulary for you in terms of the medium of ballpoint pen.
Ackermann: Yes, it’s like a doodle that boys might make, for example. War drawings with the ballpoint pen. Its like the drawings made by the main character in the film, American Psycho (2000). [Laughs.]
Rail: That’s a great movie.
Ackermann: Yeah, yeah, it’s an amazing movie.
Rail: I like the hyper-competitive use of business card styles. The scene where the Wall Street guys are dueling with their color selections, “Bone, eggshell, white, off-white.”
Ackermann: I just saw the movie a few weeks ago on YouTube. It was set in the ’90s but it’s so relevant. It is incredible how it bridges three decades: the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s.
Rail: His psychotic drawings remind you of your ballpoint pen works.
Ackermann: It’s just death. Death. I have that same male psyche, very strongly. I don’t mean as “the killer,” but in the way I work. Yeah, it’s surprising sometimes to say that you have a male psyche, but, yes.
Rail: But it’s also liberating.
Ackermann: I can be more like a boy than a boy can be.
Rail: Watch out! [Laughs.] It’s like being the creator/destroyer; the ultimate creator and the ultimate destroyer.
Ackermann: That’s just it, that’s exactly what I think about it. You destroy and you create. You make a mistake and you clean it up. That’s the mobility that my work holds. And without mobility I can’t work. So! I have to destroy everything first, you know, in order to be able to create. I don’t want to, but it’s how I can make order.
Rail: The clarity and decisiveness in what you do is pronounced and a great asset to the story of your work. You are like a general moving troops in, moving resources in, and making decisions and responding to the situation at hand. It’s like a very masculine kind of effort.
Ackermann: That’s beautiful how you put that. I always think about that. I’m going to go hear a concert with this Hungarian conductor on Friday and I am excited about it because I think of the conductor’s work. I think that in the end you have an entire body of work made up of different bodies of work and I am conducting them together. And you know if you do it well, the conducting can create a nice sort of chapter in art. But it’s so easy to slip. It’s more often easy to slip and not do it right. It requires focus. I have to be more crystallized and sharper now. The goal is to orchestrate it all.