I’m Only Half-Joking (on Kathryn Andrews)

October 2013

Kathryn Andrews: Special Meat Occasional Drink
Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König




I woke up this morning with a thought or two about the essay for Ludwig. I want to write about death. And clowns. But mostly death. Cheery thought to wake up to, I know. I’m thinking, really, about life spans: of objects, of art, of us. Durations both definite and indefinite. And then balloons, ephemerality, On Kawara, birthdays, etc. (Maybe John M_____ was right about an impending midlife crisis. I’m only half-joking. Hey, “I’m only half-joking” could be a good title for an essay on Kathryn Andrews …)


I’ve been following your plot for a while now, but when I first saw the balloon works in early 2010 I knew you were really onto something. There were two of these works, one titled January 23, the other March 30 — the first date corresponding to the opening date of the exhibition in which they were included, the latter making a more private reference.[1] But of course no date on the calendar is actually private, even though all of us have personal associations with specific dates. We all live and die by the same calendar.

The works I’m referring to are chrome gates, each mounted to the wall, and in Los Angeles they can’t help but call to mind the bars that cover windows for those of us living in less desirable neighborhoods, prisoners of context. But these are much more pleasing to the eye, shiny and clean, devoid of ornament. Well, devoid except for the colorful assortment of balloons that are tied to them, marking the occasion — that is the date in the title: Fun! Festive! But only for a moment: Already by the exhibition’s opening a few of the latex balloons had started to droop. The bigger Mylar balloons still stood at helium-filled attention, but it was clear that they too would soon begin their descent. The celebration gives way to gradual but inevitable deflation while the chrome bars hang tough.

The dynamic tension between the stable element and the unstable element — one that took time and care to make, the other hastily purchased at a market or party supply store — was clear enough, and it’s a tension you’ve explored in other ways, in particular with the incorporation of rented movie props. What hit me with these droopy balloons was the dark prospect of living with such a thing. I imagined the corny “Over the Hill” coffee mug rediscovered in the back of the cupboard, day after day, always gathering dust.

According to conditions set for these works, a collector may choose to replace the deflating balloons at any time — as often as desired, or not at all. There’s an aggression to the seeming passivity of the gesture: Unlike most art objects this one’s not just going to sit there. Or, rather, it is going to just sit there, like a fern or a dumb goldfish, waiting but not necessarily begging for its owner to care for it. You’ve created the problem and then washed your hands of it.

Time is passing, always, and there is something about the balloon-gates (my term — sounds like a political scandal, I know) that reminds me, perhaps inevitably, of On Kawara. Of course I’m thinking of his date paintings, the Today series, in which he makes a painting of the day’s date, and if he doesn’t get the painting done by the end of the day he destroys it. Which is such an elegant gesture. But more than the date paintings, I’m thinking of a fairly obscure, fairly early work by Kawara consisting of three telegrams sent to Michel Claura.[2] They recall his well-known series of telegrams sent to various friends, announcing “I AM STILL ALIVE,” but these three messages addressed to Michel Claura are substantially different, as you’ll see:

5 December 1969

8 December 1969

11 December 1969

Inevitably, when On Kawara sends a telegram that states, “I AM STILL ALIVE,” he is reminding us of the opposite possibility — of death. But the invocation of suicide in this sequence of three messages, sent days apart, is a far more explicit, urgent reminder of death, and as an act it’s pretty insidious even though he tells his addressee that he’s not going to do it. The ticking time bomb is defused by the third act, but the notion of the artist’s demise at his own hands is impossible to retract. How well does he know Michel Claura? And why, in the second telegram, does he tell Claura he should, in fact, be worried after all? Is it a joke? Perhaps Kawara is simply thinking about the possibility of suicide in the course of the day and then ruling it out, and beyond that he’s making a note of it rather than leaving it to fester alongside all the other repressed stuff of the unconscious. But to release it, he needs an addressee to absorb the psychic force of the gesture — Michel Claura, and by extension, us.

The work is a relatively early one by Kawara, and perhaps an oddball work for an artist who typically reveals so little of himself, but it’s one specifically sent in response to a request for a proposal. What it proposes is that the artwork — any artwork, really — carries with it an implicit contract between an artist and the viewer who receives it, the addressee. And what it further proposes is that the fulfillment of such a contract is never neutral or innocent.

In my email pasted above, note that I use the phrase “could be a good title for an essay on Kathryn Andrews,” rather than “could be a good title for an essay on you.” (Or “about you.”)

What a strange thing to say — to refer to you in the third person. Or, then again, maybe not.

I guess the question that keeps circling around is this: What constitutes a “Kathryn Andrews”? What makes the signature a signature? How does a name — the name “Kathryn Andrews” — signify? I’m thinking of a work of yours, or I should say a work attributed to you, that appeared in a group show in Berlin.[3] A work made by somebody else, with no specific guidance other than to “put in something, made or found, that would merit my name.”[4] After the show opened the curator sent you a picture of the work exhibited — a sawhorse covered with stickers of butterflies, spelling out the name “KATHRYN.” At the end of the day it’s still a “Kathryn Andrews.” It is not a work you would make, but nevertheless it’s a work “you” made. Almost reckless, you threw your signature into a vortex just at the moment it seemed to be emerging.

You are (not) Kathryn Andrews.


The four sons gazed at the painting on the museum wall. “It’s a painting,” said the first son. “It’s art,” said the second son. “It’s a frame,” said the third son, and he said it rather coyly. The fourth son was usually considered somewhat stupid, but he at least figured out why they’d come all the way from home to look at the thing in the first place. “It’s a signature,” he said. [5]

An aside that isn’t, really.

I’m not a Bob Dylan fan, not even a little (apocryphal as it might be to admit this in some quarters), but recently a student with a dependable radar system encouraged me to listen to his album Self Portrait, from 1970. The one with a terribly painted self-portrait on the cover — one that he claimed to have painted in five minutes. The album was not well received when it was released. That’s putting it mildly: It was reviled by many of the diehards, interpreted as a bad stunt if not a career killer. I can imagine for the true believers (I mean the idealistic kids who sang along to the line “They’ll stone you when you’re there all alone”), the first spin of Dylan’s tenth album amounted to a sign of the Great Fall, a crisis in faith. Its presumed failure as a work was its failure to live up to (surely impossible) expectations conditioned by everything the artist had done up to that point — that is, the “Bob Dylan” in people’s heads, Saint Robert. I have a fondness for such “failures.”

I’ve also been really interested in the critical response to Self Portrait — or really just the epic review by Greil Marcus, one of the faithful, that appeared in Rolling Stone (a magazine, needless to say, named for a Dylan lyric) and began, prophetically enough, with the question, “What is this shit?” On one hand, Marcus seems so personally disappointed by the album that he can hardly hide his irritation. But on the other hand he keeps attempting to replicate some sense of the album in an act of ekphrasis. As the quote above suggests, Marcus tries to get at the idea — formally — of a self-portrait made up of a chorus of voices, a multiplicity of subjectivities, just as Dylan relied on a pile-up of cover versions (including songs by Alan Lomax, Alfred Frank Beddoe, Boudleaux Bryant, and Rodgers & Hart, not to mention a handful of authorless “traditionals”) and diverse stylistic approaches to said material in order to best situate himself in the proverbial mirror. See for example his take on Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, sung as a duet — that is, by two Bobs.

After my belated encounter with Self Portrait (and Marcus’ review of it), Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There (2007), with its multiple Bobs played by actors of different ages, sexes, races, suddenly makes a lot more sense. The poster for the movie reads:

Christian Bale
Cate Blanchett
Marcus Carl Franklin
Richard Gere
Heath Ledger
Ben Whinshaw
are all Bob Dylan

And suddenly I am reminded that Bob Dylan is actually someone named Robert Zimmerman.

In the discursive field we call an art world, in which economic and aesthetic values converge in the weirdest way, the name counts for a lot. Almost everything. The introduction of the readymade — an event that registered as such very belatedly, even a half-century later if we think of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, signed by one R. Mutt — radically restructured the idea of an artist’s signature because it made the authorial act of signing less a visual act than a contractual one. But, despite this restructuring, the readymade did nothing to eliminate the demand for a signature — which is to say an artist’s name — that we can attach to the work of art, any work of art. How many authorless works can we think of, at least in the past 100 years? Not many.

The signature, the framing device of authorship, however constructed or deployed, is the thing that makes a readymade a work of art, the fulfillment of the contractual act that pushes anything-whatever from the vast world across some threshold and into the exclusive category of art, from general (thing) to specific (art). This is the basic model, a model you’ve extrapolated and messed with, by treating a very specific thing — an object that carries the kind of loaded, auratic charge we expect of a work of art, if not an actual work of art — as the thing that gets pushed over the threshold. Your use of certified movie props come to mind here — a Hanes t-shirt worn by Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), 2011) or a ring worn by Ashton Kutcher in The Killers (Ashton, 2010) carries symbolic value that exceeds the value of that same t-shirt not worn by Brad Pitt or that same ring not worn by Ashton Kutcher in some movie, and then enters into a complex relationship with the rest of the work — as context or frame — supplied by “Kathryn Andrews.” Further confounding our evaluation of this merger is the fact that the part supplied by Kathryn Andrews often resembles a readymade — for example, the stainless steel clothing rack and hanger in Ashton, which together provide the support for the tiny ring.

The rack and hanger look like something found in a boutique but were actually cast for the work. Yet all focus shifts to the ring, its symbolic value — the residual aura of Ashton Kutcher — confirmed by a certificate of authenticity, which is, in the end, just another symbolic agent. All value is relative, contingent. Of course a film prop is not a work of art, but the way it accrues value, both symbolic and economic, is remarkably similar to a work of art. (And there are plenty of artworks worth virtually nothing, right?) Plenty of props have appeared in museums, adjacent to objects deemed “high art.” The thresholds begin to disappear, or get fuzzy, the more you push these objects together. And then, occasionally, “Kathryn Andrews” begins to disappear too.

On that count, there’s another extrapolation of the readymade I should mention, one in which you annex the work of another artist. You’ve done so in a variety of ways, but perhaps the real “aha!” moment came when you made Baldessari, 2010, an otherwise blank mirror intended to reflect that artist’s painting Goya Series: The Same Elsewhere (1997). Such a gesture points to a kind of co-dependency, but surely more for you than ol’ John and his “Goya.”

In Massacre (Selection), 2012, you start with a lurid silkscreen print by Allen Ruppersberg, which you purchased and then amended. The Ruppersberg resembles a movie poster, or perhaps the cover of a true crime novel — with the word “SCREAMED” rendered in blood-dripping, horror-genre red just above a black sans serif “FROM LIFE.” Above the title is a constellation of horrific clippings from the newspaper — or I should say reproductions of such clippings — tragic stories with headlines like “Mutilation Killer Gets Life Term” and “3-Hour Surgery Performed on Maimed Boy, 8.” On either side of those, subtly, one can also find two phrases in girlish handwriting: “I love you” and “I love you too.” The aggregate of these elements is so brutal, so heavy, one might need to laugh. And, finally, below the title, in the place of the usual list of Hollywood-style credits, sits the name of its singular auteur: “By Allen Ruppersberg.”

For this charged object, you concocted two additional panels, mounted on either side, making what I’ll call a Ruppersberg sandwich. And what an evil sandwich! You added even more clippings — “Man Accused of Trying to Marinate Cat,” “Victim of Cannibal Agreed to Be Eaten,” “Man Cut Off Head in Flat Protest” — similarly gruesome and actually more so. Importantly, you contracted the person who printed the original for Ruppersberg in 1986. Given this, the amendment could have been seamless, had you chosen to make it so, but instead you emphasize the seams — your panels slightly overlap the central print, with your clippings clipped at the edges of the frame, emphasizing the break between Kathryn Andrews and Allen Ruppersberg.

Of course, this isn’t the first time you set your sights on Al. In a 2011 work provocatively titled Ruppersberg, you incorporated an acquired poster by the titular artist, printed by Colby, a company whose instantly recognizable, rainbow-hued posters once dotted the Los Angeles landscape, practically defining its vernacular sensibility. Centered against a turquoise ground, in a sans serif typeface of increasing scale, it reads


Once acquired, you centered this poster against a wall painted a matching turquoise. Resting it against the baseline of the ground, the addition of a thin, black, vertical line above it renders the either/or trade-off of the question of authorship an affirmative “BOTH,” like this:


Like Ruppersberg before it, Massacre (Selection) is neither totally “yours” nor “his,” and perhaps it’s both, but in any event you have “him” surrounded. Another clipping you contributed to the conflation points to an affirmation of this utter inseparability:

Artist Died ‘Handcuffed to Tree’

Allen Ruppersberg is (not) Kathryn Andrews.
Kathryn Andrews is (not) Allen Ruppersberg.

So, “Kathryn Andrews” becomes a disappearing act by subsuming that identity into the signature of another artist or otherwise fleeing the scene of the crime. But why would an artist — of course I mean you, specifically — want to absent the self? (I’ve heard you use such a phrase.) Isn’t there a kind of perversity to this? Is there a hope of getting past the inherent limits of one’s own taste and sensibility? Or is this abstention a way of relieving the object of certain obligations extending from that signature — a way of letting the object float free of its author in a less predictable way?

When the author disappears, or the function of authorship gets willfully confused (and presumably authority, along with it), the viewer is surely given a longer tether, and perhaps no lead at all, left to his or her own devices. Roland Barthes’s texte scriptable comes to mind — that is, a writerly text, one that promiscuously engages the reader’s subject position, disrupts it, teases it, fucks it up, and tears it open in a way that leads to jouissance — bliss.

Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.[6]

Unsettled, your disappearing act is my cue to enter.[7]

A stainless steel cylinder stands its ground, a monolithic object in space, one that reflects everything in the room, consuming the entire context. Like a Cyclops, a single aperture stares blindly, unblinkingly, a fathomless black depth behind it. I approach the monolith, aware of my own distorted presence in its rounded, flawless surface, and bring my eye to its eye, staring deep into the void. Nothing, and then, slowly, I become aware of something in that depth, another aperture, smaller, but just as cold, unblinking. It’s the barrel of a gun, and suddenly it stares back at me.

Lethal Weapon, 2012, is an appropriately punning title for the frightening sculpture — one that includes a handgun used by a hotheaded Mel Gibson in the movie of the same name. My experience of the sculpture is inherently theatrical. To tell the truth, I knew the punch line before it was delivered, but the joke is still potent, if distinctly unfunny. I am aware of myself the whole time I’m engaging it, a victim of my own reflected performance. I feel manipulated; I feel vulnerable, if not violated. The gun is now decommissioned, neutered, but there is nothing to tell me that fact when I’m in the line of fire.[8] Lethal Weapon, if we want to call it a text, is surely loaded: a “text that imposes a state of loss, [a] text that discomforts.”[9] I am destabilized; by which I mean “I” is destabilized.

The sculpture is everything Michael Fried feared when he wrote “Art and Objecthood” (1967), his famous polemic against Minimalism.[10] In that essay Fried refers to the minimalist (what he calls literalist) object as “theatrical,” because it suggests an experience that extends beyond the supposedly circumscribed boundaries of an autonomous, modernist sculpture — with literalist objects in a gallery akin to actors on stage — and for Fried that experience is frustratingly temporal, resulting in endlessness rather than the “presentness” he desires. His polemic is on the wrong side of history — by 1967, Minimalism had already secured a dominant position as a tendency, if not exactly a movement — though I do admit his sense of an enormous shift in the way we view art objects as a kind of encounter and exchange is prescient. But it’s too late for him to do anything about it besides mark an ending.

So fully have we accepted Minimalism as our logos, that in reading it now, Fried’s essay seems hysterical, paranoic. Almost amusingly, he writes about Tony Smith’s human-scaled Die and the hollow, gray-painted boxes of Robert Morris as if they’ll sneak up on him and try to crush him when he’s turned away, or at the very least move around the gallery when he’s not looking. His fear is puritanical because it’s less about Minimalism and more about the body — his body — and the works of art he’s targeted that remind him of that body’s clumsy, tenuous existence.

Lethal Weapon reminds me of my own clumsy body, my own tenuous existence. The sculpture is a lead actor on the stage of a 2012 solo exhibition provocatively titled D.O.A. / D.O.B — meaning “Dead on Arrival” and “Date of Birth” — an unexpected ordering of death and birth that suggests an oscillation or perhaps, more hopefully, a cyclical relation between these positions.[11] In any event, the show is as cold as anything I’ve seen in recent memory, cold and hard. A mutual friend called it “unsparing,” which is exactly right. I’ve heard people mention Jeff Koons in the face of all that gleaming steel, but my sense is that Koons always wants us to somehow recover our innocence, to defer on the exigencies and contingencies of adulthood, to sublimate. Whereas you, Kathryn Andrews, want us to think about death. Or, more: You want us to become aware of ourselves thinking about death, to give us the encouragement to lift the veil, if only to reveal the next veil beneath it. And perhaps have a little jouissance in the process.



I know I began with the promise of clowns, and it certainly feels like a good moment for some levity, but maybe clowns are just another creeping (and creepy) reminder of death. That’s the cruelty of the joke. And it’s a joke you keep telling. In Rainbow Successor, 2011, one of your most iconic works (despite your absenting!), a garish clown suit rented from a Hollywood costume shop is suspended in an elegant prison of stainless steel bars, a purgatorio. Is the costume yours or mine?

Right now I’m looking at images of your recent magazine spread — of a photo shoot with clowns and Santas, along with smiling Mylar balloons, toy horses, a giant ice cream cone, wrapped gifts.[12] The pictures are black and white, solarized, spectral. There is more than one Santa, which is never a good sign, and the Santas and clowns begin to lose distinction— not to mention their clothes. Are they, in fact, precisely the same figure in our lives? A figure marking time? 

In one image a clown stands with his top down, facing in the direction of another clown with his pants down, a tank of helium – or is it nitrous oxide – between them. We can only assume they are up to no good. Or is this a much-needed orgiastic release from the terrible burden of being an entertainer, the ceaseless demands of turning frowns upside-down? What does a clown do in his off hours? Does a clown even get a holiday, free from all the fucking celebration? 

The pants-down clown stares back at the camera. 



1. Kathryn Andrews, Heather Cook, Lesley Vance, Lisa Williamson, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, January 23 – March 6, 2010.

2. The telegrams were On Kawara’s initial proposal for Michel Claura’s group exhibition 18 Paris IV. 70. The catalog for the exhibition, published by Seth Siegelaub, includes documentation of the initial proposals by the invited artists as well as documentation of what was actually included in the show, if different from the proposal. Kawara was represented in the exhibition by a series of his more familiar “I GOT UP” postcards sent daily to the curator in January 1970.

3. Transzendenz Inc., Autocenter, Berlin, Germany, curated by Heike Kelter and René Luckhardt, July 17 – July 31, 2010.

4. The work in question was described by Andrews in a published interview with the author. See Michael Ned Holte, “Slight of Hand,” Kaleidoscope, Issue 10, Spring 2011: 58–65.

5. Greil Marcus, “Self Portrait No. 25,” Rolling Stone, July 23, 1970.

6. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, New York, 1975: 14. Miller translates jouissance as “bliss,” but it also suggests “orgasm.”

7. I am reminded of the essay “On the Limits of Exuberance: Return to Sender / Toward a Collective Author / Starts and Stoppages Not Standard, Becoming Standard, Already Standard,” attributed to Kathryn Andrews, but comprised (as its title announces) of fragments of numerous anonymous authors, including me, invited to contribute by Kathryn Andrews. See the exhibition catalog American Exuberance, ed. by Juan Roselione-Valadez, Rubell Family Collection, Miami, 2011: 10–15.

8. The incorporation of the prop, even though decommissioned, requires its owner to complete a course on responsible handgun use — a good example of the complex contractual conditions accompanying many of these objects.

9. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, see note 6.

10. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, 5, June 1967: 12–23.

11. Kathryn Andrews, D.O.A. / D.O.B., David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, December 15, 2012 – February 2, 2013.

12. “Project: Kathryn Andrews,” Art in America, January 2013: 84–89.