Artist Spotlight: Kurt Kauper
BY Christopher Harrity
July 16 2011 4:00 AM ET
Tell us about your process or techniques.
My process is to do a very careful line drawing of the composition I want. I then transfer that to the panel that’s been covered with an earth-red imprimatura, which is simply a thin wash of color over the white ground. Recently, the earth red I’ve been using is burnt sienna. I then build up the lights and halftones of the paintings with lead white and ivory black, leaving the shadows as the earth-red imprimatura. So my underpainting is cool in the lights and warm in the shadows. I then build up the color in thin, though not entirely transparent layers, allowing a good deal of the underpainting to come through.
My recent subjects have been imaginary opera divas, Cary Grant without his clothes, hockey players without their clothes, Michelle and Barack Obama. So even though I would love it if they posed, there was little chance of that happening with any of these people. So my paintings are constructed from a combination of photographic sources and my own body reflected in a mirror. And I paint almost all the still life and landscape information in the paintings from life.
Tell us about the Diva Fictions — why the word fiction in the title?
I started the Diva Fictions just after graduate school and just after completing a series of nude self-portraits. I had no idea what I wanted to paint. I just knew what I didn’t want to paint: no more men, no more small paintings, no more fussing over tiny details like the highlights on teeth. And because the self-portraits had been interpreted as containing an autobiographical narrative, which they didn’t, I knew I wanted to make paintings that couldn’t possibly be interpreted as having anything to do with me. So just to keep working I arbitrarily chose to paint a large portrait of a woman in a ball gown. That’s how I started the painting that would become Diva Fiction #1. I cobbled together a figure based on a range of photo sources I had and reflections of myself in the mirror and dressed her in a pink garment I found in a bridal magazine.
Meanwhile, I had bought a videotape called Maria Callas at Covent Garden. It includes the great act II from Tosca and two recitals. There are long stretches in the recitals where Maria Callas is receiving applause. You see her from the shoulders up, smiling and acknowledging the crowd. I was watching it one night and I was struck by her image, a smiling head-and-shoulder bust, framed by the television set. It seemed to me like an interesting contemporary portrait. So I started a drawing of Maria Callas on TV.
As I was working on both images side by side in the studio — the woman in the ball gown and Maria Callas — they started to suggest a narrative in relationship to one another. The Maria Callas image seemed to me to be perfectly emblematic of my relationship to tradition. I’ve always loved Western painting and have always felt nourished by it. But at the same time, it has always seemed to me something of a straitjacket that limits my possibilities as an artist. Maria Callas is an artist I love and am constantly inspired by, but I can never actually see her or hear her. She exists only through the distance of recordings. No matter how much I love her art, there will always be an unbridgeable gap that separates me from a full experience of her and an understanding of her within the context of her time. That’s exactly how I feel about my relationship to traditional art.
Right next to the Maria Callas in my studio, I was painting the woman in a ball gown, a reconstructed figure made from fragments of images, fragments of my body, fragments of my imagination. If the Maria Callas drawing represented my relationship to tradition, I started to think of the woman in a ball gown as my invention of a contemporary identity out of tradition; and because that process of reconstruction out of limiting traditions is exactly what opera divas do, both in their artistic and social identities, I started to think of that painting as a portrait of an invented diva. So she became Diva Fiction #1. That idea, of creating a contemporary identity out of artistic and social traditions, is something that has remained part of my work to this day. I wanted the word fiction in the title because I wanted it to be clear that these weren’t paintings of historical divas, that they were about fabricating an identity.