Artist Rita Ackermann has been known to reference Bertolt Brecht’s slogan, “Art is not a mirror, but a hammer.” Ever since she arrived on the streets of New York from her native Budapest in the early 1990s, she has been applying her hammer-like strokes to both the remote outposts of downtown youth culture and the dead-center of the Manhattan art world. Ackermann received almost instantaneous attention for her fluid, yet savage large-scale oil paintings of layered color blocks sometimes juxtaposed with the figures of almond-eyed young women.
Ackermann could have simply reaped the benefits of maintaining one distinctive style. Instead, she did what real artists do and went exploring. She has always been a visual journeywoman, creating polymorphic work ranging from puppet shows and elaborate performance pieces to designing the cover of a Thurston Moore album and forming the short-lived rock band Angelblood with Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzi Bougatsos. Along the way, she has never stopped using her paint brush as a hammer, erecting-or demolishing-imagery and surfaces that range from the violent to the erotic, from the mythological to the primitive, from rebellious and youthful to maternal, compassionate, and restrained. In her paintings, she has utilized newspaper clippings, war photographs, fashion editorials, carbon sketchings, and even, more recently, film stills from collaborator Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) at a joint show last year at the Swiss Institute. Recent paintings have included as much attention to the human figure as to abstraction. In a new series, “Fire by Days,” she has even employed heavy industrial materials-enamel, spray paint, motor oil, and petroleum jelly-to do the work of paint.
This fall, Ackermann is finally getting around to looking back, with her first retrospective monograph, Rita Ackermann, recently published by Rizzoli, as well as a number of exhibitions examining her legacy, starting this month at the Ludwig Múzeum in her native Budapest.
Ackermann recently sat down at the Greenwich Village apartment of her friend, writer Angus Cook, to discuss the dance of painting and Cold War mentalities.
ANGUS COOK: Do you want a pillow for your leg?
RITA ACKERMANN: No, this is good. I actually like this bondage [points to a bandage around her leg from vein surgery the day before]. I like to have a little bit of masochistic comfort. [laughs] And the pain. I like the feeling-not while on the surgery table, but afterward.
COOK: You find pain comforting?
ACKERMANN: Thinking is sometimes too intense, so once I start feeling pain, if it is not too much pain, it eases my mind.
COOK: What’s on your mind that you want to be eased from?
ACKERMANN: Just too much fast thinking all the time. I think of so many things all at once, it gets exhausting. You start seeing all of these connections around you . . . Everything is connected, composed, coordinated, choreographed. If you start paying attention to these connections, it can drive you insane. And that’s why making work is so good, because that’s when I’m not thinking, just making.
COOK: Do you think your speedy thinking derives in any way from your upbringing in Hungary?
ACKERMANN: It’s so interesting and somehow so human that we always try to blame our backgrounds or upbringings on how we’ve turned out. Actually, I think it’s very little to do with that. Everything was fine for me growing up. My parents were great. We had a great time together. Communism was a fantastic background to grow up against because it was so simple, so safe—a bubble upbringing.
COOK: So was the fall of the Iron Curtain a very sad day for you?
ACKERMANN: [laughs] The fall of the Berlin Wall or when [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu got kicked out from his castle? That was very exciting.
COOK: You didn’t find the totalitarian government of Hungary at that time made for an oppressive atmosphere?
ACKERMANN: Eastern Europeans have experienced it as psychologically oppressive in retrospect, because when we went to the West we were made to feel a certain kind of less-ness—less developed, only half-grown-ups, like we were not able to decide for ourselves. So in that sense it was not a good feeling to leave the bubble. Once you were able to go to the West, it was like feeling like a young adolescent in many ways: inferior, always apologetic. You felt too visible and wanted to disappear, but at the same time you were dying to be there to look and to see. So it was not a good experience, but also a great one at the same time, I guess.
COOK: And yet you moved here as soon as you could.
ACKERMANN: New York City was probably the only city where I could immediately be accepted with my accent and my weird, inferior behavior. For them, everything I did was probably some bizarre act of an Eastern European. I had the fear of not being equal. But I would see people very open, saying, “Of course you are equal.” Then that was a nice surprise. It was a great realization. I came to New York in the middle of my studies, not finished with the art academy.
COOK: Ackermann doesn’t sound like a Hungarian name.
ACKERMANN: I chose it. Ackermann is my grandmother’s name. I have a Hungarian name, too. My family name is Bakos.
COOK: At what stage did you change it?
ACKERMANN: Right away, as soon as I arrived! [laughs] Get that Hungarian name out of the way! Nobody can pronounce it—it’s crazy, get it out, try to belong, become an American as fast as you can!
COOK: So the change to a more international sounding name coincided with your shift to a more international place.
ACKERMANN: Yeah, but strangely enough, Hungary was similarly mashed-up like New York. It could almost stand as a cosmopolitan country of the East. Well, not entirely, but in a way that there were different nationalities coming through for centuries. It’s main attraction is agricultural. It has a strong history of attracting different nations because the land was great for agriculture. So the Germans came there to do their—
COOK: To do their Holocaust.
ACKERMANN: Yeah [laughs] . . . So they were there! And then Hungarians welcomed them with open arms—except the Hungarian intellectuals and liberal thinkers, most all of them Jews.
COOK: If I were to be an amateur psychologist, I might want to draw a connection between the closed aspects of Hungarian society and your own readiness to connect, to collage, the variety of subject matters, and the manner in which you paint.
ACKERMANN: You mean that I might have been hungry for information or open-mindedness and left Hungary as fast as I could? There is something to that. But in truth, when I can work in open sky, I just get gigantic, fat, and overeat myself to the point of throwing up and then use all the energy to work, to make work that is new to me—that makes you uncomfortable at first. All of that goes into my practice, and something very linear ends up coming out. That’s what I was focusing on with my book . . . this straight line, like a rope dancer or a blade runner—to be the blade and the runner. It is long-distance running.
COOK: I gather that before coming to New York you had been thinking of becoming a professional tennis player.
ACKERMANN: When you have a dream, you don’t even want to tell yourself straight out that this is what you want. You try to hide it. I never told myself I wanted to be a tennis player. But being an artist, yes, this is what I wanted since I first sat down to draw or paint. I knew that . . . I had that vision. But let’s talk about tennis. Do you watch tennis? Who is your favorite?
COOK: [Novak] Djokovic. Billie Jean King used to be my favorite. Who used to be your favorite? John McEnroe?
ACKERMANN: McEnroe! I mean, who did not love McEnroe?
COOK: Me! I didn’t like his temperament. I really like players who are not naturally gifted and have to achieve their success by other means. I like when people have to win against their own limitations, rather than just being phenomenally blessed as McEnroe was. Back to you . . . When was it you moved to New York?
ACKERMANN: I don’t remember. Sometime in the ’90s because of a grant I received to study at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture on Eighth Street. It’s such a beautiful building. I studied there for one year and then in a year or so, I had my own studio and my work started to receive serious attention through a solo show in SoHo.
COOK: What were you doing to survive before you got this first show?
ACKERMANN: Well, it was good old waitressing style.
COOK: How did you first get in touch with Andrea [Rosen, whose gallery represents Ackermann]?
ACKERMANN: I think she sent John Currin to my studio to see if it was worth giving my work a show. And Felix [Gonzalez-Torres] must have liked me, too.
COOK: When you were working on this book, was anything revealed to you about your work?
ACKERMANN: Making the book was a kind of closing and a new beginning, to show the past works as completely and fully digested by the present. I had to eat myself through the older works in order to get where I am now. The book actually starts with the introduction of the new works and then goes into random juxtapositions of the newer works with the older ones—even the oldest from the mid-’90s with literature or references to poetry. That was always something I liked to work with as an inspirational thought . . . not necessarily as an illustrator, but almost like a collaboration with the writer, to become one with the writer or character—like Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed or The Idiot or Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King.
COOK: You seem to like the openness of the collaborative process. Take your last show with Harmony Korine.
ACKERMANN: Harmony and I, we just played around with this idea of how to visualize a story. He said, “Why don’t I send you images from the movie [Trash Humpers], no story, and you just do whatever you do with it.” After that, I realized painting could look like a film, and a film like a painting.
COOK: You’ve never collaborated with anyone else on a painting?
ACKERMANN: Yes, but I’m super-scared of that. I can’t let things go when it comes to stop painting. It has to be my way.
COOK: Maybe the two different Ritas collaborate on your paintings?
ACKERMANN: Rita Bakos and Rita Ackermann, that’s been a collaboration my whole life. It’s such an interesting thing because right now everyone is so obsessed with the persona of the artist and how much the persona can carry the artwork. It gets to the point that the art itself doesn’t mean anything. It’s about the person who makes it. For me right now that’s a big problem with Rita Ackermann. A persona hurts the artwork because the artwork needs to be looked at just as it is. It’s all about the artwork. I get pretty disappointed about that nowadays. I’m already feeling this attention to the persona from magazines. They want to hear exciting stories and see beautiful people wear fashionable clothes. I get questions, “What’s your shoe size?” “What’s your dress size?” I say, “Can’t we just shoot a portrait in my studio with the artwork?” Of course, my painting outfit has to be the focus of the shoot to promote a designer, or if I wear my own it will inspire someone’s next collection!
COOK: It’s interesting to see this comment being made for Andy Warhol’s Interview because in a way, the whole publication is a vehicle for the persona.
ACKERMANN: Do you think we should blame Andy Warhol for that? I mean, he’s a genius for saying these things 50 years ago, but what he said to us, everyone’s private life will be famous for 15 minutes, basically has resulted in all these tabloids about whoever has thrown their private life out there to get any fame they could.
COOK: Maybe he protected his private life by presenting the world with a separate and very public persona. Maybe you’re doing the same with Rita Ackermann?
ACKERMANN: Maybe I am, but maybe the persona gets too large. I mean, Andy Warhol was a great player. If you are not a good robot in public and you are not playing with your persona, hiding and manipulating the truth and the real, forget it, go back to where you came from. Being honest in the spotlight is the worst idea in this moment. But I do like when artists are honest and are able to build a persona for the artwork with their honesty. That’s really good. But right now maybe it’s refreshing not to see the persona, because we got so overfed by them to the point that it is hard to trust. But maybe it’s about figuring out a new way to deal with the persona of an artist.
COOK: You told me you like to dance while you paint.
ACKERMANN: Yeah, because of the extreme happiness that comes. Because sometimes it is truly like holding the foot of God once some really great things start happening on the canvas. I go like, “Oooh.” I start dancing to [Nicolò] Paganini or Philip Glass.
COOK: Is it mostly classical music that you listen to?
ACKERMANN: Yes and no. I have to say my favorite band is Gang Gang Dance, and nobody makes music as good as them at the moment. Sometimes I listen to Eye Contact [4AD], their latest album, seven times on repeat while I work.
COOK: I know you like Michael Jackson, but is it his music or is it more the phenomenon?
ACKERMANN: I never paid attention to Michael Jackson, but when he died, it was like an explosion in some strange way. This intensity was released, something really powerful. But how can I say that? I also like to keep a hidden force behind my work.
COOK: Did the allegations of child abuse associated with him bother you?
ACKERMANN: Yeah, it was sad to watch how America kills their monster heroes, but I never believed any of that, you know, and I didn’t really pay attention. I have to say, I paid attention to his dancing a lot more because I saw that as something really genius. And when he danced the moonwalk-I’m actually convinced he would be studying himself dancing on video and have to rewind the tape and he would see himself and say, “Wait a minute, I think this looks better now being rewinded than how I am forward.”
COOK: Several critics have for some reason connected your work to the September 11th attacks.
ACKERMANN: I was making work related to terrorism versus catalog fashion [a series called “Style Show for the Levitation of the Strong American Women,” 2000-2001] just before I started making work referring to extreme and naive orthodox paintings . . . and meanwhile reading Dostoyevsky’s Possessed . . . when 9/11 happened. I never intentionally planned to make work about this event, but it did open a new chapter. Everything made sense suddenly, all became connected—the puzzle was complete. You open new chapters on your own terms or when you are forced to respond. I was working with the spirit of terror, with devils and extremism, when the World Trade Center blew up. I had just left Texas after living there for two and a half years. It was a hardcore environment down there, right when George Bush got elected—you know, the Bushian Christian superconfident American. Everything just breathed disaster in Texas. I could feel it so well, so just moving back to New York and being in the center of the disaster was not a surprise.
Angus Cook is a New York City–based writer.