Sam McKinniss

Touch is inherently erotic and/or violent. So I like mark-making, and I think I like it in the 20th-century modernist way. Sam McKinniss

Sam McKinniss works from a broken heart. The 29-year-old artist finds an image—of Batgirl, say; of a teenage suburban killer or a teenage ghost; of a girl he used to know or a boy he doesn’t—and spends time with it, eventually turning it into paint. If he can’t find an image, he makes one on film or on his iPhone. Either way, by the time the painting is finished, it’s no longer his. Manic and depressive, classical and idiosyncratic, the painting serves to commemorate his loss or make fun of his attempt to win, to be a hero in a futile romance.

We met up this past April in McKinniss’s Williamsburg studio. On the walls around us, two dozen newly finished canvases were waiting to be shipped to either coast. The Minnesota-born, Internet-bred painter is having a bit of a year: His first solo show in New York, “Black Leather Sectional,” opened at Joe Sheftel Gallery at the end of May; now, at the beginning of June, Team Bungalow presents “Dear Metal Thing,” his first solo show in Los Angeles. With these efforts in mind, we got takeout huevos at 2 p.m. and drank two or three bottles of wine as we talked about his art and work.

We also just talked about life. Sam and I have been friends for over a year now, ever since three people told me I would love him, and as immediately as if I’d been put under a spell, I did. He painted a series of men in repose for the second print issue of Adult, the magazine I edit. In exchange, I told everyone he was the next great painter. Now that it turns out I might not have been lying, I’d like to invite you to our decadent, indecent lunch.

SAM McKINNISS: [Raises a glass] Cheers.

SARAH NICOLE PRICKETT: Cheers. I feel like, at the wine store, instead of being divided into Spain, Chile, whatever, wine should be divided into breakfast wine, lunch wine, dinner wine, and so on. So I was reading this book that Wayne Koestenbaum wrote about Andy Warhol …

McKINNISS: I love that book [Andy Warhol: A Biography]. I have a signed copy.

PRICKETT: I’m not surprised, because I kept reading it and thinking of you, not of your art itself but about the politics of your art, like when Koestenbaum talks about Warhol being commonist, not communist. He says that Warhol wanted to place a wafer of glamour on everyone’s tongue. Fifteen seconds of taste.

McKINNISS: Wayne is constantly saying the smartest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, and one such thing was at a lecture he gave when I was in grad school at NYU in around 2012, which was, like, basically, porn succeeds in excess because you’re never going to see enough naked bodies. There’s always another body you haven’t seen.

PRICKETT: He’s so, so smart about porn. Before I forget, I’ve decided that Adult should open a gallery and call it Adult Contemporary. This is an idea that I should have had a year and a half ago.

McKINNISS: I used to have a similar idea, which is that if I were going to start a gallery, the name of the gallery would be Revenge.

PRICKETT: There’s a TV show called Revenge. Have you seen it? It’s set in the Hamptons and it’s all about murder, so you’d love it. I love nighttime soaps, like Empire or House of Cards. I hate these other real-ish shows on Netflix—not the shows, but the discourse around the shows, a discourse which permits, endlessly, op-eds to be written comparing the narrative of the show to a story from the op-ed writer’s life, i.e., “I did six months for being a white woman who drove really drunk and here’s what Orange Is the New Black gets wrong about life in prison.” Or like, “Here’s what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t tell you about growing up in a cult, which is something I did once.” Like, shut the fuck up. No one is making a television show about literally you.

McKINNISS: People have felt alienated from reality for a long time, and that’s why they want to talk about TV. And then Mark Zuckerberg came around and invented Facebook so people have to publish think pieces every day so that Facebook can remain interesting so people can have something to link to on their pages. It’s gross. I think Mark Zuckerberg is the ugliest man in America.

PRICKETT: In so many ways. He commits the worst sin for a rich person, which is to not have style. If you are rich, it is your responsibility to have style, to live an enviable life.

McKINNISS: I agree. I want something to aspire to.

PRICKETT: I’m looking at that painting of Cupid [l’amour menaçant (after Étienne-Maurice Falconet), 2015], and from here I can see all these smudges in the black, like grease marks on matte. Are you really into mark-making

McKINNISS: I’m into it. I think it’s erotic. It signals touch, and I think touch is inherently erotic and/or violent. So I like mark-making, and I think I like it in the 20th-century modernist way.

PRICKETT: I never got over modernism.

McKINNISS: Neither did I. Cy Twombly is still the best.

PRICKETT: He’s my favorite artist. Did you go see “Treatise on the Veil” [a 2014 exhibit of Twombly’s monumental 1970 painting] when they were showing it at the Morgan Library?

McKINNISS: No. When was that? We shouldn’t talk about something I haven’t seen. I’ll look irresponsible or stupid, like a bad New Yorker.

PRICKETT: As if there are any good New Yorkers! We’re all mental. We’re all bad. We’re all afraid that if we move anywhere outside New York, someone will start to notice.

McKINNISS: Yep. My family lives in Connecticut, and every time I go visit, I’m like, I can’t let them in on this secret, on how completely morally compromised, how bankrupt, how heartless and derelict and sort of approaching evil I am.

PRICKETT: So many of our relationships, both to and in New York, basically amount to a symmetrical détente. Everyone here has got something on you, and you’ve got the same thing on them, which is that you’re a crazy bitch with a heart of Canal Street gold. So, yeah. Basically, none of us can leave.

People have felt alienated from reality for a long time, and that’s why they want to talk about TV. Sam McKinniss

McKINNISS: Do you know the story of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, the artists who died in New York in 2007? They left, but they were suicides. That’s what happens. It turns into a romance.

PRICKETT: Right. A lot of love stories are of lovers trying to coordinate their disappearances.

McKINNISS: Because everyone else is so unbearable.

PRICKETT: No one feels like they’re winning anymore. I feel like people are always talking about going faster or slower, but I don’t know if there’s a sense of a finish line.

McKINNISS: I think I’m going to win. I recently arrived somewhere where I actually believe that I know what to do. And I’m going to do it. I’m about to open two shows, one at Joe Sheftel Gallery in New York, and the other at Team Gallery’s new bungalow in Venice Beach, and they’re the best paintings I’ve ever made in my life. They’re exactly what I want them to be. I don’t think they’re going to lose.

PRICKETT: I don’t want to sound inspirational—I would really hate for anyone to be inspired by this conversation—but I feel like you’re describing a personal-best situation, rather than a race or whatever. Ugh, it’s so corny. But you’re almost running alone.

McKINNISS: It’s pretty lonely.

PRICKETT: There’s not that many painters who paint. There’s not that many romantics or individuals or artists who understand the basic tenets of religion in America, and there’s not that many people who could bring it upon themselves to look at a dead body. There aren’t that many people who are decadent and selfish and honest and romantic enough to be real fucking painters, and I do think that painting is decadent—that painterly painting is decadent. Writerly writing is decadent, too. Marriage is decadent. [laughs] My three favorite things.

McKINNISS: I like that you’re married. I’m into it.

PRICKETT:Me getting married was me knowing when to leave a party, which is one of the few things I actually have learned in my life.

McKINNISS: Leaving is stylish. Who’s the last person you make eye contact with before you leave? It’s stylish to be like, “I’m leaving,” and you could have talked to me, maybe, but you didn’t. I like my absence to be felt physically, as an indelible loss.

PRICKETT:How do you know when to leave off painting a painting?

McKINNISS: That’s a good question. Part of it has to do with picking what to paint in the first place, deciding to go in the right direction, and then going almost too far. There’s a tension, and the tension is between me having a life and the painting having a life. For instance, Batgirl. Getting to Batgirl as a subject was very odd. Alicia Silverstone plays the supporting actress role in this really unwatchable movie Batman and Robin [1997]. Since this is in the realm of things that I’m thematically drawn to—like, she’s weaponized and supposedly dangerous but also so anatomically articulated that she’s provocative, and she’s wearing the S&M look, but she’s too winsome and cute to do it right—I arrive at her, and I decide this is primo subject matter, right? So I give more life to Batgirl, even though I don’t really believe that that’s what I do, and then she gives life to me, and I don’t quite believe in that either. But anyway the tension exists.

PRICKETT: Batgirl is a deflated creature, in contrast with, say, Catwoman. It’s silly. It sounds like a Halloween costume and not a character. And I think you take jokes very seriously.

McKINNISS: Yes, I do.

PRICKETT: And your paintings take jokes seriously. You make your subjects hard to turn back into jokes.

McKINNISS: I want the joke to be evident on the surface of the painting. But during the process of painting the joke, I want to find the stone cold heart of violence that made that joke funny. And I want to get there via having a romance with the thing itself, with the joke.

PRICKETT:Some paintings clearly mean more than others.

McKINNISS: But some could sneak up and mean more later. That potential is what I’m trying to leverage by putting a variety of sizes and styles into one exhibition arena, by pitting different concerns against each other, and by saying, like, this is sort of loosely promiscuous and very loosely organized, but it also represents a kind of totality for now.

PRICKETT: A totality. Yeah, it represents the solipsism of an expanding mind. The totally acceptable, the only acceptable kind of solipsism—

McKINNISS: Is that of having a mind expanded?


McKINNISS: That’s a nice way of putting it.

PRICKETT: Thanks. [looks around studio] Sam, are your prices just written on your wall?

McKINNISS: [laughs] I’m dyslexic for numbers, so I need it to remember which sizes of paintings I like—the canvas sizes are written next to the prices.

PRICKETT: Ooh. I want to buy one of your paintings! I mean, I can’t afford it. 

McKINNISS: Sarah, we’re close friends. I would just give you a painting for your birthday.

PRICKETT: No, but I’d want to—I’d have to trade you something for it.

McKINNISS: I’m going to say something really gross.

PRICKETT: What? I’m going to lend you my husband in exchange?

McKINNISS: That’s exactly what I was going to say.

PRICKETT: Whatever souls are made of, yours and mine are made of the fucking same.

McKINNISS: I hope Jesse [Prickett’s husband, the writer Jesse Barron] doesn’t read Interview. This reminds me, actually. A long time ago, I was sleeping with this guy and I knew he wasn’t exactly gay; he was bisexual or whatever, or he just liked it. One time after I fucked him and we were lying there, he was like, “Do you think your friend Kristin would still go out with me if she knew that we were fucking?” [laughs] It was one of those moments where you have to believe in the joke more than the romance, which was somewhat instructive.

PRICKETT: Pass me the wine, I’m going to make a wine spritzer. It’s that time of the afternoon—we’ve switched from the lunch wine to the afternoon wine. So tell me about your ghosts.

McKINNISS: Right. Yeah, the ghost paintings [Ghosts, an ongoing series of semi-abstract paintings featuring cartoon ghosts]. They present a little bit of a problem in that they’re not representational.

PRICKETT: They are if you’re the Snapchat little guy! If you’re the Snapchat little guy, you might feel inclined to write a New York Times op-ed saying, “What Sam McKinniss’s Paintings Get Wrong About My Life as a Ghost.”

McKINNISS: So me and the Snapchat app have the ghost icon in common, I guess.

PRICKETT: And also a sense of indecency.

McKINNISS: I do think the ghosts are indecent. They came on strong. I think I needed them as a way to interrupt my own studio practice. I needed them as a way to invade space, a way that was less connected to the body but still had everything to do with eroticism.

PRICKETT: Because—not to be too prurient or specious—but the ghosts look a little bit like sperm. Or like empty condoms. And so I think it’s nice that you’re sending a message about safe sex.

McKINNISS: I know. Isn’t that good of me? It’s so good for the community.

PRICKETT: But seriously, if you were in a different time, we would say that these are AIDS paintings.

McKINNISS: That suggestion has been made before, and I don’t think it’s too far off base. AIDS has not been part of my life, thank God, because of the good work that so many people have done. But maybe the paintings have something to do with the aftermath. The mess to clean up after furious lovemaking.

I recently arrived somewhere where I actually believe that I know what to do. And I’m going to do it. Sam McKinniss

PRICKETT: They’re also the only paintings of yours that deal in, like, pattern and chaos.

McKINNISS: No, the rest of my paintings are very posed or staged. The figures are aiming for oneness or bodily autonomy. The ghosts try to tear that apart. There’s obviously more there than can be said. They are slick; they make fun of painting. They also enjoy everything that painting has to offer. What the figures have going for them in terms of pictorial integrity, they lack in furious loss of control, gestural carelessness, the mess. I describe the ghosts as an alternative means of approaching a similar erotic or libidinal zone.

PRICKETT: Are they fun to paint?

McKINNISS: Yes, but they’re also sad.

PRICKETT: Who are your favorite ghosts from the outside world?

McKINNISS: It’s hard to say. They’re all these silly examples. Like, who’s that kid who plays the ghost in Casper? Devon Sawa. Or Patrick Swayze. Or Derrida’s concept of hauntology, that sort of thing. When I invented the ghosts, I tried to imagine that I was the only one who had ever made a credible go at them. Even though I know that they reference a thing, and that there’s a very recognizable pattern and shape. I tried—I know it’s vain, but everything I do is in vain.

PRICKETT: Were you worried it would seem like a joke about painting being dead? Or was it that joke?

McKINNISS: I got to the joke before anyone else did.

PRICKETT: Jamian [Juliano-Villani, a New York artist] has painted a ghost. Or am I thinking of the candle she painted, which has ghostly qualities?

McKINNISS: I can’t think of specific examples of ghosts in Jamian’s work, but I think she is as aware as anyone of how corrupt the enterprise of painting is, and I think Jamian is also hugely talented.

PRICKETT: What other living painters do you like?

McKINNISS: My favorite is Maureen Gallace, the landscape painter, which is a controversial opinion, but I think she’s the best living painter. I think Cecily Brown and Lisa Yuskavage are great, and I think Billy Sullivan is great—he started out in the Warhol era. Borna Sammak and Alex Da Corte are important to me artistically because we share sensibilities and a sense of humor, or doom, and they are my BFFs probably for that reason.

PRICKETT: Maureen was your teacher in grad school.

McKINNISS: I did that on purpose. There was no point in me going to grad school unless I could study with Maureen Gallace. Her importance became apparent and clear, I think, when I realized that it’s all about an approach—a cool approach. A cool eye, a cool countenance will guide one toward art.

PRICKETT: Even her name sounds so cool—Gallace. It’s like the French word glacé, for glossy, glazed in sugar. You know [Karl Ove] Knausgaard, the writer? He described writing, what writing does for him, as being like a cool hand on a warm forehead.

McKINNISS: That’s such a nice way to rephrase the desired effect. Maureen was like that for me.

PRICKETT: You and she both seem to possess a contrarian naiveté.

McKINNISS: And a willful taking-pleasure in the provincial. I think that Maureen Gallace is basically Sol LeWitt. Her format changes very little, but within the variations are huge returns on her investment.

PRICKETT: She sticks to the accident. Because her paintings basically look like, as you say, provincial postage stamps, it seems like she just miscalibrated what painting was supposed to be, or what she was supposed to do as a painter. But she sticks to the accident, which is something Francis Bacon said to Marguerite Duras in an interview once, that you have to integrate the accident into the painting. I wonder if I can explain this more. It has to do with mark-making, but he doesn’t refer to marks as marks. He refers to them as spots. So it’s kind of like how Koestenbaum, in the Warhol book, talks about the splotches on Warhol’s skin.

McKINNISS: Because his body is so compromised, by invasion, or infection, or some kind of incongruity.

PRICKETT: Right. When you talk about the ghosts being slick, it’s kind of like that. Like a slick spot on the pavement. You slip on it, you fall, and then you try to understand how it is that you fell, and you repeat the movement until it’s graceful. Does that make sense?

McKINNISS: It does make sense. Because if the ghosts resemble a cum stain or something like that, you can also think about how the ghosts resemble midcentury modern New York paintings, and Helen Frankenthaler pouring paint onto a blank canvas. Helen Frankenthaler’s painting is a stain. It’s also elegant and it becomes more than that, in the same way that Joan Mitchell’s scratchiness and friction, rubbing more or less a dry pigment against a surface becomes something intimate, an experience of touch. But, yeah, who are other living painters that I like? I like Karen Kilimnik. I like David Salle, who is the most elegant man in New York. I like his writing, too.

PRICKETT: You’re one of the few artists who can also write. So few people anymore know how to spell words, let alone use them. Not that spelling is what writing is made of, but I love when people bother to learn the tools of their fucking trades, and this brings us back to Maureen Gallace and the time she came to your studio, which is a story you’ve told me that I want everyone else to hear.

McKINNISS: Right. It’s a turning point for me, for sure. It’s 2012, I’m in grad school, and Maureen Gallace comes into my studio. We’ve known each other now for two, two and a half years, and she comes in, looks at my painting station, looks at my palette and my brushes, and is taken aback at how much of a horrific mess it is. She turns to me and says, “Okay, amateur hour is over.” She’s like, “Sam, you have to take this seriously. If you’re going to show anything in New York, it has to be spot-on. You can’t play like this anymore. You’re going to have to throw all of this out, and you’re going to have to buy all new materials. You need to look after what you’re doing in a respectful way, in respect to the objects you’re trying to make and in respect to yourself and in respect to the tools that you use. You need to take care. And from now on, all of it counts.” Before that, everything that we had said to one another had been sort of collegiate—affectionate, cordial, friendly. We’re simpatico. We see things in a similar way. But this was a moment when somebody I had actively sought out as a mentor came into my personal space and said, like, “What you’re doing sucks. It’s a disgrace.” That was hugely effective and meaningful. And that’s why I think of Maureen Gallace as a minimalist, more so than as a vernacular or provincial artist. She’s not provincial at all. She’s also not ironic. She disabuses any sense of irony and the viewer’s own sophistication by saying, “This beach on Cape Cod at sunset, although this may seem familiar and overdone to you, no, this counts. Still. This still matters.” Using coolness and emphasis to oppose incredulity. Which means, to me, that I can update the same approach to who I am as a person, and I can say, “You will take this seemingly not revolutionary and fairly standard portrait and you will take it seriously. You will take this to mean that, yes, this too, this equals sophistication.” Being able to usher that kind of thing into the discourse, even though I hate the word discourse, that is the coolest move. That’s what I like.