There is a great Roy Lichtenstein painting from the 1960s called "Image Duplicator" that shows a comic book mad scientist with a thought bubble that reads, "What do you know about my Image Duplicator!" Whether this mythical machine ever existed outside the realm of Lichtenstein's imagination is besides the point -- dozens of artist from the '60s through the '90s used image replication and deconstruction as their primary motif, from Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol through Sherrie Levine and David Salle and Jeff Koons. Deborah Kass has largely followed this model, with the twist of appropriating the appropriators -- using Warhol's images (already appropriated from newspapers and magazines) and then combining them with Jewish themes and pop icons (e.g. Barbara Streisand in Yentl), giving the works a post-modern, feminist, and political slant that most artists of her generation, with the possible exception of Cary Leibowitz, didn't have.
While Ms. Kass’s works along these lines were often witty and thought-provoking, they eventually ran into the wall of post-modern-art-about-art: the referencing of styles eventually became a style, the endgame of an endgame. In her recent exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, More Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times, Kass seems to have found a way out of this cul de sac, opting for fairly straightforward text pieces that evoke through their painterly style as well as provocative use of language fragments. The tone is lighter, the colors evoke a trippy '60s psychedelia, and the works cohere into a more organic whole instead of a cultural history lesson. "Oy" (2010), a remix of Ed Ruscha's "Popeye," is brilliant: the simplicity of its editing combined with a respect for Rusha's deft painterly touch to merge seamlessly. "Popeye," a pop icon, is gently and subversively transformed in the viewer's mind, the tin of spinach replaced by a jar of gefilte fish.
In other works, colored bands reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly or Brice Marden are layered with text ("Being Alive," "C'mon Get Happy," both 2010), bringing to mind the Partridge Family bus. Her sense of color is astute, spot-on with a sense of time that evokes the past without being nostalgic or sentimental, much as the television show Mad Men captures the spirit of the same period. In a certain sense Kass's works operate on the same premise as Mad Men does, celebrating and critiquing at the same time. And that is the ultimate success of this work: we are drawn in by the familiar, the style of type and colors that we are by now familiar with -- and then, by an apt reworking of message, are left with a different experience than we expected.
How we respond to this mix of art and culture icons is very much a personal choice; Kass has opened up her work and allows us to read our own history into art's history. This light spirit is only missing in two works, "Frank's Dilemma" (2009) and "After Louise Bourgeois" (2010), which are more laden with specific references to a particular artist. Though they're not as satisfying, the fault may not be entirely Kass’s; Bourgeois and Stella's Modernist gravitas just requires more heavy lifting on our part.