Inside NYU Steinhardt: An Interview with Artist Marlene McCarty

Marlene McCarty’s studio is in a converted factory near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.  Entering the bright, airy space, you notice a charcoal drawing that says:  “DON’T LOOK UP MY SKIRT UNLESS YOU MEAN IT.” Salvaged from Hurricane Sandy, the piece, which has  somehow survived the damage, is emblematic for the artist.  It’s evidence that she’s in for the long haul; that time changes art and the artist perseveres.

McCarty, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and studied at the University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Architecture and Art, and Schule für Gestaltung, Basel Switzerland.

In the 1980s, as a member of the AIDS activist collective, Gran Fury, she created work that used the language of advertising to put pressure on politicians and bring the gay and lesbian community into mainstream consciousness. In the 1990s, she made large pencil and ballpoint pen drawings of young female killers.

A recent retrospective of McCarty’s drawings at RHA in Dublin, featured her portraits of humans and gorillas in loving embrace. Reviewing McCarty’s 2010 retrospective at 80 WSE in 2010, Holland Carter of The New York Times praised the work for its “virtuosic not-niceness.”

McCarty’s work is in the collection of major institutions including MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and MoCA Los Angles.  She teaches BFA and MFA students in Steinhardt’s studio art program.

NYU STEINHARDT: Talk a little about your education as an artist.

MCCARTY: I went to the University of Cincinatti because in 1975 they had the premier graphic design program in the United States.  I did that for two years and completed my design education at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel Switzerland.

Being in Basel made me realize that I wanted to be an artist.  I was coming from Lexington, Kentucky, a cultural wasteland, and now I was in the middle of Europe — so I could get to Paris in five hours, I could get to Düsseldorf in five hours, I could get to Milan less than five hours…and see all of this amazing art.

The first work that I call ‘artwork,’ I created for a punk rock venue outside Basel.  I would make these crazy, wild paintings that would be really contemporary today, but back then, people would say, “They’re on plastic!  They’re hideous!  They’re horrible!”  But they were great.

Your work has not always been well received.  How do you understand that?

I believe that art is about pushing the status quo. It’s about thinking differently.  It’s about taking people to places they wouldn’t ordinarily go and wouldn’t necessarily like.  The problem is when you do that it can make some people very upset or uncomfortable.

You have to develop a really strong center because if you are doing something that people are not used to seeing or looking at, their reaction will usually be, “I don’t like that.”  As a young artist it’s very hard not to change your work based on that reaction.

How did you develop your “strong center?”  Even now, why not change your work?

It’s the only thing I want to do.  I can’t make myself just “make stuff.” People will sometimes say to me, “Just make some little stuff.  Just make some little stuff that people can sell!”  And I just can’t do it.  I cannot do it.  I’ve even tried it.  It just comes out bad.

This is what I tell my students:  you have to find that place inside of you that propels you forward as an artist.  Some people call it passion.  I don’t know if it’s always passion, but if there’s something that you feel strongly about, that will keep fueling what you do.

What else do you tell your students?

See the world. Get out of your culture.  Get uncomfortable.  Because that’s when you really start to realize what you’re about and also what everybody else is about.  Be brave.

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Images: Marlene McCarty, Group 2 (Norman, Oklahoma, 1964-1977, Baboon Island, The Gambia, Africa, 1977-1987.), 2007.  Graphite and ballpoint pen on paper.

McCarty’s plastic painting in the Palazzo, courtesy of Marlene McCarty.

Portrait of Marlene McCarty and Marlene McCarty’s matchbooks and pencils, photo credit:  Debra Weinstein.

MORE MARLENE MCCARTY:  Watch video from the 80 WSE Retrospective: marlene mccarty:  i’m into you now.