Lisa Yuskavage’s photograph has been in the rotation on the video screen in ICA’s lobby for the past few months, so I recognize her right away when she comes in. Her parents are here too, back from their retirement in Florida to see their daughter honored at ICA’s annual benefit. Their daughter, the famous painter! How many parents think the day will come when they might say that?
So how’s little Lisa?
Lisa? Oh—she’s a famous painter in New York.
The benefit dinner is held on ICA’s terrace, green tablecloths under a white tent. Over the gazpacho there are remarks. “It all started one day in 1995 in the East Village,” says Yvonne Force, president and co-founder of Art Production Fund and self-proclaimed president of the Lisa Yuskavage fan club. She lists the terrific titles of some of Yuskavage’s works: “Socialclimber,” “Asspicker,” “Headshrinker,” and “Transference Portrait of My Shrink in Her Starched Nightgown with My Face and her Hair.” She recounts her pleasure at being asked to model for Yuskavage, and the wonderful strangeness of hefting her nine-and-a-half-month pregnant belly onto a table to become part of a still life with flowers and fruit, herself the most overripe of all.
Yuskavage, who had her first museum show in 2000 here at ICA, is known for her luscious, voluptuous paintings of women with their breasts dangling, their legs spread. Chuck Close, who speaks after Force, jokes that the church Yuskavage grew up attending in Philadelphia should have been called, not The Church of the Holy Innocents but rather Our Lady of Perpetual Perversion.
Close is bigger than I expected, dominating the terrace even in his wheelchair. He kneads the microphone in his big hands, drops it, picks it up, and says: “Is it just me, or does this thing look like a vibrator?” He recounts how Yuskavage famously said that she didn’t understand the difference between nudes in Penthouse (her father’s collection warped her for life, Close quips) and the ones in museums. “She’s spent her whole career trying to level that playing field,” he says.
Then he tells how, when he was on a jury considering the then-unknown young artist for a grant, he and his fellow judge couldn’t tell from the slides whether she was a hack or a great painter. Not wanting to take the risk, they didn’t give her the grant. A few weeks later Close saw one of her canvases in person and called her to apologize and make amends.
There’s a lot to learn about the art world from this story: about how thin the thread is separating those who make it from those who don’t. About riskiness and contingency, and the role of chance, human error, and fear. Part of what makes Yuskavage a great painter is clearly her fearlessness and her determination that “the repulsive and the beautiful are both worthy of being seen.” (And by the way, who knows better than Close himself about chance, about determination?) Her ambition for her work drives her hard, has made her seize her opportunities, prise open whatever cracks in the slippery surface of the art world she could find. Still, one can see how things might have played out differently.
In her speech, Yvonne Force said that when she first walked into Yuskavage’s studio, it was a like a movie—one great canvas stacked against another along the wall! Maybe it’s true that Force knew right away that she had discovered a great painter; but even so, what if she hadn’t gone to the studio that day? What if Close hadn’t happened to see that canvas on the wall? How many artists with equally great canvases are still waiting in their East Village tenements for someone to walk in who sees what they’re doing and understands what they are capable of?
After dinner, Lisa herself takes the microphone. She talks about growing up five miles from ICA in Juniata Park, about how she’d always wanted to have her first show in this museum. She says her parents used to give her a blank check to take to the art supply store to buy paints. She thanks them for trusting her—thanks ICA for showing her. Then she turns to Close and says, “Chuck, the porn magazines were my mother’s.” Everyone laughs.
Lisa Yuskavage’s story is a story with a happy ending. Talent, drive, and luck have come together for her. Tonight she has helped raise almost $300,000 for ICA. The night is clear and not too cool, and Lisa’s mother has baked two hundred cookies to go with the after-dinner tequila. The money raised tonight will go toward mounting shows of other artists who have not yet received the recognition they deserve—if “deserve” is even a word you can use in this context. It’s a feel-good night, and the clothes are beautiful, and the guests will walk home with orchids from the tables, and gorgeous monotypes by Anne Chu, and Karen Kilimnik towels made by the Art Production Fund (Chu and Kilimnik, both here tonight, have both shown at ICA, and Chu will have another show here in the fall).
But I’m looking at the table of young artists near the planters, lingering for a few more shots of tequila. For all their laughter and high spirits, they must all be wondering how to do it: how to traverse the vast territory that separates them from that podium, ten feet away.