Portrait of the Artist
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
A conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum.
By Zane Bhansali
Wayne Koestenbaum is a prolific painter, poet, essayist, and critic known for Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, My 1980s and Other Essays, Humiliation, and, most recently, The Pink Trance Notebooks. His work spans genres and his obsessions range from reality TV to Roland Barthes, Andy Warhol, and hair. Currently, Koestenbaum teaches painting at the Yale School of Art and is a Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Senior Illustrator Zane Bhansali, CC ’17, sat down to talk and draw with Koestenbaum in his Chelsea studio.
The Blue and White: We’re in your studio and we’re surrounded by paintings, but my engagement, and I think a lot of people’s engagement with you, is primarily in writing. And in your writing you make a point of identifying yourself as a writer very explicitly. Why is that?
Wayne Koestenbaum: Well, I am a writer, and I like self-consciousness of all forms, and I like artifacts that know that they’re artifacts. They don’t get more cerebral because they know that they’re artifacts, they get more stimulated and effervescent. I’m thinking of my beloved progenitor Robert Walser who’s a really amazing, tragic figure. A Swiss-German writer from the earlier part of the 20th century who committed himself to a madhouse and stopped writing, but whose writing is in a constant state of freefall self-reference. And so I think that the constant or frequent gestures of self-conscious inscription of the fact that I am writing reassure me. I would hope that they make the texture of the work itself more vulnerable and porous to a reader’s entrance and touch.
B&W: Would you say that it’s more the fact that you’re constantly reassuring yourself and the reader that you’re a writer? Would you say that you do that when you’re painting as well to reassure yourself that you’re a painter?
WK: I’m always aware that I am painting because of the mechanics and the theater of painting which you call paint and canvas. And because painting is still an unfamiliar practice to me, and an exotic practice…and an expensive practice – I’m very aware that I’m doing it and that I’m investing in it. It’s taking time, it’s messy. Writing is more invisible. It doesn’t require much technology and it’s silent. And it’s undetectable.
B&W: What’s your job as a writer?
WK: I’m thinking of an essay I wrote about the painter Adam McEwen. And I had done two studio visits, I had thought a lot about it, I had a lot of notes … And then I didn’t know what to do, and I burst forward on the page and I made a mess for about four pages. It felt kind of exalted and creamy as a result. And then I thought, “Ok, now my job is, I really have to talk about these five things of his work. So let me make a list of these five nouns and now I will do those.” So my job is to get out of the labyrinth that I’ve set up in the essay.
B&W: One of your own devising?
WK: One of my own devising, or … maybe a sentence is a labyrinth and I need to get out of a sentence. Maybe I’m talking about a death wish, or entropy, or a wish to stimulate myself into rapid motion but then quell or tranquilize the motion in something like a death wish, but maybe like an overdosed love potion; a swoon.
B&W: Humiliation is obviously a big motivator for you and you call it your idee fixe at one point. You talk about the pleasure of being humiliated, the redemptive properties of being humiliated.
WK: I feel very purged by having written a book about humiliation … and so I actually don’t feel very addicted to, or in chains to, the experience of humiliation. What I am aware of are sudden syncings of … you could call it ego-structure, ego-solidity: one’s conviction that one has a right to exist. I wouldn’t say it’s always under the dramatic sign of humiliation, but I’m interested in and prone to moments of identity spoilage and temporary but eternal-seeming collapse of the sensation of viability. And that oscillation between viability and non-viability is just a metronome on the “whereof.” It can be even in the process of doing a painting. At the moment I’m looking at a painting that I like, I remember when I didn’t like it and I foresee the moment when I’m not gonna like it anymore. Or when someone else isn’t gonna like it.
B&W: Andre Bazin has this theory about the reasons humans create art being a mummification.
WK: A mummification. I love that.
B&W: An unintentional mummification and a desire to preserve themselves in some sort of fashion.
WK: Wow. Wow. This notion of amassing that I mentioned earlier is very important to me. Collecting and building up an archive or a body of work. I’ve always counted the number of poems I’ve written, counted the number of books I’ve written, counted the number of drawings or paintings. There’s something compulsive or defensive and fearful about this wish, perhaps, in Bazin’s words to mummify or wrap myself in what I’ve produced. When I think of death—when I think of sudden death, or the possibility of sudden death, like in Paris recently, the massacre … I really don’t think about loss of sensation or loss of future as much as I think of the loss of all the things I have made and the fact that they could be thrown away or never found. It seems like a very childish and literal interpretation of death.
B&W: But in a way those things are you.
WK: Yeah. I’m watching you draw and I must say to see—because you are erasing. And that’s a real amazing thing. I’m so bad at doing that.
B&W: Erasing gets so stigmatized in art, I don’t know.
WK: No, I think in any drawing thing it’s considered the only way to do anything. But for me it’s very hard to break the contact of the pencil with the page and interrupt it.
B&W: I can see every time you went down you…
WK: I started all over again. That’s also because I’m using a pen. How do you … what are you using for the work.
B&W: This is just a mechanical pencil.
WK: Staedtler. And you like these because you don’t have to sharpen them.
B&W: Yeah. It depends. I have a whole brand of art pencils that I use too from HB to 8b but I like this more because more often than not when I’m doing pencil the thing that intrigues me is that line can imitate form. So having the thinness of the line is in itself what draws me to pencil. If I’m going to do pencil that’s usually why I do it. If I’m going to lay down a thick swath of value I would rather just use marker usually.
WK: And so when you draw my face, what’s the first thing? Do you first look for the overall egg of the face or the oval and do the whole form or do you start with the detail?
B&W: It depends. When I’m drawing from imagination I do the egg of the face. When I’m drawing people I usually just go feature by feature because that matters more in getting a likeness. But I haven’t drawn a portrait from life in so long—I’m really out of practice. It’s really bad.
WK: It’s hard. But it looks like the proportions are really good. I’m going to imagine having my eraser at the ready. This is very similar to the way I was talking about writing. There’s a kind of nervousness that overtakes me and I have to get it all down. I’m loath to stop or look. Once I enter the trance of observation I think if I look away or if I stop the spell of composition it will be shattered and I can’t stop. Even though I know that if I erase something it will give me a fresh start. So I’m gonna work on this erasure thing.
B&W: There’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed recently, at least with my generation. So much of how people of my age become engaged in art these days is through fandom or wanting to express love for a specific book or movie or TV show or character. So you see a lot of art online and a lot of the really talented artists are doing these fan illustrations of their favorite characters. I think there’s a whole other art world being developed that is more about illustrative and aesthetic meaning rather than indexical or symbolic meaning.
WK: Are you part of that new generation?
B&W: I think so.
WK: And what are your fandoms?
B&W: Oh man. Pokémon. I can say that Pokémon unabashedly shaped my life as an artist. I don’t know. Mad Men. I draw a lot of pictures of Don Draper.
WK: I didn’t ever develop as an artist until middle age but I had a kind of underground life as a kid as an artist in that mode. And certainly, in elementary school I was fascinated by nudity—men and women, pretty equally men and women, and I would draw naked bodies from imagination or from any pictures I could find. I constructed a series of little scrapbooks that I called nudism handbooks that you could call book art. Collage. I also drew stars that I liked. Very painstaking pencil drawings of just their faces. I had never seen any art really, and I didn’t understand it as—I certainly would have only understood it within the realm of illustration.
B&W: A friend recently went to a screening of Pasolini’s Medea where you apparently did the introduction.
B&W: And he said that you talked for so long that the people there were trying to get you off stage. Is that at all true?
WK: Well I don’t think it’s because I talked so long. I think it’s because they didn’t like what I was saying or they didn’t like the notion that I was even … I think there were a few hecklers … I think it was a most unusual, mortifying experience that I don’t even care to discuss.
B&W: Would you call it humiliating?
WK: No. I would consider it…
B&W: If you don’t want to discuss it…
WK: No, I would say that it was—my assumption was that I was invited to introduce a film, I’ve done this before, and that I would give a ten or fifteen … I was paid to do this thing, and I was going to talk before a film. I quickly realized that there were a few people in the audience who didn’t want any kind of introduction to the film—or certainly not a queer one. I think it was more homophobia, honestly. Because there’s a certain kind of homophobia … I was speaking very explicitly about the homoerotic, and even pedophilic, dimensions of Pasolini’s film and I was talking explicitly about the plot of the film, which is a myth. And that people didn’t want me to give away the plot, but it’s the story of Medea, so it’s a plot that’s 1000’s of years old.
B&W: So would you say it’s homophobia stemming from queerness placed somewhere it wasn’t expected?
WK: Yes, so even though they would never … much homophobia doesn’t think it’s homophobia and doesn’t say it’s homophobia—because why would it— any more than racism says, “I’m racist.” It’s blind. It’s dumb. And so I think that in that case the homophobia came from a distaste for intellectual over-elaboration. For fey interiority, for detail, for verbal ostentation, and pleasure taken in words.
B&W: Interesting. Do you think that that’s the more present form of homophobia or racism that we encounter today? The unknowing one?
WK: Well there’s all kinds. So I can’t just say it’s the unknowing one. But I think in my relatively privileged, insular, New York life where I’m not around a lot of virulent gay bashing of my body, for example, I am aware of various forms of dismissal and silencing that happen around other things that aren’t explicitly called queer but that have to do with cultural values that are queer. And I would call them prurient— some of the things I stand for and that I feel I have been scapegoated for are prurient overinterpretation, pleasure taken in services, pleasure taken in the wrong ways: flamboyantly, conspicuously.
B&W: You said you don’t watch TV. Even though the cover of My 1980s is Blondie, you stopped listening to pop music in the 1980s.
WK: More or less. I checked out Taylor Swift and Adele yesterday, and I just listened to a song and loved it by Joe Moe. So I’m alive and I’m in the world.
B&W: Is that what’s necessary to be alive and in the world, listening to pop music?
WK: No, not at all. I like a certain freedom from trend. I have the advantage through age, education, distance, hermit-like life, absorption in my own asocial, antisocial vocations of making that I don’t have to pay attention to what other people consider the important things to pay attention to. And I can pay attention to what I want to pay attention to. Which are usually things that are off-topic.
B&W: Would you say that your reasons for not watching television and not listening to pop are the same? There’s a recent thought among a lot of film critics and scholars that TV is becoming the forefront for more artistic expression.
WK: It probably is. I’m sure it is. Movies are expensive and there aren’t movie theaters anymore. And TV is so diversified and strange and filled with weird little things that I’m sure there are tons of culs de sac and villages all over TV. For example it would be really easy to say that the poetry to which I belong is pathetic, insular, elitist, dead, etcetera. But I’m very well aware that there are forms of dissident passionate making and … as I get out my eraser, because your ear is too close in my drawing to your eyes.
B&W: […] Well there’s “camp,” of course, which is probably highly related to what you talk about and what you do.
WK: I think so. I used to be very identified with the word, I’d say, until 1993 when I published my book The Queen’s Throat. And I made the argument in that book briefly, in the third chapter, I think, on divas, that camp is another form of sublimity, not of failure. And so I took a turn away from camp towards sublimity. But sublimity found in odd and degraded and soiled places. And that’s different than camp. Camp is a really beautiful historical place that I still visit a lot. But I don’t visit it as camp anymore, I visit it as a different kind of shrine. A shrine of indefatigability, minority, majesty, effort, loneliness, corpuscular stardom …
B&W: One of my favorite quotes from Advice for Young People was “utilize your youthful sexiness before it runs dry.” Why does sexiness run dry?
WK: You know it’s so funny, I just had an interview the other day and somebody else quoted that. That’s so interesting to me, that that gets quoted. That’s a big coincidence. Well I hope it doesn’t run dry … he says. I didn’t understand that I actually qualified visually as a sexual being. To that extent, I didn’t understand that when I entered a room or that when I was with another human being, that I physically registered at all. That I wasn’t invisible.
B&W: Do you think there’s a tie between confessional media—social media—and humiliation? In the vein of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter …
WK: Well clearly there’s a very documented connection between the two, and I would say that therefore humiliation lies to some extent in the desire to be seen or recognized at all. And that’s why invisibility can be a blessing. That’s why I think sometimes the best way to make art is to be invisible. Even though invisibility can hurt.
B&W: I got a message … Have you ever used Tinder?
WK: No. Tell me about it.
B&W: So Tinder is a dating app. I think it’s actually pretty genius, because it’s online dating, but it’s on your phone, so it’s not stigmatized.
WK: So it’s like Grindr?
B&W: Yeah, it’s like Grindr, except it’s not explicitly gay. Also, I would say it’s less focused on the sexual or the hookup aspect of it, although it definitely still has it.
WK: So it’s for straight and—it’s for all sorts of?
B&W: Yeah. So for example I have it set to show both men and women, and you can do that or have it either way.
WK: Are you bi?
WK: That’s cool.
B&W: [Laughs] Is bi cool?
WK: Yeah, it is. It’s making a big comeback.
B&W: Yeah, I think that’s true.
WK: Is there a bi-consciousness at Columbia?
B&W: Yeah, I’d say there’s a bi-consciousness but I wouldn’t say I’m part of any bi community.
WK: I know, the minute I said it I thought God forbid.
B&W: I think you’re right, bi is “cool.” With all that that implies right now. Oh yeah, I matched with a girl on Tinder recently and she messaged me and asked, “What is the part of your body that you are most in love with?”
WK: That’s a great question.
B&W: I said my hair.
WK: Is that the part of other people’s bodies that you’re most in love with generally?
B&W: I realized recently that it is, yeah … I think so.
WK: Men and women? Or more women?
B&W: I realized that I think I appreciate it equally in both men and women but it has disproportionate measure for women than for men, and that it will trump other things I find conventionally attractive if someone has good hair.
WK: I think hair is really interesting. I like hearing the word. There’s nothing more interesting in the world than hair.
B&W: At one point in My 1980s, you describe a postman, or a UPS man who you fantasized about who you thought maybe the entire town of New Haven was fantasizing about.
WK: Oh, they were in love with him.
B&W: You say, “If you want me to describe him I will.” Would you describe him for me?
WK: Yeah. He looks like a really young and much sweeter Tom Selleck combined with Sal Mineo combined with kind of a goofy bookish Marlon Brando, I mean, super muscular, very olive complexion. Kind of Mediterranean, whatever that kind of look would be. And I always thought Italian because there’s a big New Haven Italian-American community. But there was something both super macho and Playgirl circa 1978. He looked like Playgirl 1978.
But with genuine non-homophobic friendliness. And just—so built. Just so flamboyant of a physical package arriving at one’s doorstep for that simple delivery of an envelope or a box that it just seemed like an embarrassment of riches.
B&W: Do you think that the reason so many porn setups start with a mailman is just because the word package can be used?
WK: Maybe it’s the word package, but I also think it’s the notion of solicitation, knocking, ringing the bell, privacy—the intimacy of a regular daily visitor and the kind of genre specificity of a uniform, which is like Lana Turner’s femininity is like a uniform like a UPS man’s. Costumes like that make desire function the way a sonnet makes a personal conflict. Structures and uniforms abet and nourish desire, I think.