Deborah Kass’ bold sculpture welcomes guests from its new home at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center.
By Beth Giudicessi
Cantor Arts Center hopes its newest sculpture, OY/YO by artist Deborah Kass, acts as an extension of the museum’s new vision to present art and ideas in contemporary and inclusive ways. The piece was installed Dec. 20 and is now on view to the public.
“This brightly colored, monumental piece has something to say – and not just because it’s a play on words,” said Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center. “One thing we hope it conveys to students and visitors is a good-natured ‘Come in! You are welcome here.'”
Brooklyn-based painter, printmaker and sculptor Kass is known for working at the intersection of art history, popular culture and identity. All three of these elements come together in OY/YO.
The concept for the piece was inspired by Edward Ruscha’s OOF (1962). Upon seeing it in the Museum of Modern Art, Kass thought to herself, “Oy.” In 2009, she painted the word in the same colors Ruscha used: yellow text on a blue background. When a friend remarked about the work’s reflection, she turned it into a companion painting, YO. Thereafter, she made prints, billboards and tabletop forms before a large-scale version was originally commissioned for a 2015 public art project in Brooklyn Bridge Park. That sculpture, identical to the one fabricated for the Cantor, became an instant icon admired on social media and by critics alike, in part because it presented “high” art with popular appeal.
Kass’ OY/YO explores the nexus of imagery and language in multicultural tongues: “Oy,” as in “oy vey,” is a Yiddish term of fatigue, resignation or woe; to American teens, “yo” is a familiar greeting. “Yo” also means “I” in Spanish and is added in Japanese to make statements more emphatic. “The fact that this particular work resonates so beautifully in so many languages to so many communities is why I wanted to make it monumental,” Kass told the New York Times.
OY/YO is not the first time Kass has riffed on the styles of archetypal male artists by adding her own twist. The piece has drawn references to Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture and Picasso’s self-portrait Oy, Picasso. In her survey exhibition, The Warhol Project, Kass featured a series of portraits of female heroines by appropriating Andy Warhol’s work. Notably, she depicted Barbra Streisand – whom the artist admired for celebrating the traits that made the singer distinct – akin to Warhol’s repeating images of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The piece at once paid homage to Warhol while inserting Kass’ own ideas of glamour into art history.
“[OY/YO is] eye-catching in Lamborghini yellow, and the fact that it is the work of a feminist artist is also hugely important,” said Debi Wisch, who along with her husband, Steven (BA ’83), and Marcia and Fred (MBA ’61) Rehmus provided support for the Cantor’s accession of it. “It reads like a welcome to passersby and a nod to the direction the museum is taking under the director’s leadership.”
“When I first saw the models of it, I was absolutely convinced that if we did it in final form, we would update [the museum’s] image from the 19th to the 21st century. And it does exactly that,” said Fred Rehmus.
Kass cites feminist influences including Barbara Kruger, Pat Steir and Cindy Sherman, but none more than Elizabeth Murray, who helped Kass see herself in a painting for the first time. That led her to join the ranks of women artists who sought inroads into a world that too often excluded them.
The Cantor hopes Kass’ sculpture will prove a resource for inclusivity at Stanford, too.
“This work should speak to a range of individuals, regardless of their background with art or museums,” Dackerman said.
Stanford student Georgia Gardner, ’22, a guide at the museum, was quick to get the message. “It seems more inviting, more modern, more casual,” she said in response to learning about the piece’s arrival.
A series of programs about the artist and her other work and influences in Stanford’s collections will be announced. All are invited to attend.