Their relationship was integral to their work: An interview with Veronica Kavass

Veronica Kavass will present her new book, Artists in Love: From Picasso & Gilot to Christo & Jeanne-Claude, A Century of Creative and Romantic Partnerships, at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 4, at the Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania St.) and at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, at the Columns Hotel (3811 St. Charles Ave.), the latter as part of the 1718 Reading Series presented by the English departments of Tulane and Loyola University New Orleans. Both events are free and open to the public.

By Taylor Murrow

I remember the first time I saw The Last Construction (1942). In the basement of the New Orleans Museum of Art (where I’m employed), the curator discovered this work, somewhat hidden in storage. She invited me down into the basement to examine it with her, a series of nine bronze and stainless steel sculptures with mesmerizing geometric reliefs. The Last Construction is by the Dada/Surrealist artist Hans Arp, but the original design was a work of his wife, Sophie. When she unexpectedly passed away, he decided to go through with her plan and finish the piece. It’s a strikingly beautiful series, and I remember being incredibly touched by that story: the thought of someone completely heartbroken, painstakingly creating the last wish of his lover and partner.

Hans and Sophie Arp are just one of twenty-nine artist couples profiled in Veronica Kavass’s recent book, Artists in Love: From Picasso & Gilot to Christo & Jeanne-Claude, A Century of Creative and Romantic Partnerships. The well-known romances are there—like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack—but Kavass also delves into the lives of Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence, and Tom Doyle and Eva Hesse. Her provocative essays illustrate the wide range of influence each artist had on their partner: some worked together to produce a prolific amount of work as a single unit (Oldenburg and van Bruggen, Christo and Jeanne-Claude), others acted as muse for the other (Lee Miller and Man Ray), and others’ artistic expression functioned as two sides of the same coin (Leon Golub and Nancy Spero).

Not surprisingly, there is often a dominant male figure and tales of infidelity and turbulence abound, but even if there weren’t any tabloid-worthy details, Kavass’ tone is captivating and engaging enough for any reader. She writes on Dorothea Tanning: “Reading her story is to imagine a woman wrapped in velvet, resting supine on the grass, taking drags from a long ivory cigarette holder, letting the smoke shape the words.” As I read these love stories, my only disappointment was that I couldn’t read more.

Veronica Kavass has written extensively about artists and exhibitions for various publications, and she holds a Masters in curatorial practice and critical writing from Chelsea College of Art in London. Her first book, The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII, was a recipient of Foreword magazine’s Book of the Year Award. She currently lives in New York City and Nashville, where she teaches and writes about local art for The Nashville Scene. She is a graduate of Loyola University New Orleans.

Spreads from Artists in Love courtesy of Welcome Books

Room 220: The story of Hans and Sophie Arp’s Last Construction reminds me of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who took separate planes everywhere so that their work could continue if one crashed. Those stories are so romantic, but what’s great about your book is that you also highlight the quieter relationships, like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’s, two major artists whose seven-year relationship was more publicly communicated in their works of art. Was it difficult finding out this kind of personal information about these couples?

Veronica Kavass: Yes, it could be difficult with some couples, but I found some good sources when it came to Rauschenberg and Johns—namely, the research and writing of the art historian Jonathan Katz. He has been tracing the evidence of their relationship in their work for some time and describes their relationship quite beautifully. I remember thinking that finding information on the Albers was going to be difficult, but it was quite the opposite. Again, this is thanks to people who have researched them closely. In their case, Nicholas Fox Weber was a goldmine. The Bechers may have been the most difficult couple to research, and they are one of my absolute favorites. They worked side by side for their entire shared photography career but were rather scientific and dry in their approach to everything. The story is almost entirely about their work.

Rm220: You mentioned that Lee Miller was the catalyst for this book. You refer to her as “the type of person you want to follow but not fall in love with.” Specifically, what was it about her or her work that drew you in to examining her relationship with Man Ray, and by extension all of these other artists in love?

VK: Well, she wasn’t the catalyst. Miller was my starting point into the constellation of partnerships. This book was the editor’s concept—I think she was mostly drawn to Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s relationship, and also Françoise Gilot and Picasso. But regarding Miller, I’ve always been interested in her work and the fact that she functioned as both subject and photographer. She knew how to exist in front and behind the lens, and she seduced the viewer in the process. Thus, I allowed her to seduce me into the project. She presented multiple positions found throughout the book—muse, subject, and the role as a female making art in a male-dominated field. She could turn everything on its head. She had a certain element of control that was fascinating to me. So I picked her to establish my tone, which is a snap-shot style in itself.

Rm220: In your introduction, you refer to something as “muse-manipulation.” Could you please explain this term a little more?

VK: This connects to the above answer. In some cases with these partnerships, I observed that select artists became willing muses to the more powerful artist in the partnership dynamic. Miller is a good example of this. I think Georgia O’Keeffe is, too. For example, Stieglitz took over 200 photographs of O’Keeffe. He set her up in New York, financed her home/studio, and besides gaining a spike in his romantic life, he achieved an extensive body of work out of it. She played a part in that, and probably enjoyed it. But her primary concern was her own art. I am sure she saw this muse role as a step in the process. I certainly view that as a form of manipulation. I do not think it could be merely reduced that, but it is a piece of some of the puzzles portrayed here.

Spreads from Artists in Love courtesy of Welcome Books

Rm220: One of the relationships I was most struck by was Marina Abramovic and Ulay. You write that one could argue that if they hadn’t been in each other’s lives, Abramovic might have killed herself through her incredibly self-destructive performance pieces. The way the two exited each other’s lives was also very dramatic—the photograph you include of them at her MOMA retrospective seems to embody that passionate connection they shared. Could you comment a little on that level of intensity that existed in some of these relationships?

VK: Their relationship was integral to their work. When they met they were both young performance artists and equally determined to push boundaries as far as they could go. Thus, with them you see how far two people go when far is just not enough: in their case, a perfect tension, at least for a time. I don’t think there is such blatant evidence of this sort of (functional) intensity in any other couples.

Rm220: I’ve spent time securing copyright permissions for artists’ images before—I know what a struggle it can be. You mention the troubles you had with Carl Andre and the again with Hedda Sterne. Were there any other hiccups that prevented you from including anyone in the book?

VK: Yes there were several hiccups. I try to erase those memories because that was the most stressful part. But, for example, you may notice that Gilbert and George are not in the book. That is a blaring absence. They were just not on board from the beginning. They are “living sculptures” controlling every moment of their lives right now. This project didn’t fit into that their unfolding narrative.

Rm220: As a curator and writer, you were quite familiar with many (if not all) of these artists before the completion of this book. What information surprised you during the research process?

VK: Yes, I was. But surprises were inevitable, and part of what motivated me to work on this. For example, I had not known about some of the single events that would motivate someone to become an artist. For Motherwell, it was a speech given by Andre Malraux at a rally in San Francisco. Another surprise existed in seeing the way so many artists crossed paths. All of them were connected by a gallery or dealer—or Peggy Guggenheim—for a while there.

Rm220: What effect, if any, did researching and writing Artists in Love have on you and your own personal relationships? Have you experienced the kind of creative collaboration that some of these couples experienced? Who do you look to in this book as a model collaborative relationship?

VK: I recently tried to answer this question for Susan Larson [of The Reading Life]. With regards to my own life, I am definitely interested in relationships that share some sort of career-based stimulation. I have engaged in romantic and non-romantic based collaboration. I am a bit of a workaholic, so the notion of being with another workaholic who wants to work on a shared project means the project will be all the better (perhaps!). The Bechers are a kind of ideal couple in that regard. And Christo and Jeanne-Claude. And the Arps. And so on…

Working on this book reminded me of strange narratives that emerge from partnerships. When we meet someone, we have no idea how they will change our trajectories, but they always do. Sometimes the shared trajectory leads to an amazing work of art!