Hirshhorn Museum Celebrates Intergenerational Artist Crushes

Back row, from left: Laurie Anderson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Marina Abramović, Jorge Galindo, Catherine Opie, Melissa Chiu, Alex Israel. Front row: Julian Schnabel, Lawrence Weiner, Korakrit Arunanondchai. Photo: Benjamin Lozovsky/

Earlier this week, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden trucked up from Washington, D.C., to hold its annual fundraising gala in Manhattan, where there are more artists (and gallerists and art patrons) on hand to invite and celebrate. The event, which takes place in the lobby area of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center — a space that vaguely feels like you might still be in Washington — always has an artists-centric theme. Last year’s was “Creative Duos,” which honored romantic couples and siblings alike. This year’s theme, “Artist x Artist: Artists Celebrating Artists Across Generations,” considered the influences of artists of one age on those of another. A mix of ten established artists was asked to invite as a guest an artist who had influenced their thinking and work. In some cases, the age gap was quite small — for Lynda Benglis, who chose Clytie Alexander, it was as small as one year — and the pairings were often surprising.

“I think one of the interesting things going on right now — not just in the art world but in broader society — is a very strong sense of generational differences,” says Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu. Planning a theme around these differences was a way to “create community,” according to Chiu, and to consider some of the inspirations in each artist’s work that might not otherwise be obvious. “The relationships between artists and the influences that those relationships bear on them are often the invisible part of art history,” she says. “For most artists, the sources of inspiration are hidden; sometimes they talk about them, and sometimes they don’t. And in a way, this theme allowed us some insight into how they think about their practice.”

Ahead of the gala, we reached out to some of the honorees to hear about why they chose their guests, and to some of the guests about being chosen as notable co-honorees (and presumably good gala-dinner dates).


Lawrence Weiner and Catherine Opie. Photo: David Benthal/

How has Catherine influenced you? 

That’s sort of an interesting question. I like photography, and why I was attracted very much to Cathy’s work when I first found it was that it dealt with reality. It didn’t deal with theatricality; it was reality. My work is all based on the idea of the immediate object in relation to human beings. So that was already sort of copacetic, but then I was in California and I saw that show that she had done at Regen Projects in the ’90s and absolutely made up my mind. That was it — everything I had seen before and everything else had to line up to the fact in my mind that she was now the way I think of Mapplethorpe or I think about other photographers. She was there.

Do you remember what year that was? 

No, I’m notoriously bad about dates. I can remember occasions — which retrospective, which show. I’m not good at dates, I don’t know why. For years, I went around thinking I had graduated from high school, and I couldn’t think of how the hell I’d done so many things. I had the date wrong. It was 1958 when I graduated from high school, not 1959. It’s really funny to think you spend your whole life with things as such.

It’s like not knowing your age.

Or not wanting to know your age, because it’s something you could never ascertain. Or something somebody told you all the time. Now, Kathy Acker — I mean Cathy Opie — presents things on sort of a straight canvas that does not require any kind of metaphor. They give such dignity to whatever the subject is, from a vase to a human being.

When I look at the portrait she did of you, it reminds me of an old-master portrait. 

Yes, she has a fantasy concerning me.

What do you think that fantasy is? 

One of the older artists who was very enthusiastic about her, that’s all. That’s quite normal.

If you were to spend an afternoon with Cathy in New York, what would you do? 

I have a little mobility problem at the moment, but before then, what would I like to do? I’d take a walk. Wherever Cathy wanted to see. If she wanted to go to Staten Island, we’d go to Staten Island and take the ferry.

That sounds fun. 

There were times in my life when I wanted to entertain somebody, and I didn’t have the cash so I took them on the ferry. You got on the subway, you got on the ferry, and it was really very nice. And very often, they said things like, Is it possible to just go back again? You didn’t get off, you just stayed on the ferry for your nickel and you went back and forth. I used to go down and do my homework in the middle of the night when it was too hot where I was living. You just take the ferry across, and, if you’ve got a dime, you get a cup of really sweet coffee and a frankfurter.


Congratulations on being chosen by Lawrence —

I know!

What did you think when you heard that you were his co-honoree?

Lawrence and I have always had a really fantastic relationship as a friendship that has been over many, many years. We’re not really a bestie, but when we’re in the room together, we seek each other out. So I was thrilled that he sought me out again to sit next to him at Lincoln Center for this honor. It’s really lovely, and he’s very dear to me.

So he’ll be a good person to spend a dinner with. 

Exactly. We’ll both have our hearing aids in and be like, Huh? [Laughs] Just kidding. I mean I’m not, but —

In addition to being friends, you’ve also photographed him. What was that like? The portraits in that series have this kind of old-master vibe — do you think of Lawrence as an “old master” of his own time?

[Laughs] Well, yeah — but no, in the same way. I think that he’s one of the forefigures of conceptual art in relationship to how we look at the world differently and what art can do and the possibilities of it. So really, when I was making those portraits, they definitely have an old-master vibe, but I was more thinking about all these people in my life that have really mentored me in different ways. Not in a direct way, but there was a moment when I was having people who were a little bit older sit for me because I was realizing that one day they’ll no longer be there. Not in a crystal-ball way, but when I photographed John Baldessari or David Hockney or Lawrence, it’s because of what these people have done. When I do portraits of people, it’s not only because I’m interested in actually trying to make good portraits, it’s also really because I value these people so much and want to honor them in that way.

One of the things Lawrence said when I talked to him about the event was that he felt in your work — and I think the implication was also in his own work — that it doesn’t deal with theatricality. It deals with reality. 

That’s nice that he said that.

What do you think of that? Is it something you’ve thought about too? 

Well, I’m not interested in theatricality to a certain extent. Even if I’m doing a portrait and I’m lighting it a certain way, it’s still about that shared moment in that given time. I’m not trying to make old-master paintings. I’m definitely influenced by lighting and what it is to be held, but I’m more interested in trying to talk to an audience in terms of that reality of No, you have some time here, right now. You can be with this thing that I’ve made. Let me invite you in to really look. And Lawrence is like, Let me invite you in to really think.

How did you first meet Lawrence? 

It was years ago, and I think even before Regen Projects days, to tell you the truth. He was really good friends with Rita McBride, and I got a call out of the blue from Rita and Lawrence to do a piece that was a poster. I made the image for the poster of a group show that we were in, but it was a group show that wasn’t other work. Like, my work was the poster and his was the graphics on the poster. It was called “Piggy Back Back” and so I went out to the shipyards in San Pedro and photographed just the trailers and how they’re stacked up to one another because, you know, they were piggyback-back. And so I did a very literal image of trucking and commerce, and then Rita and Lawrence added to that. That started our friendship, and then both showing at Regen Projects for so many years, we got to be in each other’s presence multiple times, which was always lovely.

What’s the dynamic between you two? 

Oh gosh, it’s mellow. We just talk. I think it’s just two people sharing space just like a portrait does, and we just talk about different ideas and we kid around about different things. He has a pretty wicked, witty sense of humor, and I have a sense of humor as well — even though it doesn’t really come out in my work, I’m fairly witty. So we just jostle with each other. It’s sweet.

If you were spending an afternoon together in New York, what would you do? 

I would probably go over to his house and hang out with him, and we would probably smoke a joint. I don’t know if you’re allowed to print that. And then we would talk about whatever randomness came into our minds, you know?


I love Polly.

Okay, yeah, tell me about why you chose Polly. It sounds like you guys are friends. 

Yeah, I was trying to think when I became familiar with her work, and I’m pretty sure when I first saw her work was at her retrospective or survey show that was curated by Ingrid Schaffner at the ICA in the early 2000s, and she was friends with Ingrid and an old employer of mine named Virgil Marti, who’s also an artist in Philly. I was always very seduced by her work, in terms of her use of color and the fact that it was just on the floor. I was in my early 20s, and I hadn’t seen anything like that before at the time. And I distinctly remember going to the “Comic Abstraction” show at MoMA in 2007, and she had this work that was these seven pillowcases with shredded Hallmark crinkle-cut paper, each in a color that was taken from the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hats, and it seemed like they were very tidy. There was something in this particular work that really struck me, because it was both formally really beautiful but also spoke to this kind of complicated psychological narrative that maybe someone might not glean from watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

How would you describe that narrative? 

Well, I think for me it alluded to power roles in domestic spaces. I don’t wholly know how to analyze that work, but I think mainly that it reminded me of my mother and my father and my siblings. I went to the show with my mom, and that was the first time she had been to MoMA so it was exciting to take her to a show where I could kind of bridge the gap between something like contemporary art and my love for cartoons, which was longstanding. That was something that I always loved in Polly — that she made work in these formal, really beautifully dyed velvet pieces but would name them after the Powerpuff Girls. I always liked cartoons and wanted to be an animator, and I didn’t know how to translate my love of cartoons beyond something that’s just a juvenile fetish, but Polly did that so well and was also constantly restructuring herself and restructuring the ways in which one approaches a painting or what a painting is.

I’ve never seen someone work more or be more prolific than Polly.

How’d you meet?

The first time I ever connected with Polly was in 2010 or ’11, and I was preparing for a show at the ICA in Philadelphia. I was getting ready for a work called Scene Take Six; the show was kind of trying to understand different ways in which artists were working as a community, sort of destabilizing or restructuring how one makes a show or works together as a collective or not. I invited 12 artists who include their work in this double-sided tableau, and one side had colorful works and the other side had black-and-white works. For the side that had colorful works, I included this particular work I was speaking about of Polly’s that I had seen at MoMA. I called her and said, “How do I replicate this work? Could I borrow it and show it in this tableau?” And she was like, “I think its in one of my storage units but I’m not sure which one or where, but I can tell you how I made it exactly.” And she said, “I went to this Hallmark store and bought this crinkly paper. I don’t know if Hallmark stores even still exist, but go to the Hallmark store and get these particular pillowcases and do this thing. Maybe they were just muslin sacks.”

If you and Polly were hanging out in New York, what would you do? 

Maybe we’d go fabric shopping or fake-flower shopping. [Laughs]


Deborah Roberts, Jordan Casteel, and Amy Sherald. Photo: David Benthal/

When did you find out Amy had chosen you as her guest, and what did you think when you heard she chose you?

Amy and I are friends, so I was surprised that she chose me. Although she misread it, she didn’t know that it was intergenerational — I’m not 80, so it was cool. [Laughs] I’m barely ten years older than her. It was really cool because I love Amy’s practice. I think we have the same worth ethic. I was really honored that she chose me for that.

When you say you have the same work ethic —

We’re both dedicated to our craft to the point that we kind of drive everybody nuts and we work ourselves to where we’re both so exhausted. We just want to push the work as far as we can and try to tell a story, an American story, that happened to black culture. That’s important to us. I think our practices are similar in that vein.

Are there pieces of yours that you see as being in conversation with each other? 

Sure, anytime that she works with women in her work and I do little girls — my practice deals with adolescent girls. How do we become these strong women? There is a beginning and there is an end, and so what I talk about, and what I think she does too, is the in-between. How we grow from those things into the women that we have to be to survive in this country. I think there are many similarities when we’re talking about feminism or intercultural racism, things like that.

Have you ever talked to Amy directly about these topics? 

We both have our fears about the work — that the powerful nature of the work is not getting lost in the seriousness of the conversation we’re trying to have. So yeah, we talk about things like that.

Do you feel her work has influenced you? 

I personally try not to look at too many works, because when you’re influenced by other artists, you don’t want to start to copy those artists or other languages. I think what she’s doing, as well as what I’m doing, is trying to create new pathways to talk about certain issues and black identity. Every time I see some work that she’s done, some heroic, large piece on the wall, I’m excited by that. It makes me get better. I want that. I want that for my work.

How did you first meet Amy? 

We have a mutual friend that we love to death, Zoë Charlton. She’s an artist in Baltimore. I’ve known Zoë for 100,000 years, and her and Amy are friends and we all went to the Black Artists Retreat that happens in Chicago. We all shared an Airbnb, and that’s how we really got to know each other. [Laughs] Everybody wanted their own space! It was good, though. I mean, being able to go to that conference and then afterward talk about the reading and our thoughts on the reading and things like that. Our food choices … so just sisters kind of just hanging out. All of us artists, all of us talking about the body in some way, how we exist in society. That was amazing. Those three days were the best three days I’ve had in a long time.

What would you say was the best part of the retreat and getting to know each other — was there a meal or a talk that you remember?

We all had to read Fred Moten, and I know that I didn’t understand it. So we all tried to talk about it and read the section — Zoë assigned us sections to read — and we had to talk about it. We all went to our spaces and read a section and came back and started trying to talk. We’re all academics, we all have master’s degrees, and we’re trying to talk academically about it. And then I can’t remember who said, “You know what, I don’t get this shit.” [Laughs] We all started laughing, and we’re like, “I don’t either! I’m trying not to act dumb!” Sometimes, things are over your head, and you have to be honest and admit that. I think that Zoë, Amy, and myself, we all have that. We can talk to each other very safely. We’re not afraid of somebody thinking anything else about that person, but they’re trying to get better or trying to be vulnerable and that’s a safe space for that.

If you and Amy were going to spend an afternoon together in New York, what do you think you would do? Where would you go?  

Oh God, what would we do? I honestly don’t think we would do anything art related. She likes to shop, I don’t like to shop, but I think we both like nice things. When I meet Amy and her partner in New York, we always go to a good meal and just talk about what it’s like being in the art world. We both have complaints about it, but those are good problems to have.


Tell me about why you chose Clytie as your guest. 

I chose Clytie because originally she — although born in Montreal — became and grew into her artistic development in L.A. in part of the Light and Space movement. Many of the well-known contemporary artists have worked with those ideas, many more than we even know of. I think Clytie is beginning to show internationally and intranationally, and she certainly is on the scene and people know her, and that’s why.

How did you meet Clytie? 

I met her in Los Angeles, where she has a studio. I first went to L.A. and her studio was in her home and she had two young daughters. Clytie herself studied architecture, and then later one of the daughters became an architect and the other became a lawyer.

The criteria for the gala honorees choosing their co-honorees was to select an artist who has influenced your thinking. In what ways do you feel Clytie has influenced your thinking?

I have a few people who I depend on. It’s perhaps not directly related to my product because in the product so many different things reflect my thinking. But it reflects my total well-being, my relationships with a few people I can name on one hand. She definitely is a part of my life.

Tell me more about that. 

That’s complicated. Let’s put it this way: My friends bear a lot of responsibility in relationship to me. I’ve never been to a therapist, I don’t believe in it. So my total being depends on my being able to work within my art context, and whatever that is, I feel that I must move around. I do move around, and if I didn’t have my friends that also are international people, as well as intranational people, covering the scope of many different places and ideas, I would have no wall or ground or floor to place my ideas.

Have you met with Clytie recently while traveling? When did you last see her?

Right now, she has just built a beautiful studio in New Mexico on Agua Fria. This studio is kind of an expression of her interests and her being. She’s living and working in that studio. When I first visited, I was amazed at how most of the space was taken up by a larger work space with a floating ceiling, and what’s below for living is tucked into one corner — the bathroom and the bedroom, which are a little bit larger than a small closet. I thought, She is directing herself in this huge studio that left very little for a bed, even. She doesn’t even have room for a twin bed or a queen-size or king-size bed. This girl is really serious.

Is there anything else you want to add about choosing Clytie for the event? 

Yes, I admire her for having done so many different things, and I think she equals me in her intensity. Part of her creativity and energy has been in her rearing these two wonderful ladies that are really at the top of their professions — one being an architect and the other being a lawyer, and in the creative areas, one in the movie industry and the other in making buildings. They’re really terrific, and I admire Clytie for that reason and I admire those young women for the same reason.


Hirshhorn Museum Celebrates Intergenerational Artist Crushes