Left: Marlene McCarty, patty columbo—may 4, 1976 (may 15, 1976), 1999, graphite, ballpoint pen, colored pencil on paper, 72 x 55”. Right: Marlene McCarty, fig. 1: group 10.2 (stinker. hug.), 2007, graphite and ballpoint pen on paper, 102 x 110”.


Marlene McCarty has worked across various media since the 1980s. She was a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury and also created the transdisciplinary design studio Bureau with Donald Moffett in 1989. McCarty is well known for her early work, including her hard-hitting text paintings. In recent years, she has been recognized for graphite, ballpoint pen, and colored-pencil portraits that probe issues ranging from sexual and social formation to parricide and infanticide. The first major survey of her work opens at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery on November 2.

ONE OF THE REASONS I chose to work in an oversize scale in the mid-1990s is that I wanted the girls depicted in my drawings to be taken seriously and not to be dismissed as diminutive Barbie dolls. I wanted the interaction with the viewer to become a more immersive situation rather than a subject-object situation. The scale became a very important physical quality. My portraits of girls who killed their mothers––poltergeists, as I like to call them––bled into a long-term project. What started as a compact series, which I thought would take six months, has stretched into fifteen years. It wasn’t the works’ monumentality that made the project take longer, but more the way I chose to draw––I was trying to draw in a way that a teenage girl would have depicted herself or in a way that she might have found herself attractive. This required a very meticulous kind of drawing that takes a really long time. The quick, bang-it-out, mechanical-reproduction thing of my previous work was not doable, and that’s part of the reason why my series have just slowed down enormously. The process kept going deeper and deeper and became more immersive to me as an artist. I was no longer able to just chew it up, spit it out, and move on.

When I started the “Poltergeist, Girls at Home” series, I was emerging from the late ’80s and early ’90s. As you know, this had been a time that was intensely concerned with identity politics. The expectations of that period were heavy. I was involved in Gran Fury, so I was very much a part of this concentration on identity, thinking about who speaks for whom, who assumes the dominant voice, and so forth. But I didn’t feel like I could keep churning out the same things. Identity politics was a catalyst in the beginning, but it’s something from which I’ve slowly moved on. Though saying that doesn’t mean it’s not there––a piece of that discussion always exists as an underlying foundation somewhere in my art.

If someone had told me at the beginning that it would go on for fifteen years, I would’ve been like, “No way—you’re out of your mind!” And if someone had told me three years before that, “You’re going to do figurative drawings,” I would’ve been just as unlikely to believe them. You know, there have been many funny little twists and turns.

I’m often asked about the underlying violence of those works, but actually I’ve never been motivated by violence. Instead, I’m interested in intense bonding situations, which might be related to identity formation. Thus, my newer work about primates and religion. It’s true that most of the situations I’ve researched and depicted have ended badly. But the violence isn’t what initially attracted me to them; it’s merely, oddly, a coincidence.

This exhibition has been tricky because most of my art life has been in New York, and pretty much all of my work has at some point or another been shown in New York. It was a challenge for me to figure out how to make something that would be both a survey and at the same time not too redundant. I didn’t want locals to walk in and think, “Oh, didn’t I see that last year?”

In my initial conversation with Michael Cohen, we discussed organizing the show thematically. But there wasn’t enough space in the galleries to do that. My drawings are so huge that I didn’t have the freedom to place them just anywhere in the gallery to support a theme. The space is also kind of rambling, with lots of small rooms. In the end, the galleries’ spatial organization forced me to radically edit the work. The trajectory of my work has been at times extremely varied. The small spaces have given me the possibility of placing different bodies of work in proximity to each other, thus creating a conversation between my old and new output, instead of just a chronology.

At first it felt strange that the show was being organized by NYU and not a more established art organization. But this turned out to be fairly liberating. I didn’t feel the pressure that might have been implicit with some big art institution and its legacy. I’ve positively embraced the marginal status of this gallery.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler