Artist Spotlight: Lisa Yuskavage

September 10, 2018

The unique blend of sensuality and fantasy in Lisa Yuskavage’s characteristically surreal and cartoon-like portraits has become instantly recognizable, if not infamous. Yuskavage, a graduate of the Yale School of Art, has been the subject of six international solo exhibitions and is reported to be one of a handful of female artists whose works bring over a million dollars. Over the past three decades, the complexity of her figurative paintings has stirred much controversy. Critics and collectors alike are quick to toss in the word ‘soft-porn’ when discussing her work. Where some artists would rebuke this connotation and defend the sanctity of high art, Yuskavage savors the agitation. She says that “the taste” of her work is like smoked salmon, coffee, or cigarettes: “at first it’s disgusting but then you can’t get enough of the flavor.”

Lisa Yuskavage, One, Two, Three, 1999
September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

A dedicated student of the ‘old masters,’ Yuskavage is captivated by “the binary pull of the sacred and the profane” within their tradition.  She says that she was drawn to the female nude early in her career, because the subject “has played such a massive role in art since the start of art history” and yet “women don’t paint women, women don’t paint nudes.” In 2016, the Australian arts and culture magazine, Vault, was made to censor their cover featuring Yuskavage’s Brood (2005-2006). One journalist who covered the incident pointed out that if the magazine had used “Manet’s famous nude, Olympia” no one “would bat an eyelid.” While Yuskavage’s subject matter challenges the male-dominated canon, many critics charge the artist with irresponsibly perpetuating conventions of exploitation. Some attempt to valorize her practice by projecting irony onto her characters, but Yuskavage refuses to engage in conversations on the merits of her feminism. Much to the chagrin of the current culture, which insists on art supplying “understanding and resolution,” Yuskavage “fights tooth and nail to keep things open, unresolved, [and] complicated.”  Citing particular admiration for the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yuskavage says that she does not want to be “the kind of person or artist who proselytizes,” but instead, the type who reveals their own “myriad of internal conflicts.” If her works bring up questions of female representation, then it is only to explore the aspects of misogyny that she herself has absorbed as an active member of our current society.

Lisa Yuskavage, Babie, 2004
September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

From the time she was young girl, Yuskavage understood paintings as portals. “The work carries markers of the artist’s inner life,” she says, “art is a seance.” Yuskavage maintains a highly sophisticated notion of the art experience and imbues her practice with great philosophical depth, something Jarret Earnest refers to as her sincere “belief in art.” Yuskavage places her characters in fantastical scenarios and atmospheres that are always right on the cusp of existence but never quite accessible in the real world. The artist credits her affinity for the supernatural to her Catholic upbringing which countered the boredom of “brick and mortar” existence with a “handy” faith in “the things you can’t see and can’t prove.”  She never seeks to represent a real person or a real place but rather to actually create them on the canvas; she wants the paintings themselves to be real.  To execute this lofty phenomenon Yuskavage turns again to the old masters.  She believes that “formalism and feelings have a perfect marriage.” While classical visual symbols are anchored to very specific times and places, Yuskavage argues that the masters’ formal codes can be understood by almost anyone. Color specifically, in her opinion, transcends context. She has become particularly enamoured with the 16th century technique known as cangiantismo, in which a rainbow effect is created under translucent shades of gray. The code has traditionally been used to communicate transcendence and divinity. For Yuskavage, it conveys all things supernatural. She refers to her colors as “characters” in her scenes, who consecrate the canvas. Yuskavage investigates a  “painterly transubstantiation” in which her “imagination is made manifest…a promise [is] made flesh.”

“Interview with Lisa Yuskavage: Women Don’t Paint Women, Women Don’t Paint Nudes.” YouTube, 4 Sept. 2016.
“Art Magazine Questions Censorship of Lisa Yuskavage Nude.” ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 10 Aug. 2016.
Walsh, Meeka. “Lisa Yuskavage: Musings of an Edge-of-Towner.” Border Crossings, Sept. 2017.
Gould, Claudia. “Screwing It on Straight.” Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania , 2008,
Earnest, Jarret. “Lisa Yuskavage: In the Studio.” Art in America, Oct. 2015, pp. 142–150.


Lot 338
Lisa Yuskavage
One, Two, Three
Oil on canvas board
Retains Marianne Boesky Gallery label verso
Board: 12″ x 9″; Frame: 15.75″ x 12.75″

September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction


Lot 339
Lisa Yuskavage
Aquatint with spitbite and chine-collé on paper
#1 of 40
Published by Burnet Editions, New York
Signed, titled, and dated in graphite lower right margin beneath image; edition lower left; retains Burnet Editions blind stamp lower right edge of sheet
Image: 10″ x 7.375″; Sheet: 19.125″ x 14.75″; Frame: 22.875″ x 18.5″

September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

Leave a Reply