The painter in painting | Andrew Kuo
Andrew Kuo, whose painting Stay Up, 2014 sparkles on the cover of our summer issue – the first issue after the print magazine’s redesign – is an artist and author who regularly contributes to T: The New York Times Style Magazine and co-hosts, with Ben Detrick, a basketball and culture podcast titled Hoop Cookies. In 2021, Kuo and Detrick released The Joy of Basketball: An Encyclopedia of the Modern Gamean illustrated and idiosyncratic guide to the sport and its charms.
Kuo’s art – painted and color-coded graphics, abstracts and still lifes – while stylistically varied, is marked by its exuberance and expressiveness. Perhaps like basketball, his work is a kinetic game of beauty and effort. I e-mailed Kuo during the last days of summer and we chatted about basketball, skits, and comedy.
Leanne Shapton: I have always loved your free and pictorial work, your flowers, your self-portraits and your abstracts. One of the first things that drew me to your paintings was your palette: bright and primal, but not exactly childish – really surprisingly dark and deep. This may sound like a fourth grader’s question, but can you tell me about your favorite colors?
Andrew Kuo: Thanks! My taste in colors changes every few years, but I try to include a few “generous” ones here and there, like a bright red, light blue, or rich purple. What really interests me are the little moments: a blue next to a red is fun, but too many clever combinations can be too inviting or cold. Each painting is different! The edge of “stupid” is always enticing.
What is the relationship between the sketches or drafts you make for your more geometric graphic paintings and their final state?
The sketches give me a guide for the actual painting, but they also remind me to be loose and playful. Work can start from a place of joy.
Choosing this particular painting for the cover was a bit difficult, and at one point you sent photos of dozens of beautiful paintings that I had never seen before for us to choose from. Do you keep your sketches and studies? How did you know exactly what we were looking for?
I keep some studies and throw away others. Some I finish, some I use to write down ideas, and some are just references for colors and shapes. I throw a lot! The ones I showed you were more advanced, but also had bolder shapes and colors. Not all images read as fast as cover images, do they?
Do you consider yourself an abstract painter? Tell me how you came to work (and subvert) the form of computer graphics?
I consider myself and do not consider myself an abstract painter. I am very interested in reducing the distance between abstraction and figuration. The graphic paintings borrow from figurative ideas and follow strict rules, which I create. There is nothing random. By adding a key at the bottom of the paintings, I tell you how to read the image, but also take liberties with the veracity of a “work”. I consider graphics to be figurative.
What are some of your favorite non-art things to look up to for inspiration? Can you tell us about your new book, The joy of basketball?
Basketball inspires my work, not only through its data and information, but also through the small details of the sport that tell us about what we are looking at: colors, lines, plots, boxes, rules. I’m interested in the bias that is part of every story. The joy of basketball reframes our vision of the game, after the era of analysis and mythologizing of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s an effort to reclaim the game from the grip of old ideas.
My working day often begins with these questions: How can I look at paintings and an image in the context of other images? How do I add to the conversation? How far can I push something without losing the idea? In my opinion, with Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, we are much further ahead than we think.
Your work seems self-conscious or emotionally realized. Are you in analysis or psychotherapy?
I tried a therapist for a few months, but they were too obsessed with the Grateful Dead. The first ten minutes of each sixty-minute session was about John Mayer. I left that relationship but I still, selfishly, use therapeutic ideas in my work as a way to get somewhere else. I want to bring the painter to the surface of the image, and a lot of that means revealing something personal in words or images. Messy, bushy paintings can feel as intimate as words to me.
What do you think of the self-portrait?
I love it. You remind me to do more. The world of identity and truth seems endless and there are few things as straightforward as a painting of yourself. For a while I was combing my skin leaner, but these days I’m just happy to be here.
Your “Grub Street Diet“Really stuck in my head—the veggie chicken wings, the Rao’s marinara sauce—I could see the colors. Am I right to sense a connection between your love of food and the appeal of your paintings?
Thank you and certainly! Food has a reductive quality: everyone knows when something is attractive when they see it. He crosses the rules. Being hungry is intense, the most human feeling.
What were you working on in the lower right part of the cover painting?
Color combinations and a key, but to be honest, the next board!
I get a real sense of comedy from your writing. How does humor find its way into your life and your paintings, or your podcast? Do you write jokes? What are you laughing at?
I’m a tourist in the world of comedy, but I try to channel a lot of those rules and practices into my work. I have to admit, I’m looking for jokes too much, which is definitely a coping trick. I learned early in life that no one likes to be around a short, sad person with glasses, so I figured being funny was my only hope of making friends. I always try to shift the tone of the words in my paintings from serious and factual to absurd. In addition, jokes are useful: they can be a signature in a story or a fingerprint. Comedies are also expected to be up for Best Picture awards.