Wayne Koestenbaum’s studio is packed, floor-to-ceiling, with paintings. There are paintings lining the baseboards and bubble-wrapped canvases populating two industrial shelving units. Stacks of drawings are arrayed on worktables and stashed underneath them.
You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s hoarding his own work.
“I have this stack and stuff,” he mused as we navigated the works on a recent afternoon. He was leafing through a pile of paintings on paper. “And so many, many, many more works that may never been seen. But I try not to feel poignant or melancholy that when I finish a piece I consign it to a stack. It’s just typical. That’s just art. That’s what artists live with.”
Koestenbaum is best known as a diverse and prolific writer. He’s written art and cultural criticism, poetry, memoir, fiction, and even an opera libretto, and covered such topics as Frank O’Hara’s sex life, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, and his own experiences cruising for sex in public restrooms. But over the past five years, even as he has continued writing—his new book, Notes on Glaze: 18 Photographic Investigations comes out next month—he has swerved in a different direction, venturing into the art world as a painter.
“Being a painter is a way of being in hiding for me,” Koestenbaum told me. “Big-time hiding.”
Lately, though, he’s been hiding in plain sight. His solo debut was at New York alternative space White Columns in 2012. Last fall, he had a solo exhibition at the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, curated by its director Stuart Horodner, and he’s been included in multiple group shows in New York galleries. On Saturday, Koestenbaum opens his first exhibition in Los Angeles, at 356 Mission Road, the space run by artist Laura Owens.
And while he describes it as hiding, there is something liberating for Koestenbaum in the act of painting.
“There’s something for me about paint, about taking a tube,” he told me in his studio, picking one up—“in this case Naples Yellow, pouring out a little walnut oil, taking my brush and going there”—he beelined for an unfinished canvas—“with blindness, a blindness of choosing a color and putting it there”—he pointed to a pink blob.
“There’s always an element of unsafety and defacement. I’m always staining or fouling something. But the fact that I use colors I love, colors that are bright and happy, I feel I am operating on the sunny side of experience, even if the act itself—engaging with paint—feels premised on desecration. It’s not logical, but it’s what I feel.”
Koestenbaum paused for a moment, then noted, “I’m not a messy person, but paint involves making a mess.”
By the time he started painting, Koestenbaum had cemented his reputation as a writer. He first became known for his 1993 book, The Queen’s Throat, a lively examination of gay men’s predilection for opera that, as painter David Humphrey put it, “sent shock waves through the art world, by galvanizing aspects of artists’ relationship to queer theory.” He went on to write more specifically about visual art, including a 2001 biography of Andy Warhol that looked at erotic aspects of his art.
Koestenbaum made his first paintings in 2005, the same year he completed a catalogue essay for a group exhibition called “Contemporary Erotic Drawing” at the Aldrich Museum. He wanted to marry words with color, and he started with paper. “Before I had any intention of being a painter, I went to the art supply store and bought colored construction paper to type poems on,” he said. “I had this awareness of the page. I wanted words to be with color. But I didn’t do anything with it, because I kept thinking, what would I mark it with?”
The answer came in a dream about a fountain pen that, he said, “instead of writing words exuded flowing colored lines.” The next day, Koestenbaum bought watercolor pencils and a watercolor pad, and made his first drawings. The day after that he bought gouache, then acrylic. “My infatuation with color finally had a home,” he said.
His early work was figurative, and influenced by Warhol. He used a monoprint technique to trace images of male nudes, which he’d originally drawn from life, onto a black ground. Then he’d carve phrases into the paint, like “I’m not underage” and “I pose problems.”
Tracing the nudes put him into a meditative state, as he put it, “simply, mechanically, worshipfully” following the body’s contours. This approach was related to something he’d observed in Warhol’s work. “Warhol’s spiritual, psychological, and erotic project involved taking desire objects or complicated catastrophic ones and stretching them in time, slowing them down, in order to inhabit them more deeply, and sacredly—sacramentally,” he said. “I’m not always doing male nudes, but to the extent that nudism is part of my work as a painter, that’s inheritance from Warhol: the point at which perverted looking becomes a home.”
In 2011 Koestenbaum called Stuart Horodner, the curator who had commissioned the “Contemporary Erotic Drawing” essay. Horodner remembered the call: “Hi Stuart. I think on some levels that essay about erotic drawing worked its way into my head. I’ve started to paint and would love you to come see my work.” The only other person who had seen the work, Koestenbaum added, was the artist Glenn Ligon.
Horodner was intrigued, and came to Koestenbaum’s New York apartment. “The work was in really early, formative stages, mainly drawing,” Horodner recalled. Still, Horodner thought that a group exhibition he was curating for the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, “Sex Drive,” would be an interesting opportunity for Koestenbaum, and he included several paintings.
One of the visitors to that exhibition was Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of White Columns. “I was immediately attracted to the work,” Higgs recalled. “I read the label and said to the curator: is this the Wayne Koestenbaum?”
Back in New York, Higgs bumped into Koestenbaum socially, visited his studio, and offered him a show. In one of those typical New York coincidences, it turned out the two men lived in the same building, and Koestenbaum’s studio was just two blocks away from White Columns. “I think there were nine or ten months between when Matthew made the offer and when the show was,” Koestenbaum said, grinning. “It felt like it was kind of like a dare. Like, ‘Let’s see if you can do it.’ ”
For Higgs, checking in on Koestenbaum’s progress wasn’t the usual artist-curator relationship. “Working with Wayne is complicated,” Higgs said, “because he’s such an extraordinarily sophisticated thinker about art, perhaps more than most artists. When you’re in a studio with someone whose thinking is that advanced, it makes for a different kind of dialogue.”
Untrained as a painter, Koestenbaum’s style developed organically. He was able to be nimble, having already made his name in the literary arena. He told me that, back when he was starting out as a writer, “I really wanted to prove to other people I knew how to write and was worth reading. That took a long time. And even though I wasn’t the most careerist or ambitious person, it took huge amounts of will and a huge amount of willingness to be humbled and defeated. I don’t feel like that’s something I want to undergo again, in painting. And I don’t feel like I need to.”
Recently, Koestenbaum has moved toward abstraction, and yet the desire in his work persists, if in a more fractured and codified form. These pieces, energetic and predictably chromic, seem to allude to an aerial map, with geographical regions (defined by amorphous colored shapes) scattered across the picture plane. Koestenbaum marks these regions with scratches and paint, creating interesting lines and patterns that recall script—a personal hieroglyphics.
“These nonrepresentational paintings explore an abstract grammar—circles, asterisks, blocky shapes, and meandering lines, which at first blush might not feel figurative—but I think for Wayne they are decidedly physical, erotic, and grounded in the body,” Horodner said.
“The asterisk we might think of as an anus,” Horodner said, describing Everything Is Nice (2014). “That circle, a nipple, a mouth. It could also be a number of other aspects, too.”
When he first started out as a painter, Koestenbaum’s canvases were, naturally, something of an outgrowth of his writing. Lately, it’s been the other way around. The stream of consciousness poems in The Pink Trance Notebooks, the book he released last fall (and worked into a series of performances or, as he put it, “a kind of intellectual cabaret,” called “Lounge Acts”) are less structured and more intimate than his previous writings. “I think the happiness, horniness, and looseness Wayne feels while painting led him to create The Pink Trance Notebooks,” said Koestenbaum’s friend the filmmaker Guy Maddin. “He’s brought his painting methods into the practice of writing.” Some of those methods may have seeped into his teaching as well. Last fall at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he is an English professor, he taught a course on trance states.
“There’s a methodology to my excitement about painting that I feel as a teacher and a writer,” Koestenbaum said. “I want to codify and bottle that excitement for others. By becoming a painter, I learned to be unhindered and happy.”
That feeling of freedom may also have to do with coming to painting from outside its institutions. “If I were to have been a young painter in the ’80s,” he said, “I would have been influenced by those ideas and beholden to my peer group. But I wasn’t a painter. So I have a freedom to be impervious to certain tides of fashion. Since I’m not in an M.F.A. program now, nobody’s said, ‘You can’t do this. This has been done. Why are you doing it? This looks so 1950! How could you do it again?’
“I would love to do something 1950,” he continued. “That would be so fun.”