‘A Sense of Paradise: An Interview with Dean Kissick’
by Moselle Kleiner | Issue 24
Courtauld alum Dean Kissick (BA, 2005) is the New York editor for Spike magazine, where he writes a monthly column, ‘The Downward Spiral’, about the art and culture of our time. We spoke about the things that change, the things that don’t, and in the spirit of the sensory, Hieronymous Bosch.
Illustration by Emily Lashford
Moselle Kleiner: How did you end up at the Courtauld?
Dean Kissick: I went to school in Oxford and I got a place at Oxford to do history, but I decided to reapply and do history of art and try to move to London. I didn’t know very much about the history of art. When I came to interview at the Courtauld, it became apparent that I didn't know a lot of the basics, just because I'd never studied it or read a textbook before. The Courtauld seemed like a paradise. As soon as I came for an interview, I wanted to go. I was so bummed out because I didn't think the interview had gone too well, but I guess it did. I got a place. It was about 2002.
MK: I read that your introduction to life in London was going to the National Gallery.
DK: I didn't know anyone from my year, and I'd been at a boy's school for a long time. It was quite glamorous, suddenly being in London, in this class of mostly pretty girls and gay guys, and a few older students. We went to the National Gallery on the first or second day, we had a task to get to know one another, to choose a work from the collection for an advertisement inviting people to visit.
There was an elderly Japanese lady on the BA course who was very sweet, very quiet. She was saying we should choose this Picasso painting of a child with a dove, saying how beautiful it was, how sensitive, how it would bring people in. No one listened to her, of course, and I wasn't fighting her case, but I’ll always remember that first week, this older woman who disappeared one day, and that painting, which has since been sold. I think it belongs to the Qatar museum authorities. I hope to see the painting again one day. I'll travel to see that painting.
I was living in mixed halls and smoking a lot of weed. I would wake up in the morning and walk down Holborn, sometimes skateboard down, smoking a spliff, and go to class. It all felt so magical. We used to have really good parties in the basement cafe. You could smoke down there, so it was a real nightclub feel. It was great.
MK: Were you forming relationships with teachers? Or was it mostly atmospheric?
DK: I did a course with Paul Hills on Venetian painting. He was also my academic advisor. He told me not to stay at the Courtauld for a Masters, even though I wanted to— that it's good to go out and get a job and see some other places, even if you like where you are. I think that was very good advice. I would have had a great time if I stayed, but it was better to go outside the comfort zone.
The course that stuck with me the most was in my last year, gender issues in 19th century British art with Caroline Arscott. It was about sexuality and forms of perversity in Britain in those days. I loved learning about pre-Raphaelites, particularly with her.
Now I'm writing mostly about contemporary art. I am still very interested in the older stuff, maybe more interested in the older stuff, but obviously there's a lot more work available in contemporary art. That's where most of the money is. When I joined the Courtauld, I didn't know much about modern and contemporary art. Coming out, I still probably knew very little about it, but we had to know the history of everything. I learnt it all in the classroom.
MK: What did you write about for your dissertation?
DK: Well, it's kind of embarrassing. It was about graffiti. (Laughs) It was about real graffiti: people painting on trains, rather than street art, and in relation to this philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, who I really didn't understand at the time and still don't understand now. I shouldn't have done it, but I'd read some book called Skateboarding, Space, and the City, a Lefebvrian take on skateboarding, and I thought, oh I can just do this with graffiti for my dissertation. I thought I needed to have some theory in there; contemporary art writing involves a lot of theory. These days I don't really write about theory at all, but when I was 21, I thought I needed some theory.
Hieronymus Bosch, Concert in the Egg, oil on panel, 1480
MK: Now you seem to take the approach of working through the old stuff almost in place of theory.
DK: I try to be straightforward. I try to be comprehensible. I did enjoy reading some of the simpler theory. We were assigned Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, a bit of Baudrillard, and Sontag.
MK: It hasn't changed much.
DK: Probably the only time that I actually read Marx has been at the Courtauld. Marxist socialist discourse is very big now. I see it on my timeline, but my only serious point of reference is having read about 10 photocopy pages and enjoying it.
MK: I believe you were also spending quite a bit of time with fashion students.
DK: That was after the Courtauld, when I went to Royal College of Art. I did a curating contemporary art course there and I was hanging out with fashion students, I was interested in that world. I first started learning about fashion photography, the history of style magazines, in Julian Stallabrass' 20th century photography course at the Courtauld. Later on, I worked in fashion, at i-D magazine and lots of other places, too. We had to write an essay for Julian about the relationship between art and fashion photography. I thought that fashion just takes from art, but he was saying how it's a two-way street, how the art world also really craves the sex appeal and money of fashion. That was more than 15 years ago and very prescient. Those things were linked then, but not so much as now when the art and fashion worlds are deeply entwined.
MK: The Courtauld had its own glamour, too, this shellacked reputation.
DK: It’s a real elite institution. Personally, I'm not against some degree of elitism or excellence. What I really liked about the Courtauld, and not all of my classmates had the same high opinion I did, but I felt that the people teaching me were really the experts in their field. The Courtauld is like this fantasyland. It's a very small institution with a very specific remit, and it can get pretty much the best people in the world to come work there. And it's got this gallery of masterpieces. It's a very unusual situation.
MK: Now, you're in New York. You organised a one-night ‘Bienniale’ this past summer at a park in the West Village.
DK: Something I love, that many people don't, is going to a big biennial or an exhibition like documenta where you can see a lot of good work spread across a city that's not yours. I hadn't curated anything in a long, long time and wasn't really trying to, but it felt like a good time to do something similar because it was a long, hot summer in New York. During the summer, you can just commandeer public spaces to do what you want, and now you're allowed to drink outside. It seemed good to take advantage of it. I was a little worried about too many people coming, but we didn't have any trouble whatsoever. New Yorkers are so blasé, seeing it all. Most people seated in the park didn’t even look up. It takes so much to get anyone to even ask you, ‘what are you doing?’.
MK: You also write a column for Spike, ‘The Downward Spiral’. How did that begin?
DK: I started the column in January 2017, when Trump had just been elected. This was just a coincidence, but in that moment, and ever since really, there was this very hysterical popular mood, and a feeling that society and civilisation were crumbling away. I decided to write about art and culture and life in New York in this age of mass hysteria. ‘The Downward Spiral’ seemed like an appropriate and funny title. I'm very hopeful, though! I want the texts to be optimistic, to bring some levity to art writing.
MK: Something you’ve spoken about in the column recently is the city being more interesting, perhaps, than the art that’s displayed in it.
DK: I've felt that for a while. I've always loved cities. I've always wanted to be a part of it, to know what's going on in that window you're walking under. I do love contemporary art and I do see great shows sometimes, but often feel let down by the general quality, a bit deflated, wanting more. I rarely have that feeling walking around the city that houses these shows, which reliably fills me with excitement. Of course, what makes the gallery crawl good is that it gets you out in the city. One of the reasons to go see art is just to go somewhere and experience something. The show is only a part of that.
MK: What else in current art production makes you not feel deflated?
DK: I've tried to meet artists of my generation. I like the painter Julien Nguyen. His traditional art historical education mixed with the contemporary hits the sweet spot for me. The recent piece on him by Mónica Belevan in Mousse is doing something weird and different in art writing which I don't fully understand, but I like that I don't understand it. I also liked this album A.G. Cook put out during lockdown called 7G which has a song “Triptych Demon,” a Hieronymous Bosch reference. I've been getting really into Bosch lately, since I visited his death anniversary show.
MK: Is Bosch the painter of modern life? The dark psychological carnival of Bosch, is that what we’re up to now?
DK: I haven't read for a long time about the painters of modern life, but “A Thousand Erotic Games”, an essay by Raoul Vaneigem, is probably the best thing I've read on Bosch. I’m really interested in the Garden of Earthly Delights (1510), which I went to see on a pilgrimage to Madrid two years ago. I’m just so intrigued by the mystery. There is no agreement whatsoever about what's going on in these paintings, who this person is, what he's trying to tell us. In the Garden of Earthly Delights, you have the whole hell panel—that’s probably a painting of modern life. King Philip II's spiritual advisor/poet José de Sigüenza said Bosch was the first artist in history who painted man as he is on the inside. I'm more interested in the central paradise orgy, people, and animals in this polyamorous, interspecies utopia. The thousand erotic games—that's more my sensibility.
MK: We started off by talking about the Picasso painting of the child with a dove that you would travel to see. Where else do you think about going?
DK: During this year I spend a lot of time, as I'm sure many of us do, fantasising about where I would like to visit were I allowed to leave my house. I would love to go see my family, of course, but also to Italy and France, to see certain works. There’s a piece, and also a podcast, that Peter Schjeldahl did for the New Yorker, talking about art and death and going to little Italian hill towns to look for Piero della Francesca paintings in small churches off the beaten path. I would love to do that, when the world hopefully opens up again. Ultimately that's the sort of thing that gives meaning to my life. A lot of that I was first exposed to down there on the Strand. There's still so much I want to see.