09.08.2019

Cary Leibowitz Lives a Colorful Life:
Interview with Cary “Candy Ass” Leibowitz

(Originally published in Upstate Diary)

More often than not, Cary Leibowitz’s work is rooted in language fragments that one might imagine overhearing on a crowded subway or from the next table at a noisy bar. They are confessions of anxiety, “I can’t, I don’t feel well,” and declarations of victory, “I haven’t thought about suicide in weeks,” communiqués from personal revolutions, “Hey, I’m not depressed anymore,” and punch lines of phantom jokes, “Okay, you’re gay, but what have you done lately?”

Rendered in Leibowitz’s unfussy penmanship on pink, green, or yellow planes of color, they sit somewhere between the humble Post-It note and the grand typographies of Ed Ruscha. Beneath his brash aesthetic is a deep and enduring tenderness; each work is an invitation to empathize, and to acknowledge, our unique contribution to the collective absurdity of modern life.

Leibowitz’s works have been exhibited around the world and most recently in Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show, at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, the first comprehensive career survey and solo museum exhibition devoted to the New York-based artist.

I connected with the artist, often known by his nom de guerre Candyass, one overcast Saturday morning. Cary and his partner Simon Lince, founder and Creative Director of Virtue and Hot Sauce, a Hudson and Harlem-based design company, were picnicking at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

Zander Abranowicz  “Candyass,” is that a Polish family name? [Laughing]

Cary Leibowitz [Laughing] Back in the ‘80s, when I graduated college, at one of my first jobs, we were sitting around at lunch comparing notes on what we were called as kids. You know, like “fairy” or “sissy.” One friend said he had been called “candy ass.” I had never heard that before and thought it was really funny. I made a little painting for his birthday that just said “Candy Ass” on it and then, for my birthday, he gave me this little rubber stamp of those words. At the time, I was doing a lot of drawings on yellow lined paper, and used that stamp as a sort of signature in the corner. Once I started showing, people really focused on it. So, I kind of went with the flow.

ZA What about your upbringing?

CL It was in Trumbull, Connecticut, a typical suburb. I would say, the difference was, I was always playing with dollhouses. From the age of 8 or 10, I had a subscription to Architectural Digest.

ZA At that time, was your dream to become a designer or decorator? 

CL I think it was. When you’re a kid, people just interpret things how they want to. I was always drawing houses and looking at interior magazines. So, everyone said, “Oh! You want to be an architect when you grow up!” and I thought, “Oh! I want to be an architect when I grow up!” Then I started architecture school and thought, “Oh! I don’t want to be an architect.” I still love architecture, hence being at the Brighton Pavilion on our vacation.

ZA Was it an observant Jewish household?

CL Not really. Super casual, in a suburban way. I had to go to Hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah. But, other than that, we weren’t very observant.

ZA What were your first forays into the world of art?

CL I was always drawing houses, but it changed direction from architecture to art. It was probably around age 20 or 21 when I decided there had to be a different way of thinking. I never thought about the world of fine art or being an artist. But I decided I would look at schools for studio art, and also to get out of New York. I had never been to the Midwest, so I thought that was kind of exotic. I ended up going to the University of Kansas and getting a BFA.

ZA Did you find a mentor there that offered that different way of thinking?

CL I didn’t, really. I would say that through a bit of searching on my own, I found Architect Robert Venturi’s writings, particularly, Learning from Las Vegas, about the complexity and contradictions in architecture. They combined a suburban perspective with a higher art form. 

ZA Your work reveals so much about your psyche. When you came out, did language or art or humor play a role?

CL I don’t remember making very specific decisions about it except in the sense that, when I was looking at other artists, I felt like there were those that were honest and those that were not. So I was going on this premise that I had to be honest about whatever I was doing. There were people like Barbara Kruger who I thought were really inspirational, but I felt she was often pointing the finger at the viewer, where I wanted to do the opposite in a way. 

ZA Do you characterize yourself as an introvert, in dialogue with yourself constantly?

CL Yeah. I would say so. Sometimes I don’t verbalize things for a long time, per Simon’s perspective. [Laughing]

ZA Having grown up both Jewish and gay in suburban America, your vantage is often described as “outsider.” Labels, obviously, are dangerous things. How do you feel about that characterization? 

CL It’s funny because, in one way, I don’t think of myself as an outsider at all. But, then, someone recently referred to me as “a white male artist.” And, I thought, “Oh my god, how could you say that? I’m not a white male artist!” I guess I still do think of myself as not part of a mainstream. 

And the gay thing, I think that’s just a given. I don’t feel like my work’s really focusing on it for the most part. Recently, I did make some pieces that addressed it, only because I was feeling a little guilty that I hadn’t been. One of them is a text piece: Okay, you’re gay, but what have you done lately?

ZA Your work is so vivid and rich with color.

CL I’m using color straight out of the can. I don’t really mix anything to perfection. And, I try not to do self-indulgence. I might define five or six colors for the year. I don’t usually make a painting that has more than two colors in it, only because I feel like it gets to be too aesthetic otherwise. I had a show a few years ago where I painted the walls and the paintings all the same color. I was definitely painting with color. And, then, there are colors I just fall back on. I do go back to pink a lot. It’s a neutral, but really uplifting color.

ZA Let’s talk about your verbal aesthetic. It is, in itself, quite strong and bold and as much a medium as anything else in your work. Do you consider yourself a writer?

CL There are writers whom I really enjoy: John O’Hara, the poet Frank O’Hara, Philip Roth, David Leavitt. When I write something, like on my coffee mugs, I do think of it as a form of poetry. 

ZA As you’re moving through the world and overhearing conversations, do you jot phrases down?

CL Yeah, sometimes I do that. Either something’s popped into my head, or I’ve seen or heard something.

ZA Is your working process ascetic, where you isolate yourself? Or, do you like being able to come in and out of contact with others from whom you can draw inspiration?

CL I like having a goal or a project. If I’m invited to do something, like a show, that is the beginning of the process. I just start thinking more, and things happen from there. I need that motivation. In a show I just had at Invisible Export, in New York, there were a few pieces that were inspired by Parkland High School student, Emma Gonzales. Just a week before the show opened I did a text painting, Emma Gonzales Crossing the Delaware.

ZA That’s dealing with a very contemporary moment. Do you seek to create works that bear a sense of the time in which they were made or do you want your work to feel timeless?

CL That’s a tricky question. As a student I was critical of certain artists who either seemed like they were victims of a certain time or whose style hadn’t changed over a long period. But, now, I’m in a different place. I know we’re all products of our time, but I’ve always stayed away from the general idea of making something “big and important.” If I said out loud that I was making timeless pieces, that’s really taking on the idea of importance. 

ZA What originally drew you upstate? 

CL Simon and I met around ‘00 and then around ‘02 he moved into my place in Harlem, which is filled with a lot of stuff. And, I think he was naïve — or brave. It soon became clear that we needed some place else to have part of our lives. And so, we started looking around. Simon did like Robert Venturi also, the architect whose writings I mentioned earlier. So, I wrote to Venturi to ask if he would do something with us — but we still hadn’t found land or a place.

Simon Lince Do you remember when Robert Venturi tried to persuade us not to get a house in the country? He said, “Why don’t you buy something outside of Manhattan, an old school, or something you can covert and have fun with that.” We wanted something a bit more formal. Living in cities all my life, I felt like I’d been compromising. We wanted to have a “real life”, a grown-up house. We finally found this farmhouse from 1795, and we both felt, “Wow, this is it.” Even though we weren’t married and had only been in a relationship for a short time, we didn't hesitate buying the house together.

CL The house had a really nice patina. The people who had it before were Dorothy and William Humphrey. He did a lot of short stories and writings in The New Yorker, and wrote novels. They were the typical downtown, Greenwich Village couple. And, then, in the ‘50s, one of his novels became a movie…

SL …Home from the Hills, with Robert Mitchum.

CL It’s sort of a B version of James Dean’s Giant. But, with the money he got from the movie rights, they bought this place. Then we ended up buying it 50 years later. 

SL We haven’t really touched it other than adding the Venturi addition. It’s pretty much as it was when we bought it. When we got back in contact with Venturi, we didn’t really know what we could afford. 

CL Venturi came up to see the house. It was a grey, muddy pre-spring day. We had a lunch, and then he was like, “I think the new room should be all glass.” And, we were like, “All glass? We’re not really ‘all glass’ people. We didn’t think you were an ‘all glass’ kind of person.” And, he said, “Don’t forget: I’m a Modernist.” So, I thought that was interesting. In the end, the room does have much more glass than we ever envisioned. But it was the smartest thing to do. He really had a lot of insight about what the room needed to be to be different from the rest of the house. One of the aspects with the Venturi addition is that we have this fake façade. 

SL The façade design was inspired by a Halfpenny Brothers chinoiserie pattern book from England. Their drawing was done in the 1790s, the exact same time that the original part of our house was being built. This certainly wasn’t intentional, but we both love the poetry of it. It is also the home where we have most of our public life. When we entertain, we always entertain in the country. We host large dinner parties, especially Christmas Day. That’s our annual tradition.

CL The weekend is also a time for us to connect with each other, too. We come home from work and then kind of feel like vegetables. Simon started his new company, so he’s kind of working around the clock in the city.

SL In the country, too! I’m discovering that Columbia County is a thriving business community of clients and collaborations happening. There’s this really vibrant, creative community outside of the city. It’s exciting to be part of that.

ZA Have you had friends buy property nearby? 

CL We have some friends that bought places nearby. There is a little bit of Catch-22 because you want to see your friends but you also want to have a free Saturday night where you’re not talking to anybody.

ZA Cary, if you could kind of give any piece of advice to young artists embarking on a career in the arts, what would that be?

CL I think about it a lot because I still need to tell myself these things. Keep your ego in check. Try not to beat yourself up. Just keep doing it but if it’s not clicking, maybe rethink things. I think there are different types of struggles in the world. If you really have to struggle with becoming an artist, maybe there are other tangents you should be exploring. My parents were very good about letting me guide my own path. I changed both schools and directions quite a bit. Following your instincts is good. Not following your instincts is painful and also detrimental. I’ve learned the hard way.