Chelsea, Manhattan, NYC
Karen Rosenkrantz is not your typical painter. A former surgeon, she draws on her medical experience to study the human form in the context of social interaction and individual relationships. Working from original photography and anatomical diagrams from her doctor days, Karen is able to acutely capture moments of human behavior, employing her observational skills honed as a practicing doctor. She's also the only artist we've ever met to compare her practice to a postdoc... and, well, it works. Note: the artist preferred not to be photographed....next time Karen... next time.
So, art is not your first career?
I went to to Harvard University and then Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon in one of Harvard’s hospitals. Surgery is a wonderful thing to be able to do, and it was a wonderful career. Then we had three children—my husband and I lived for two years with no parents at home and three nannies, and then about 15 years ago I stopped being a surgeon and started working as a mother. For 15 years and did a lot of volunteer things around town, and eventually I started drawing again, started painting, and one of my teachers suggested that I should go to art school. So I did. I graduated from the Museum School about two or three years ago and I had the opportunity to come to New York and start working here.
What kind of surgery did you do?
I was a doing general surgery and spent a lot of time learning immunology; at one point I had plans to be a transplant surgeon, so I actually worked in a lab over at Sloan-Kettering for a couple of years studying basic immunology, which I’ve authored a couple papers on. All these things have been very helpful to my career as an artist.
Working in contemporary art is very much like working in a science lab. You have to keep abreast of what’s going on around you, pay attention to everything. If you want to enter the dialogue you have to come up with something that is original and true to you. When people ask me what I’m doing now in New York, I tell them that I’m doing a postdoc, just to put it into terms they can understand. It’s very similar, and it takes a few years, so I feel like I’m doing a postdoc.
Did you feel creative in your career in medicine? Were there ways to be creative in what you were doing?
You know, surgery is very different from being any other kind of doctor—not to downplay other areas of the profession. Surgery is kind of like painting: you get a manual, but no body is ever the same. It never looks or feels like anything in the manual. It kind of gives you a guide point, and then you’re off to make of it whatever you want. There are good surgeons, and there are bad surgeons, but the best surgeons are the ones that can take what’s there and learn how to work with the body. I think painting is the same thing: you’re given all these guides and manuals and then you’re free to take it from there, and make with it what you want. Oil painting is a very traditional art, but it also has such incredible flexibility that I think makes it constantly very contemporary at the same time.
You have a lot of anatomical drawings taped to the wall. Did you recycle your old medical texts?
I did. I ripped up my copy of Grey’s Anatomy because I wanted the basic anatomical drawings. I don’t reproduce them, but I do use them as reference for forms in my work. I know it’s frowned upon in contemporary art, but I do work from photographs because of my content. It’s not like the photographs really tell me everything I need to know; in a lot of ways I feel like a surgeon—I’m building these bodies. The photograph kind of gives me the outlines, and then I have to dig on everything I know about the body to build them. Also, at this point, because I’m working so large at the moment, I find that I need that more and more.
Do you develop the figures anatomically, starting with the skeletal structure and then moving on, knowing what goes into a body?
I think that that probably helps. I don’t put in a gall bladder, or an appendix, but I actually feel the same way that I felt when I was operating. I want to make them a body that you can touch and you can feel because I kind of feel that way when I’m working on them.
So the series that you’re doing now is about group dynamics. Where did that idea come from?
People ask me what part of being a doctor I bring to being a painter, and actually the first thing that I think about is the psychological aspect. Doctors in the medical community are trained to observe people—when you ask someone if they drink, and they say, “never!” but then you look at them and you know that’s not the case. You learn to observe people when they’re lying or telling the truth. I feel like I’m now a very good observer. It’s just very fascinating to me the way people interact in our society, the way people behave when they’re on their own, when they’re in groups, how behavior changes when they’re in groups...I find it sort of endlessly fascinating.
What are the paintings based on?
I find photos from both urban life and beach life, and actually I found the beach photographs really helpful. I think it’s really interesting once you put a bathing suit on someone, I think their body language gets exaggerated because their more ready to become a little defensive about their personal space. The large paintings that I’m working on now are places where I thought the body language was really exaggerated. When I do these paintings I pay close attention to the way the viewer sees them. When I first started to do small paintings in this subject, I made them small and formatted almost like a photo on a printed page, they aren’t the full size of the panel or the canvas. The reason I did that is because I think that as contemporary viewers, we’re trained to take an image in that format and almost glimpse it, we’re not meant to stare at it. So I wanted to recreate that glimpse you get when you’re walking down the street and you notice, but you don’t really focus on things as they go by. But with the life-size ones I’m doing now, I think it’s harder for the viewer not to react to them because the body language is so strong. They’re not just ignoring the other people in the painting, they’re also ignoring you, the viewer. One of the interesting things about body language is that it is a very cultural thing, it is very culture-specific.
Were these photos that you took?
I only work with photos that I’ve taken. And actually, it generally works better if I don’t know anybody, if they’re all strangers.
When you got into art, was there anything that drew you to painting in particular?
Like I said, I think being a painter is a lot like being a surgeon—the mentality is very similar. You’re working with your hands, you’re building something, it’s just you and what you’re working on.
What is the inspiration for the magnetic sculptures?
A consortium of artists called Three for Art, a very creative group of people who are trying to display art in non-traditional venues, very nicely asked me to contribute art for a show that took place in November. They also put together something called “Made to Move,” which was a collection of twenty artworks under five inches by twenty different artists. It is traveling around the country and being seen by a lot of different people in non-traditional venues; they’re just finalizing their itinerary now. My series is called “He’s Touching Me,” and it’s based on the relationship between my brother and me in the backseat of a car growing up. When you’re four or five years old, that really is the fundamentals of relationships. The little sculptures are covered with the fingerprints because I really think that those interactions stay with you forever.
How do the magnets fit in?
The magnets are meant to recreate the sense of being inextricably drawn to people, but sometimes they hit you, or you hit them back—you can’t help but touch them and fight them because somehow you’re so drawn to the person. Whether it’s a sibling relation, or any other kind of relationship, there’s something that pulls you towards people.
Where do you see your work moving thematically in the future?
I want to paint about the world around me. How we interact with the other people around us is fascinating to me, and not just in a schmaltzy way. The power dynamics between us that are being played out right now, that’s a relationship just as much as there’s a relationship between two kids in the backseat of a car. It’s something that we all experience as humans.