In the pantheon of tragically doomed couples, there will always be a place for the sculptor Carl Andre and his third wife, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. From the day they met, in 1979, their relationship had all the hallmarks of a tortured-artists pairing: not only the deep attraction but also the violent arguments, the drinking, the alleged affairs. Late one night in 1985, during a screaming match in their New York apartment, Mendieta “fell” out of their bedroom window, plunging 34 floors to her death. (Reportedly, a doorman on the street below heard her scream, “No, no, no, no!” just beforehand.) Andre was charged with murder, but after a three-year legal battle he was fully acquitted.
Although the trial sparked much outrage in the art world, as people took sides, to some the episode was just the latest extreme example of an age-old phenomenon. From Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s tempestuous exploits (his affair with her younger sister almost drove Kahlo to suicide) to Marina Abramovic’s filmed breakup–cum–performance piece on the Great Wall of China with fellow performance artist Ulay, art world couplings often pack enough conflict and drama to fill several seasons’ worth of telenovelas. On the plus side, of course, these relationships have also inspired some of the most important artworks of all time. What would Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner have painted—or not painted—without each other’s influence? Would both Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have helped change the trajectory of postwar contemporary art if they hadn’t been lovers?
Today’s visual artists are pairing off as frequently as ever, and they’re using a wide range of strategies to navigate the perils and the pleasures that come with the territory. Rule No. 1: Try not to choose a partner who works in the same medium as you do. This approach has worked very well for the sculptor Rachel Feinstein and the painter John Currin, who have been together for 22 years, but a few couples have had to figure it out the hard way. The painter Jonas Wood, 39, and his wife, the potter Shio Kusaka, 44, who live in Los Angeles, hit a rough patch early in their relationship, in part because Kusaka began dabbling in painting. Wood recalls getting a bit “angsty” as Kusaka ventured onto his turf, a reaction that he now chalks up to his immaturity at the time. But in Kusaka’s opinion, Wood’s distress was fully justified. “I’m a serious artist, but I wasn’t a serious painter,” she says. “And I think Jonas, who is a real painter, could tell that. It was really hard for him to see me just kind of experimenting, and I started feeling weird about it, too.”
Wood and Kusaka’s 2015 joint show at Gagosian gallery in Hong Kong is evidence of how far they’ve come since then. Their practices, while still distinct, are remarkably intertwined: Wood’s large still lifes often depict Kusaka’s ceramic vessels, and his interpretations of her pieces, in turn, propel Kusaka in new directions; occasionally, their children’s drawings even make their way into the work. “It was never really discussed—it just happened in a natural way,” Wood says. His paintings began to catch on almost a decade ago, at a time when ceramics was considered a lesser medium. Nowadays, Kusaka is also getting solo shows, at top galleries like Los Angeles’s Blum & Poe.
Most artists, whatever their medium, agree that they could never fall in love with a person whose work they didn’t also love. To anyone who saw last year’s exhibition “Ugo Rondinone: I ❤ John Giorno,” a tribute created by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone to his longtime partner, the American poet-artist, at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, it was clear that John Giorno’s profound influence on an array of contemporary artists paled by comparison to the spell he cast on Rondinone himself. “As an artist, you’re kind of a freak, doing this strange thing that everyone tells you is impractical or impossible,” says the sculptor Mark Handforth, 47, who’s been married to the film-video artist Dara Friedman, 48, for 22 years. “It’s nice to be with someone who’s on the same journey.”
Friedman and Handforth met at Städelschule art school, in Frankfurt, Germany. As Handforth puts it, Friedman was “an extraordinary, total free spirit”; he was the uptight Englishman whom she initially dismissed as uninteresting. (She pointedly didn’t invite him to a party that she hosted at a mutual friend’s house; he showed up anyway.) Now, she says, “the admiration is mutual, and that’s thrilling because there’s nothing better than making something together.” The two maintain separate practices, but he often holds the mike or drives the van during shoots for her films and videos, and she helps drag materials around their Florida property for his monumental sculptures. Still, for art couples, as for all couples, the trickiest conflicts often center around ego, or its close cousin, ambition. Friedman remembers an incident in 1997 when they were driving and she told Handforth about her idea for the video Total, in which footage of her destroying a hotel room is presented in reverse. “He kind of pooh-poohed the idea,” she recalls. “I was so angry, I almost turned the car over. It was like, ‘Okay, game on; I will absolutely prove you wrong.’ ”
Any artist’s yearnings for critical acclaim or financial success can be an endless source of anxiety; add a partner and the potential for trouble increases exponentially, since it’s rare that any two careers peak at the same time. As much as Friedman and Handforth have learned to be proud of each other’s achievements, “it’s tough sometimes,” Handforth concedes. “When I won the Rome Prize, in 2000, Mark came to Rome with me for several months as ‘the spouse,’ ” Friedman recalls. “That was motivating for him, to say the least.” As Handforth sees it, “There are going to be times when one of you is doing the biennial and the other isn’t. But, in a way, it’s all right—when the other one is on fire, it gives you a moment to breathe a bit.” (Occasionally, a couple’s distinct career trajectories can intersect by chance: The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, in Connecticut, showcased Rob Pruitt’s work in the spring of 2015, and that of his partner, Jonathan Horowitz, this past May.) Anyone who’s ever participated in an art-school group crit (not to mention a couples-therapy session) won’t be surprised to hear that honest communication between partners is both a holy grail and a hornet’s nest. The painter Lesley Vance, 39, and her husband, the sculptor Ricky Swallow, 41, who live and work in Los Angeles, have developed their own approach through trial and error. “One of the things we both try to avoid is offering unsolicited commentary or criticism,” Swallow says. “But sometimes it’s hard. And you can’t always control your facial expressions when you’re looking at something.” Ultimately, most artists recognize that no matter how much they’re tempted to pontificate about their partner’s work, their opinion might have little impact anyway. Several artists told me that when they ask their spouse or partner for input, they’re mainly looking to reaffirm something they already know.
Though it may not be apparent from histrionic biopics such as Camille Claudel, about Auguste Rodin’s conflicted lover, artist couples do not spend every waking moment in hypersensitive states of creative torment. “We try to keep it in the studio,” Vance says. “It’s rare that we’re at home or out to dinner and really talking about our work.” And given that even mundane topics such as home decor can take on an operatic importance for two cohabiting artists (Honey, do you really think we should hang your new rusted-aluminum sculpture in the bedroom?), the house that Vance, Swallow, and their young son share, in Laurel Canyon, contains very few of their own pieces but is full of works they’ve collected together, including a prized 1983 Richard Tuttle.
So what role does gender play in all this? Ask heterosexual couples about the sexism factor and you’ll likely get a knowing laugh or a long pregnant pause. “Oooh, huge can of worms,” says Friedman, who notes that even if an individual couple is evolved enough for both spouses to stay on equal footing, many intractable biases remain in society at large, including in the art market. Vance concurs, noting, “I do think it’s more tricky for the woman. My husband and I influence each other equally—it’s really 50-50. But I wonder if when people look at a couple’s work together, they see the husband’s influence on the wife more than vice versa.”
Coincidentally or not, one of the least overtly competitive couples I interviewed was the painter Etel Adnan, 91, and the sculptor Simone Fattal, two women who live in Paris and have been together since 1972. Adnan was working as an editor in Beirut when she first met Fattal, who at that time was a painter. Since Adnan didn’t have a studio, she often used Fattal’s space, along with her paints, brushes, and canvases. Today, while Adnan is enjoying a surge of late-career fame (her paintings were a critical favorite at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 biennial), the Syrian-born Fattal, who now works primarily in sculpture, remains lesser known and accepts that fact cheerily. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she says, noting that market forces are beyond any artist’s control.
Two years ago, when works by Adnan and Fattal were grouped together in “Here and Elsewhere,” a survey of contemporary art from and about the Arab world, at the New Museum, in New York, both women were surprised at how many viewers noted the “obvious” connections between their practices, which they themselves hadn’t perceived. Adnan believes that if they’ve been influencing each other’s work over the past four decades, it’s primarily because they have been sitting across from each other at the breakfast table. “We go to museums all the time together,” she says. “We share a life. You both can’t help but be deeply impacted by that.” Indeed, Fattal may owe her choice of sculpture as a medium to an offhand comment Adnan made many years ago in the kitchen. Though Fattal was still painting back then, Adnan noticed something interesting about the way Fattal was holding a pair of eggplants. “It’s hard to explain,” Adnan says. “But one day I just saw it—that she had a sense of volume, a relationship between her hand and an object.” Adnan wondered aloud if Fattal might actually be a sculptor. Fattal said nothing, but years later she picked up some wax in a friend’s studio and began shaping abstract forms, similar to the larger bronze and ceramic pieces she does today.
The painter Jason Fox, 51, and the Pakistani-born sculptor Huma Bhabha, 54, who live in a converted firehouse in upstate New York, also see little room for one-upmanship in their marriage, a fact that Fox attributes partly to the long years they both worked in relative obscurity. When Fox’s subversive paintings and sculptures first got noticed, in the 1990s, Bhabha didn’t have gallery representation; through the years, they each held a string of menial jobs. A decade ago, when her striking pseudo-primitive sculptures started earning her solo shows, any potential jealousy on his part was eclipsed by the joyful realization that they could both finally afford health insurance: “I thought, This is like winning the lottery!” Fox says.
Today, Fox and Bhabha are hardly ever seen apart and even share a single e-mail address—rare for a couple in any field. “As an artist, it’s such a difficult balance to maintain, between absolute self-confidence and absolute self-loathing,” Fox says. “You’re always oscillating between those two poles, and it’s easy to get off-kilter. So to have someone there who really knows you and can say, ‘No, that piece is not done yet,’ that’s very appreciated.” Still, even for Fox and Bhabha, there’s one non-negotiable boundary: They work on separate floors of their building. “I’m really not supposed to go into Jason’s studio while he’s working,” Bhabha says with a laugh. “He’s much more particular about that than I am.”
Will any artist couple ever find a studio space that strikes a perfect balance between independence and togetherness? Much like a perfect relationship, it’s an elusive ideal. Kusaka and Wood have shared a large building in Los Angeles for several years, but, in 2014, craving more room as well as more privacy, they each found annexes nearby. Currently, they’re preparing another move, to a building in East Los Angeles. Crucially for both, their work spaces will remain entirely separate. But Kusaka notes she’s glad that she’ll again be spending most days under the same roof as her husband. “Having the private spaces is good,” she says. “But I kind of miss him.”