Karen Kilimnik is one of the most important artists of figurative painting, sculpture, video, drawing, collage, and installation in the last four decades. She mixes historical and cultural references of the past – ballet, European art, Old Master paintings, Romanticism, World Wars – with contemporary culture of television, books, films, fashion, and popular music. Her art is a quest for the romantic sublime as she brings beauty to contemporary art.
She studied at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1974-1976.
Her breakthrough works in the late 1980s were her scatter-piece installations. They were seemingly haphazard installations of various objects that circled around a theme. One such piece was her 1989 “The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers.” She imagined one of the shows of the TV series “The Avengers” as seen through the eyes of the members of the infamous 18th century Hellfire Club. Her 1991 “The Joker Episode of the Avengers” presented one of the show’s most surreal episodes. Each facet of this sculptural environment – cut-up images of Emma Peel, Pall Mall cigarettes, strewn paper roses, stacked playing cards, and the episodes’s soundtrack – reflected not only specific elements from the show but also alluded to the style of the 1960s and our nostalgia for that time.
Her 1991 “The Czars” showed the execution of the Russian royal family via a big black-and-white photograph of the trashed basement where the family and two others were gunned down. Along with this photo were a pile of fake snow, baubles, and pink tulle. In the same year her “Battles, or the Art of War” mixed equestrian portraits, tree branches, military standards, and a fake cannon on a green rug to represent a Napoleonic battle.
In the mid-1990s, her focus shifted to painting. She painted portraits of ballerinas, fashion models, movie stars, and herself. She painted lush gardens, beautiful palaces, imagined witches, flowers, and animals. Her style was characterized by loose, undifferentiated brushwork and asymmetry. She combined pop culture and historical characters as in her 1998 portrait, “Prince Albrecht at Home at the Castle on School Break.” There was no Prince Albert. It was actually a painted portrait of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. The young actor’s face is still innocent. His gleaming golden hair and the two golden crowns on a heraldic shield glow against the dark brown background. The following year she painted a self-portrait of herself in period dress, “Me in Russia, 1916, Outside the Village,” in another example of her welding together two unconnected worlds
In 2011, she made the stage settings for the ballet “Psyche” at the Opera National de Paris.
In exhibitions in 2019, she made installations of her paintings, grouped together symmetrically in an ensemble that could be seen as wall decoration in a palace or chateau. Ornately framed small paintings and photographs were hung salon style in associative groupings, accompanied by extravagant placards tied to hooks with satin bows. One installation had eighteen works evoking the English pastoral of the Cotswolds with a portrait of a hunting dog and photographs of cows, sheep and roses. Another group of eighteen works recalled the French Rococo of pastel chateaux and beautiful blue skies.
Yet, not all is beautiful in her work. Her 2018 video “The World at War” is a grouping of scenes from World War II films, featuring soldiers singing patriotic songs, played on a monitor that is encased in a showy gilt frame and flanked by paintings of tapestries and patterned porcelain. This juxtaposition of military pomp with elegant ornaments shows that Kilimnik understands the coercive force of the decorative and its way of making misery and social upheaval seem righteous.
Kilimnik’s recent works are map paintings which feature place names, notations, color fields, and borderlines. But they can also be seen as abstractions. They center on Europe, the Near East, and China. Some reference history, including World War II, but others reference cruise lines, trade routes, culture, and geology.
In September to October 2019 Kilimnik had a major exhibition at Spruth Magers Los Angeles, her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. A week later she had a similar exhibition for two months at the 303 Gallery in New York City.
She has had major solo exhibitions exhibitions at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Serpentine Gallery in London, Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art, Le Consortium in Dijon, The Brant Foundation, Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, and the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Major group exhibitions include the Carnegie Museum of Art, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Aspen Art Museum; MOCA Miami, Geneva’s MAMCO, Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s MOMA PS1, and museums in Paris, Basel, London, and Vienna.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art; Milan’s Fondazione Prada; Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; Seattle Art Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and many others.