Artist Tony Berlant and Daughter, Comedian Kate Berlant, Get Personal
An L.A. family looks back at how art shaped their lives
For most of his life, Tony Berlant has surrendered himself to his obsessions. Aside from making his own large-scale collages from vintage metal street signs and advertisements, the Santa Monica painter and sculptor has spent decades collecting ancient objects made by unknown artists. In 1974, he co-founded the Mimbres Foundation to study and preserve pottery produced by the Native Americans who inhabited Southern New Mexico roughly 1,000 years ago. Today, his collection of ancient pottery is rivaled only by his collection of Paleolithic tools, some of which date back more than a million years.
“I am involuntarily committed to these things. I just get fascinated over a long period of time,” says Berlant, who holds degrees in painting and sculpture from UCLA, but has no formal training in archeology or history. “Obsession is what I like.”
This year Berlant’s obsessions have produced a pair of museum exhibitions and two accompanying books. His ceramics collection is on view through December 2 at LACMA, in an exhibition he co-curated alongside scholar Evan Maurer. A separate exhibition of his Neanderthal tools, co-curated alongside anthropologist Thomas Wynn, closed in April at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. The objects have since been returned to what Berlant likes to call the “hand axe hotel,” a chest of drawers that sits at the center of the Santa Monica studio where he’s lived and worked for nearly 40 years.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, the studio feels more like a factory, with assistants cutting sheets of printed metal into tiny shapes that will later be assembled into collages. Berlant recently doubled the number of studio assistants he employs—from two to four—to help him prepare for Fast Forward, which opens September 22 at Kohn Gallery in Hollywood. It marks his first solo exhibition since joining the gallery last year after more than three decades at L.A. Louver in Venice, and it includes his most personal work to date: a collage featuring a Polaroid of himself taken by Andy Warhol in the early ’70s; a collaged portrait of his wife, Helen; and a blown-up photo taken by comedian John Early of Berlant’s daughter, stand-up comedian and actor Kate Berlant, performing at a Hillary Clinton benefit in 2016.
It’s a bolder, more vulnerable body of work for Berlant, who admits part of the reason he talks so much about prehistoric objects is because he is uncomfortable discussing his own art. But after spending more than half his life researching and collecting ancient artifacts, the self-taught historian hopes he can finally put his obsessions to rest and focus on himself for a change.
“Some of it has to do with being 77 and most of my friends have died in their early 90s in the last couple years,” says Berlant, alluding to close artist friends Charles Garabedian, who was also represented by L.A. Louver, and Ed Moses, who died in January. “I’m at the stage that I call bonus years. The out-of-warranty years started at about 65 and at this point, they’re bonus years.”
“Hmm. Comforting,” Kate Berlant deadpans with a smile.
“Which is not a negative way to think about it. It’s a way of just knowing they’re precious,” says Tony. “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t really want to talk to. I can’t stop having the daily outrage from the buffoon president, but I try not to.”
Kate, who is 31 and recently played the manic call center manager Diana DeBauchery in Boots Riley’s surrealist comedy Sorry to Bother You, has just returned from performing an hour set every day for a month as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. She wants to do more acting, she says, but still prefers stand-up. “With film and TV, it’s so ephemeral.” Plus, she says, “I’m a woman, so it’s like, they’ll set me on fire after a certain age, so my dream is to be able to do stand-up, to have audiences come and see you.”
In her stand-up sets, she frequently incorporates the language of academia (she got her master’s degree in performance studies at NYU and considered getting her PhD before realizing it wouldn’t leave much time for comedy), corporate feminism, and wellness culture as a means of illuminating their absurdities.
“When Kate says these things in a very intellectualized format, it’s such a shock from what people normally say,” says Tony. “Most comedy is terrible. I don’t find it funny… And Kate is totally engrossing.”
She lives in Silver Lake, on the other end of the city, but says she and her father “talk constantly.” The two have always been close. He still calls her Kitty, a childhood nickname, and as a kid, she called him mommy, because she thought he didn’t have a job.
“He was here and everyone else’s dad was a doctor or wore a suit,” she says. Her mother, Helen Mendez, an actor and performer who worked with the Dadaist playwright Guy de Cointet in the 1970s and ‘80s, stayed home, too. “I had two mommies,” says Kate.
Tony and Helen met at a party in Detroit in the 1970s. “I looked across the room and there was Helen sitting on this couch sideways. I thought she looked so gorgeous,” says Tony. “I had just gotten out of an unhappy long, long relationship and I didn’t want to do that again. But then when I looked at Helen, I said, ‘I would marry that woman if she’d have me,’ which I’d never done.”
He didn’t see her again until a chance meeting in Los Angeles ten years later. She was leaning against one of his sculptures at a party and he recognized her immediately. The two have been married for 33 years, and in love for three years longer than that. “My mom is an incredibly dramatic storyteller. Funny, expressive. I mean, she’s wearing a tail around the house,” says Kate, referring to the bushy brown fur that her mother—with whom she shares a mane of curly hair—has attached to the backside of her pants while scurrying around the kitchen. “Hyper, hyper theatrical.”
Kate, who is an only child, grew up surrounded by her parents’ eccentric friends, many of whom were famous artists and performers. They showed her that “to seize the stage, you had to stand up and shout,” says Tony, recalling a typical gathering at the house. “She had her early years sleeping under the table with her little blanket during parties. She never had a bed time.”
Kate’s first internship involved cutting up paintings for family friend Moses, who would make as many as one a day, and then destroy them to diminish their market value. She was 17 the first time she did stand-up, in the basement of her Brentwood high school, the Archer School for Girls, which she says has a reputation for graduating the children of Hollywood celebrities. Despite its glitzy image, she says, attending an all-girls school allowed her to take the risk of acting goofy with her comedy. “I don’t know if I would’ve ever done stand-up if there had been guys around,” she says. “Maybe not, who am I to say? But I kind of have a sneaking suspicion.”
Basement sets turned into 5:30 p.m. open mics at the Laugh Factory, which Berlant describes as “truly hell on Earth.” She remembers being the youngest comic by far (she got in with a fake ID) and one of just a few women. “I remember there was a woman there who didn’t even really do stand-up. She was like, ‘Um, my son died five years ago and I always told him I would do stand-up and so here I am,’” Kate says. “Just, like, totally devastating, harsh reality of comedy.”
One summer while attending New York University, where she created her own major she calls “the anthropology of comedy”—a title she now says is “embarrassing”—she worked with the artist Chris Burden to help him build a 65-foot skyscraper out of an Erector set. The experience, her father remembers her telling him, shifted her aspirations. The way he tells it, she no longer wanted to pursue a traditional career in comedy, but one marked by experimentation and collaboration.
Kate doesn’t remember having this conversation with her father. In fact, it’s one of several times that she disputes her father’s retelling of events. In a previous instance, she denied her father’s recollection that when she was a child and saw Warhol’s portrait of him, she said, “This is before Daddy realized he was heterosexual.”
“You’re an exaggerator and a storyteller, but you do it very well,” she tells her dad. “I think people meet you and you seem kind shy… You are kind of shy. But you are so cartoonish and you are an absolute ham.”
Still, she says, he is the hardest working person she knows. She attributes her father’s productivity to his refusal to own a cell phone or use a computer. He relies instead on his secretaries to type his emails from dictation. “He’s, like, truly obsessive, in a way that I’m obsessive, too. You can tell he’s absolutely an obsessive personality, but it’s served him well,” she says. “He’s worked for so long, made so much in his projects, who the hell does that? He has two books out now and a show and he’s having a great time.”
Berlant’s out-of-warranty years, it turns out, might just be his most prolific yet.