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Artist Projects: An Interview with Kay Rosen

Kay Rosen is one of three artists commissioned by the National Gallery as part of Artist Projects to transform temporary construction walls and empty spaces outside and inside the East Building into places for site-responsive installations. She created SORRY for the facade of the East Building, where the main entrance is closed during renovation. By combining the word sorry with variations on so, the work generates a range of expressions, from a half-hearted to a sincere apology.

SORRY raises questions about who is speaking, what they are apologizing for, and to whom. In this interview, Rosen talks about SORRY and about her process in general.

What attracts you to language and wordplay in your work?

My educational background was in language studies (not art). I am interested in exploring everyday language in a microcosmic way, one or two words, and how small changes can affect how we read and understand. Someone described what I do as “moving the furniture around.” I’ve thrown out all of my academic tools in favor of visual ones, art in other words: color, materials, process, composition, graphic strategies, and scale, instead of the printed page.

And how did you develop this text?

SORRY began with a tiny linguistic unit from that word, s-o, and it grew into something else as it repeats five times. Initially sorry was intended to be an apology from the National Gallery for the inconvenience from the construction, but because SORRY speaks from the nation’s capital, it inevitably carries other meanings. The range of regret that it expresses is reflected in the doubled double syllables: so-so and so, so.

To me, language is found material. I didn’t make up the word sorry. All I did was to identify its potential and figure out how to help it succeed as a message worthy of such public prominence. Viewers will hopefully consider the identity of the speaker, the reason for the apology, and the identity of the recipient. Who is apologizing to whom for what? And do they mean it?

Man touching up the outline of the blue background on the painting SORRY by Kay Rosen

A sign painter at work on SORRY. Photo: Paige Rozanski

You make work in a variety of scales and sizes—drawings, paintings by hand, and large-scale murals. How do the scale and size inform your practice?

I make both public work, like SORRY, and more intimate work, as you mentioned. The text of the public work is determined by the site: its purpose, its audience, its dimensions, and its architecture. If public text is going to occupy a lot of space, it should carry an important message. One that you want to shout. The size of the letters is tantamount to volume. At first, the [construction] wall was going to be 90 feet long, and the text was going to fill the entire wall. I had selected Gill Sans font because the shape of its letters enabled it to fill the entire space. When I decided to reduce the space to 47½ feet to avoid covering the two access doors (which might or might not have been opened from time to time), I switched the font to English Gothic, which is more compressed. I adjust and tweak and experiment with size, placement, and color until it feels right. This is the more technical and invisible part of the work, but it contributes greatly to its visual impact and to its physical relationship with the viewer.

I love the act of hand-painting and drawing smaller and more intimate works of art. They are a huge part of my practice. (Humor plays a large part in those.) But when it comes to larger works like SORRY, I don’t have the expertise to paint them, so we hired professional sign painters who are highly skilled. It is important to me that the murals are painted well. There’s an authority that comes from that perfection.

Two men painting SORRY onto the window covering of the East Building

Sign painters fill in the outlines of SORRY. Photo: Paige Rozanski

You came to Washington, DC, in February 2020, right before the pandemic, for a site visit. Did you find that visit was crucial to your process?

I had never been to the National Gallery. It's a grand place and I was very glad I got to visit just before the pandemic hit.

The relationship of the East and West Buildings and their close proximity to the Capitol were extremely important to the project because of the political, social, cultural, and historical context they provide. The site was a challenge as well as a gift.

I always thought that SORRY transcended the apology for the construction inconvenience, but over the past year and a half my feelings about the work have deepened and saddened, due to the pandemic and all the suffering that has come from that tragedy.

There have been other recent events, like the attack on the Capitol on January 6 and the George Floyd murder, that still bring so much trauma, but there is no shortage of events over the years that demand an apology. The list is endless.

Language is open to interpretation. That’s the nature of it. It’s like a vessel waiting to be filled up with associations. I hope that viewers will engage with the work and feel encouraged to do that.

Banner image: Kay Rosen, SORRY, 2020–2021, paint on construction wall, Courtesy of the Artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.