All About My Father: Artist Karl Haendel and His Friends Have Lots of Questions

questions for my father 2011 publicity image All About My Father: Artist Karl Haendel and His Friends Have Lots of Questions

"Questions for My Father" (2011) by Karl Haendel. (Photo: the artist and Harris Lieberman Gallery)

A few years ago Karl Haendel wrote down a list of questions he had always wanted to ask his father. For most of us, this would constitute an idle, possibly self-indulgent, possibly cathartic exercise, maybe one assigned as homework in psychotherapy—and would most likely result in a scrap of paper destined for the circular file. But Mr. Haendel is an artist, and for him it became a large drawing called, appropriately, Questions for My Father. He showed it in 2007 at his New York gallery, Harris Lieberman, and then, in 2010, at the Guggenheim Museum.

Last year, he revisited these questions, but this time, in collaboration with his friend, filmmaker Petter Ringbom, made them into an 11-minute film, his first, aside from some short 16-millimeter efforts. It went on view last week at Harris Lieberman. Walking into the gallery, a visitor encounters the back of what appears at first to be a huge painting propped up against a column, but turns out to be a screen. More striking, however, is what the visitor hears.

“Would you feel betrayed if I used a hair replacement product?”

“Why did you become conservative?”

“Why do you feel the need to compete with me?”

“Have you ever given money to a terrorist group?”

“Did you ever sleep with two women at the same time?”

“Why won’t you take Mom to Paris?”

The voices belong to 18 men, friends of Messrs. Haendel and Ringbom. They asked the men to replicate Mr. Haendel’s process in making his drawing. “We each got our friends who we knew could be rigorous and honest,” Mr. Haendel told The Observer in mid-August, when we met him in the lobby of his aunt’s Upper East Side apartment building. The artist, who lives in Los Angeles, was staying there as he prepared for his show. He was dressed casually, and eschewed the stiltedness of artspeak for an easy familiarity. “I said to them, ‘Tell me what you want to know from your dad.’”

Mr. Haendel doesn’t consider the film, in which hundreds of questions are asked by these men, to be a dramatic departure from his drawings, many of which are on political subjects and which went on view in a sprawling exhibition at collector Aby Rosen’s Lever House last year. In both mediums he addresses, as he put it, “questions about how we as a culture, a particular type of people in a particular time, make certain choices, have certain beliefs, certain values.”

In format, the film is relatively straightforward—the men, set against a blank black background, look out at the viewer as they speak—but it poses deeper questions about the differences between generations of men, and their approaches to politics, art and, most of all, masculinity. “I was interested in a portrait of a particular type of masculinity in the early 21st century,” Mr. Haendel said. “Guys of my generation and how our masculinity is different from our fathers’.”

Asking what Mr. Haendel, 35, calls “these difficult, sometimes funny, sometimes really weird questions” has a particular resonance during our current “mancession,” when a certain kind of masculinity, in the sphere of work at least, may be going the way of the dodo bird.

Although one of the men in the film has done a bit of acting, none of them is polished. “We’re all fidgety,” said Mr. Haendel. “That works well, because it’s awkward, asking your father these kinds of questions. There’s an overall sense of tension.”

The men are of varying sexualities, races and ethnicities—gay, straight, Arab, Jewish, Irish, Greek, African-American, Asian—but have in common that they are creative types in their 30s whose fathers came of age in the 1960s. Among them is a writer, a curator, an ice sculptor, a woodworker. “It’s the story of the second half of the 20th century in America,” Mr. Haendel explained. “Your parents got a decent education, good jobs, and the kids went to college and become dancers, theater majors, writers.” Most importantly, he said, “we tried to get guys who had a variety of relationships with their fathers, some that were quite good, some whose fathers left them, some whose fathers are dead.”

Mr. Haendel, who is in the film—he reads the questions from his drawing—is estranged from his own father. He grew up in Great Neck, went to Brown, then to art school in Los Angeles, where he remained. His father taught ship handling and boat navigation at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. “He could drive large tanker ships, tie knots.”