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

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.”

After his mother, a homemaker, died 15 years ago, his father remarried, and now lives in Saugerties. “I’ve seen him twice in the past decade,” he said. His drawing of questions “came straight out of me wanting to have a relationship with him.

“I don’t know if he’s ever seen a lot of my work,” Mr. Haendel said. They met in Manhattan two years ago and his father went with him to see a drawing Mr. Haendel had made on the side of a building, then they had lunch. “He probably looks my work up online. In the film, that’s a question I ask: ‘Do you search my name on the internet?’ I’m pretty sure he does because I hear that he kind of knows what’s going on. We talk occasionally. But it’s pretty tense.”

Mr. Haendel is a fan of American novels of the family—Franzen, Updike. “There’s this idea that you’re a selfish kid for a while, and then you grow up and realize that your parents were interesting people.” When he reached his 30s, there were things he wanted to know about his father. “Did he protest something? Did he smoke pot? Did he listen to Beatles records over and over?

Was he scared of going to Vietnam?”

In the film, these and other questions are grouped by theme, with quick cuts from one man to the next. “I was interested in how you could go from sex to politics to religion to sex,” Mr. Haendel said.

As directors, he and Mr. Ringbom were both coaches and therapists. “There was a little psychiatrist thing going on,” he recalled.

“Sometimes a guy would say something like, ‘No, he wasn’t scared of talking about sex, he was just a little puritanical.’ And I’d say O.K., you can say puritanical, say it that way.’”

If a subject proved exceptionally difficult for one of the men to ask about, Mr. Haendel would usually let it go. “There are things it’s really hard for people to talk about, like things about sex.”

Some questions, though, were avidly asked by many of the men, the most common one being about sex: “How many women have you slept with?”

“Maybe it’s this masculinity competition,” Mr. Haendel posited. “Even though you love your father you still want to be like, ‘Ahh, I’ve slept with more women.’ Or maybe not. Maybe the son’s only slept with one or two women and the dad was a playboy.”

The other popular subjects were cheating (“Have you ever cheated on mom?”; “Has mom ever cheated on you?”); failure (“Do you think of me as a failure?”); and pride (“When were you proud of me?”; “Were you ever proud of me?”). Personal sacrifice was another hot topic, and one that particularly interested Mr. Haendel. “Because there’s a kind of difference between our fathers’ generation and our generation maybe we kind of follow our dreams a little more because our parents sacrificed to get a job they didn’t really like. So there’s a lot of that’s bound up with the success/failure thing.”

It was crucial to the two filmmakers that they cast men in their own age group, ones who, like them, had just made major life decisions. “The guys in the film are getting married, starting to have kids, maybe things our parents did a bit younger,” said Mr. Haendel. He’s getting married this week; Mr. Ringbom is engaged. “One guy had his young son sitting on the sofa while we were filming.”

He was interested in capturing a moment in which he and his friends are, as he sees it, finally reaching adulthood. “There is this sort of delayed coming of age thing that goes on in the film.”

That’s something he doesn’t see a lot of in art by his peers. “It wasn’t something that I sensed was subject matter for male artists—masculinity portrayed in an emotional, honest way. You see a lot of art that portrays masculinity, but it might be in a kind of Richard Prince sense, or a Jeff Koons sense.”

What exactly is missing?

“There’s not a sensitive father/son thing going on in art,” he said. “A lot of feminist work has this kind of mother/daughter thing. It has a relationship to identity politics and feminism. I thought it was interesting that that kind of stuff was absent in men’s work, predominantly.”

In his own work, Mr. Haendel continues to make drawings, and he has started on another film, for his next show in Los Angeles, this one about why people choose to have children. (He recalled asking his father, “Why did you have kids?” and being told, “I don’t know. That’s just what people did then.”) He’s also putting together a book called Shame, a compilation of stories that people post anonymously on the Internet. “Addictions, eating disorders, cheating, low self-esteem, a lot of sexual things,” he explained.

The Observer wondered whether some of the tension in Questions for My Father resulted from the idea that the men might not actually want their questions answered. Ignorance is, after all, often bliss when it comes to one’s family; it’s not every man who wants to know, for instance, whether or not his father ever had a homosexual experience. Mr. Haendel acknowledged this might be the case for some, but, like many artists, his general curiosity about the world tends to overrule such sheepishness. “When people say, ‘I don’t want to know that,’ I never understand them. Because I always want to know everything.” He paused.

“Maybe I’m an emotional voyeur. Maybe I just want to know what the truth is.”

sdouglas@observer.com

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