Remembering Kaari Upson, Los Angeles artist who created The Larry Project, a seven-year-long series exploring the life of a mysterious stranger

Artist who found her subject when trespassing in abandoned houses in San Bernardino, California, and whose formal obsessions included "couches upon couches upon couches"

'There’s no beginning, middle or end in the work': Kaari Upson in 2011 Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

'There’s no beginning, middle or end in the work': Kaari Upson in 2011 Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

“I am more he than he is,” the artist Kaari Upson wrote on a drawing of Larry—or was the drawing of herself? Upson exhibited it at her first museum exhibition—at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles—in 2007. It was part of The Larry Project, a sprawling, psychoanalytical series exploring how Upson had merged her life with that of a man she had never met.

Larry was a neighbour of Upson’s parents: an enigmatic man who lived alone in a mansion across the road, on the edge of San Bernardino, California, the city where Upson was born and grew up in the 1970s. The street was quiet, suburban and, at one time, fairly affluent. Close by were blankets of endless conifer, oak and pine forest stretching towards Sugarloaf Mountain and, beyond that, the Mojave desert.

Upson never met Larry, but she heard about him. Larry was at turns reclusive and reckless. At times he holed himself up at home for weeks on end. Then, unannounced, he would throw massive parties that kept disapproving neighbours up until the early hours, the street filled with cars from out of town. Neighbours would gather the next day and gossip about hearing gunshots.

But the street had bigger problems than Larry. During dry summers the winds from the Mojave battered the mountains. Fires spread down through the forest and to the edges of the city. The wildfires caused the value of the homes on Upson’s street to plummet and many faced foreclosure. As a teenager Upson used to trespass in the abandoned houses, sneaking a look at the lives they once held.

Upson first set foot inside Larry’s house in 2003, at the age of 33, on a rare visit home from her studies at CalArts in Santa Clarita. But Larry wasn’t there. He had left one day without warning, abandoning the mansion. Upson heard he had got in deep with the wrong people and skipped town. Others said he had wound up in jail. Or perhaps he had just decided to flee, in search of a new life.

Upson was trespassing. And, in doing so, she discovered a treasure trove of miscellany. Larry, she learnt later, was an acquaintance of the Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, and modelled his home on the Playboy Mansion. Larry was also a hoarder. Upson found the photographs he kept, including some of him dressed like his hero Hefner in a dressing gown, his arm around women in bikinis. She found letters, piles of legal documents, his personal diaries. She remembered reading them, discovering a man who seemed devoured by misogyny, but also vulnerable and lonely, using his diaries to write about his sense of isolation, his dark, yearning need to be loved.

Turning a life into art

Upson, a student looking for inspiration, knew what to do. She wanted to fill in the gaps, piece together the life of Larry and turn it into art. She pocketed two of his diaries. A year later, she lost one of them. Soon after, she learnt on a call home that a wildfire had gutted Larry’s empty home. His “tomb” was gone. Upson was bereft. Soon after, she started on The Larry Project. The work was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum four years later. Introducing the show, the curator Ali Subotnick described her friend Upson as “a little nuts, high-strung, sort of like a cheerleader on speed”.

Upson created a life-size doll of Larry. She drew erotic pictures of him. She pieced together what she knew of his life, like an obsessional homicide detective, the case still open

The project continued until 2011. By its end, it encompassed sculpture, installation, film, drawing and photography. Upson created a life-size doll of Larry. She drew erotic pictures of him. She pieced together what she knew of his life, like an obsessional homicide detective, the case still open. She began to merge herself with him; painting his picture, she started to incorporate characteristics of her own father into those of Larry. She drew, with incredible detail, each line of his eye, each detail of his pupil. Then she would repeat the trick with her own eye. Finally, she would splice each drawing in two and montage hers with his. Then she joined herself, literally, with him; instinctively and quickly painting his portrait, painting her own, and then, with the paint still wet, pressing one against the other.

In 2011, Upson decided to lay Larry to rest. She did so with Four Corners, at Overduin and Kite gallery in Los Angeles. She prepared a life-size mannequin of Larry, made from charcoal and wax. Then, alone in the gallery but encased in a large plywood box, Upson destroyed Larry. Visitors could hear, on a recording, Upson attacking the mannequin, dragging and slamming it against the floor and walls of the box. The box granted them, via a peephole, a look inside—there lay the Larry effigy, largely destroyed by Upson, reduced to dust.

The Larry Project drew to its end around the time Upson was diagnosed with cancer. She told only a trusted few, and threw herself even more fiercely into her art. She showed new works at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and the 2019 Venice Biennale. Also in 2017, the New Museum in New York gave Upson a widely praised retrospective, Good thing you are not alone.

Formal obsessions

Shorn of Larry, and dealing with the cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment, she focused her work more on herself, exploring how objects and bodies can become freighted with memory and meaning—recalling childhood, longing for times past and missing loved ones.

In a 2017 interview with The Art Newspaper Upson spoke about her formal obsessions as an artist, including with couches, as manifested in her shows at the Whitney and the New Museum, with their focus on tract housing in Las Vegas, and domestic furniture. “On my drive to [my studio], which is only five minutes, there are couches upon couches upon couches, and I actually have to hold myself back...,” she said. “With the works in the Whitney Biennial, I left it all on the field, I did everything I needed to do with couches. And they’re done. There’s no more. I need to make different objects now.”

In 2019 she had her first institutional solo exhibition in Europe at the Kunsthalle Basel. The exhibition, Go Back the Way You Came, consisted of legs hanging from the roof of the gallery and dissected feet poised on podiums. The legs were Upson’s—casts of her own knee, calf and thigh modelled in the wood of a ponderosa pine tree she cut down outside her parents’ home. The feet, we learnt, were casts of those of Karin Upson, Kaari’s mother, who was also fighting cancer. Karin died soon after the exhibition opened.

Unlike Larry scribbling his weird graffiti message, Upson loved life. She saw her art as something that was never permanent, never done

Speaking to Paul Soto of Art in America, Upson remembered walking through the burnt-out husk of Larry’s mansion with her mother and filming it. “I found this weird footage of my mom and me inside the garage of his house, which was the only section that survived the fire,” she said. “My computer crashed at one point, but we got it back and up on the screen was this moving image that read ‘i hate life’. It was the weirdest bit of graffiti in this dark garage.”

It is clear that, unlike Larry scribbling his weird graffiti message, Upson loved life. She saw her art as something that was never permanent, never done. “There’s no beginning, middle or end in the work. It could be the end of something that I’m not even recognising the line of,” she said in 2017, “but then the beginning of something else that I don’t even know is about to happen.”

Upson had a daughter with her former husband, the television producer Kirk Rudell. Her art is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and other major museums.

Kaari Upson, born San Bernardino, California, 22 April 1970; married 2000 Kirk Rudell (one daughter; marriage dissolved 2010); died New York City 18 August 2021