William Kentridge’s Graphic Pursuit

For art enthusiasts, one virtue of summer 2001 in New York is that it offers a William Kentridge extravaganza. While the New Museum of Contemporary Art continues its string of monographic exhibitions (it has held five such shows since last May) with the first American museum retrospective of Kentridge, Gracie Mansion will host a show at her new Chelsea digs that includes nearly 20 of the South African artist’s prints. Kentridge, who won the 1999 Carnegie Prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, became something of an international art-world darling in 1997, when his work was included in Documenta X, as well as the Johannesburg and Havana Biennials. His steady output since then – of animated films, prints, drawings, and bronze sculptures, among other work – continues to merit the abundant critical attention it invariably receives.

Co-organized by the New Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, William Kentridge, on view through September 16, is an enormous show that plumbs South Africa’s tragic history and examines the country’s more recent, post-Apartheid condition. Themes obsessively recur – of guilt, individual and collective memory/amnesia, fantasy, storytelling, landscape and geography, industrialism and corruption, and class struggle – often as experienced by Kentridge’s two protagonists, businessman Soho Eckstein and artist Felix Teitlebaum. At the core of the exhibition are 11 of the artist’s short films, from his earliest, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), to the brand-new Medicine Chest (2001), produced especially for this retrospective. All employ his signature “additive animation,” in which a moving sequence is created by reworking and re-filming, often hundreds of times, the same drawing. Also on view are more than 60 drawings, many of which are presented alongside associated films, as well as prints, video excerpts from theatre productions designed and directed by Kentridge, and two sculptural installations relating to the films Medicine Chest and Shadow Procession (1999).

While the retrospective shows Kentridge’s graphic work as just one aspect of his multivalent oeuvre, he actually began his artistic career as a printmaker and has even credited printmaking as a major influence on the look and feel of his other work. “The first body of works that I did were prints of different kinds—linocuts, monoprints, and etchings,” Kentridge once wrote. “And the charcoal drawings came out of the etchings rather than the etchings being connected to the charcoal drawings. I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of my work is monochromatic. My colour seeps in, but never has a very prominent place.” Kentridge continues to be a prolific printmaker, and a selection of his recent impressions—including the large-scale relief prints Man Turning Into a Tree (99×40 in.) and Woman Turning Into a Telephone (89×47 in.)—can be seen at Gracie Mansion Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, through July 27. Together the two exhibitions are one of this season’s highlights, and are not to be missed.

After its stint in New York (it opened at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.), William Kentridge will travel, through 2003, to Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and finally Cape Town, South Africa. A beautifully designed, hardcover catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams, and with essays by exhibition co-curators Neal Benezra, Staci Boris, and Dan Cameron, along with Lynne Cooke and Ari Sitas, is available at the New Museum bookstore for $45. Also available for $50 is the brilliant CD-ROMpublished in 1997 by David Krut in Johannesburg, which is an absolute must for true Kentridge fans.

From Art On Paper, July-August 2001, Vol. 5, No. 6.