I had one idea walking into the Museum of Modern Art’s William Kentridge: Five Themes, and no ideas walking out.
On ViewMuseum of Modern Art
February 24 – May 17, 2010
The one idea I wanted to explore was Kentridge’s impurity—how his open approach to visual art, performance, and film allows each form to fuel and layer the others. Given the equal footing granted Kentridge’s drawings, prints, collages, theater designs, and projections, the show seems to acknowledge the reality among younger artists that categories were made to be disregarded—albeit in the form of a retrospective showcasing a biennale-sanctioned veteran in his mid-50s.
After viewing the show, however, I left the museum feeling unfocused and mildly vexed. The point of such an enterprise, after all, is to gain some insight into an artist’s body of work, but despite the lucid and handsome exhibition design, moving from wall to vitrine to screen felt like catching smoke. A sense of the artist would vanish almost as soon as it emerged.
And then the fight broke out. No, not at MoMA, unfortunately, but on the subway—the downtown 6, to be exact—that I caught after leaving the museum. The train was so jammed that it was impossible to see what was happening even from a few feet away, but a disagreement between two men quickly escalated into a shouting match with one of the antagonists booming repeatedly, and ominously, “SET IT OFF! SET IT OFF!” Set what off? The threat of potentially lethal, hair-trigger chaos crackled through the car. It was a Tarantino moment, or a Scorsese moment (in his prime), but not—as I thought about it later—a Kentridge moment. (The situation was defused, just as quickly and mysteriously as it arose, by a female voice of reason.)
This may seem like an odd and even unfair juxtaposition, but that fleeting notion served to unpack the issues I was having with William Kentridge: Five Themes, beginning with the title. Four of the five themes—the exception being “Thick Time: Soho and Felix”—relate explicitly to historical predecessors: Alfred Jarry, Mozart, Georges Méliès, Nicolai Gogol, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Add to that list the artist’s overt or indirect channeling of Goya, Francis Bacon, Dziga Vertov, Picasso, Brecht, Daumier, Edward Hopper, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and even Tim Rollins + K.O.S., and you end up with a scrim of references filtering your comprehension of Kentridge’s work, situating it in a self-consciously historical framework that disallows the possibility of perceiving it on its own terms. You see it in tandem with its precedents, placing the artist’s sometimes intense and often melancholy imagery at an arm’s length.
Scorsese and Tarantino, whose knowledge of movie arcana is legendary, may cram their scenes with allusions to other films, but the raw immediacy of their best work delivers such an emotional charge that we absorb it as direct experience first and apprehend its references later. The irony is that Kentridge, a South African whose work deals frequently with the epochal struggle against apartheid, mediates his content to such a degree that the monumental passions of that conflict, its larger-than-life figures and hideous violence, at least in this presentation, feel subsumed in personal symbols and the echoes of aesthetic precursors. This accounts, I feel, for the lack of clarity mentioned above; it’s as if Kentridge’s work slips from our grasp under the weight of its self-imposed pedigree.
It doesn’t have to be this way. From the evidence of the video clips included on the DVD that comes with the exhibition’s lavish catalogue, Kentridge is an artist of masterful whimsy and imagination. His short film from 1985, Vetkoek / Fête Galante—the first to employ multiple reworkings of charcoal drawings to create an animation—is anarchic, silly, and impolite. It couldn’t be farther from “colonial oppression and social conflict, loss, and reconciliation, and the ephemeral nature of both personal and cultural memory,” i.e, the generic concerns that the museum’s press release claims for his work. But it is fresh and alive. The same holds true for the boundless inventiveness manifested in his stage pictures for The Magic Flute and The Nose, two operas redolent in fantasy and wonder.
Fleet-footed caprice, however, can be a hard slog in an institutional culture inflated by high seriousness and grand but empty statements. Kentridge’s animations are intriguing as documents of improvisational image-making, apparently created without scripts or storyboards (though in some instances with pre-planned video assists), but they are also politically ham-fisted, as is the case with his celebrated 9 Drawings for Projection (1989-2003), which are centered around a fictional Johannesburg capitalist with the frankly troubling name of Soho Eckstein. Eckstein is scarcely more developed than the cigar-chewing factory owners of Eisenstein’s Strike; his greed is so profound that images of love and death dissolve into columns of numbers before his eyes. Such Manichean dynamics made for hot agitprop in 1925, and Eisenstein’s montage has never lost its edge. But Kentridge’s outrage, expressed through poetic indirection and languorous dissolves, feels diffuse and impotent. I imagine that a film like Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (the first of the series, completed in 1989) would have had a much different effect if seen soon after it was made, in the years prior to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the subsequent time has reshaped its allegories rather than the other way around.
As I circled the exhibition (which, to address my first question, does succeed in doing justice to the interplay of media despite its reluctance to cut the umbilical cord to MoMA’s modernist canon), I kept returning to two eight-foot-tall linoleum cuts from 2000, “Walking Man” and “Telephone Lady.” Resembling nothing else in the show, they trade Kentridge’s smudgy academic-expressionist drawing style for clean contrasts of black and white, offering depictions of a man whose head is a bifurcated tree trunk and a woman whose upper body is a giant, old-fashioned dial telephone. They have the snap of Soviet graphic design (which Kentridge lovingly evokes in his animations for The Nose) and the crispness of comic-book illustration. They carry no apparent significance beyond their zany imagery and intense interplay of lines, but they possess a magnetism that virtually everything else in the exhibition lacked.
I was later looking through another publication connected with the show, William Kentridge: Trace. Prints from The Museum of Modern Art, in which the artist is quoted as saying “In South Africa, linocut is the primary form of printmaking, because linoleum is a very cheap material and the tools to make it are very easy […] And there’s also a root to linocutting from the various missionaries […] who brought the technique to South Africa and a link to the German Expressionists [whose style] obviously [comes] back to African masks. And so there’s a kind of circularity. It occurred to me that if etching and engraving have to do with the split in northern Europe between the Reformation and other ways of being, then linocutting corresponds to anti-colonialism, certainly in South Africa, to something that comes out of that struggle.”
Sometimes technique contains all the politics you need.