Letter from Chicago

February 20th, 2013  |  Published in *  |  6 Comments

Letter from Chicago
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago:  MCA DNA: William Kentridge

by  Cynthia M. Kukla

The Drawing Center in New York featured the art work of William Kentridge in 1998, a year after he premiered at Documenta X, Kassel, Germany. The MCA-Chicago first presented the work of South African Kentridge in 2001 in his first American survey and it was during this time period that Kentridge’s star rose in America. Since I first became aware of William Kentridge’s art work, I have been privileged to see his work in the following mediums:  drawings and drawing for stop-action films, collage drawings and hand-made puppets of varying sizes for opera.

Seeing Kentridge’s drawings and stop-action films in various museum exhibitions from that time still call up powerful memories.  When I saw his art at the Drawing Center, I felt that few artists were using the raw power of drawing in such a direct way to make films: drawing, erasing and redrawing elements to move the narrative forward.  People watched his films spellbound.

This most recent MCA exhibition featured two videos: Felix in Exile and History of the Main Complaint, both in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection. At the time of their making, this kind of raw, direct drawing method to create stop-motion animation was surprising.  No bells and whistles, simply beautiful drawing and the ability to make imaginative shifts in scale or form in telling powerful stories of apartheid and its dissolution. Kentridge constructs these films by first filming a drawing, usually a landscape or interior setting.  Then he erases a figure or part of the scene, adding the next element allowing a quarter of a second to two seconds of screen time between changes, before he films the next element he has drawn. He continues this process unrelentingly through the course of a drawing/filming day. A single drawing is altered and filmed this way until the scene ends. He then begins a new tableau, as it were, a fresh sheet of drawing paper where he lays out the basic setting, such as the cluttered office desk of Soho Eckstein, the white South African power broker. Kentridge works in such a unique way, erasing an area of a competent drawing to add a small motion in the eyes, say, then filming and erasing a larger gesture of the arm or of the movement of rioting blacks Eckstein sees from his office window.

Drawing for History of the Main Complaint

This work then, is a palimpsest.  Kentridge is preserving the original drawing and he erases to add new layers on top of it as the ancient Greeks scraped away writings to use the precious parchment to write new verses that were then scraped again (from palin + psēn to rub, scrape.) Compare this emotive, hands-on method to Disney’s cel-shaded animation, and you can see and feel the difference between the conspiratorial method Kentridge deploys and Disney’s seamless fool-the-eye flow.  With Kentridge, we are in on the act.  We can see the ghost head or arm that Kentridge erased.  We follow, our hands and mind can work with him, a step behind, but breathing, caring participants in the process and to the story. His erasure technique gives us generous entry into his mind’s eye and we are riveted. We participate in the ghost images as memory, our own memories, our own vision of what did take place, what should have taken place, of who should have risen up to speak to the rights of the black South Africans or to the hero Felix, who remembered the black woman he loved. The surviving drawings along with the films are displayed all as finished works of art. The use of color is minimal yet powerfully symbolic, blue chalk for water, in Felix’s sink or in the pond on the savannah. A simple and moody soundtrack helps keep things simple and keeps the viewer focused on the story.

At the MCA exhibition, a dozen drawings from the two animated stop-motion films that are in the MCA permanent collection helps us see how Kentridge made his films.  Traces of a man’s head remain in the sky in a drawing that was used for the transition from inside a South African corporate office to the savannah where a black man lays dead and still bleeding. The drawings bear witness to the process.

In the twenty years since Kentridge’s artwork being disseminated to a wide audience, Postmodernism has crested and fallen.  The computer mouse and software are commonplace drawing tools in our post studio/post production era. Artists can and do have manicured hands now. The survey, William Kentridge Museum of Contemporary Art MCA DNA, which opened in the fall and is closing March 17, 2013, might be called “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” I am a champion of classical practices, yet I see the edge gone from these works, compared to current art of enormous scale made by giant scanners and printers outputting photo-based images onto giant swaths of vinyl or coated canvas. Can the human hand compete anymore?

I reflect on this sad fact and compare Kentridge’s rather old-school drawing, (fabulous, deft draftsmanship, good drawing paper, and a graphic punch from primarily black charcoal on white paper) to what appears to be one of the aforementioned giant printed images on the first floor of the MCA. Goshka Macuga’s enormous, Photoshopped tapestry “Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1” seduces with its scale, deception (what, not a photograph, a tapestry?) and confusing/compelling images.  It helps that a cobra rears up dead center among the throngs of different ethnic and cultural groups. The companion tapestry is currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.  Macuga made these two compelling tapestries with the intention that they are never seen together, reinforcing the problems of cultural divides, in this case Afghanistan and Western expectations and traditions. These tapestries were commissioned by dOCUMENTA 13 where they were on view before coming to Chicago. There is no point ringing hands, we most of us use digital technology throughout the day. We love the photographs our Smartphones and laptops offer up.  Our eyes are covered with scales (pixels?)

But wait! Kentridge has made Tapestries!

The Portage collage drawings that were made specifically for the Museum of Contemporary Art when it presented Kentridge’s 2001 survey, form the basis of Kentridge’s recent large-scale tapestries. The MCA commissioned the collages made by simple torn-black paper images collaged onto old 19th century book pages of maps.  The torn back paper formed crude figures and apparati. The horizontal-format Portage series is intimate, about 12 inches high each, with a length about double the height.  Apparently inspired by the graphic impact of these collage drawings, Kentridge worked with South African Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg established by Marguerite Stephens in 1963 to make about eleven tapestries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited them in early 2008. Roberta Smith’s exhibition review finds: “True to their name, the porters are moving stuff. They are nomads, refugees, asylum seekers or maybe even adventurers. They seem more industrious than driven, but mostly they are on the move, set in motion by forces beyond their control. They are universal, but you could locate them at any point on the maps, and they would become specific, displaced by this or that invasion, liberation, revolution, colonialism or economic crisis.”  The tapestries vary in sizes but are between 7.5 by 12 feet, some vertical, others horizontal. I wish I had seen these works, especially given Kentridge’s special attention to subtle dye colors of these seemingly black, white and gray tapestries and to the tapestry studio’s use of mohair (goat hair,) silk and embroidery.  Reviews suggest they are beautiful. I imagine they would hold up to Macuga’s Photoshopped tapestry. There is a point where we want to see the hand involved, romantic as that sounds.  The journalistic basis of black and white photography, photography’s overuse and Photoshops’s often trite interventions may in the end undermine the authority of many current post studio/post production practices. Maybe Kentridge wins after all.

Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and professor of art currently living in Illinois.



  1. Brandy Larson says:

    February 26th, 2013at 11:58 am(#)

    Thanks for sharing your research and observations on the nuts and bolts of how of Kentridge made his stop action films in this collection of works at end point of his labor.

    I share your observations – appreciation of the artist’s (master’s) hand, combined with the ever present technology dominating today’s art world.

    At the risk of sounding passe, technology can’t ever assume the substruction and nuance of an artist’s mind, process and hand.

    I am intrigued by the tapestries, more akin to my own creative interest, and appreciate the monumental scale of these works.

  2. Cynthia Kukla says:

    March 3rd, 2013at 7:44 pm(#)

    Brandy, many thanks. Nuance is a great word to cover the point of hand-wrought vs computer-generated.

  3. Ashley Kagan says:

    March 24th, 2013at 10:12 pm(#)

    A beautiful drawing will have to compete with technological art today- film, photography, photoshop, lights, etc. It becomes increasingly difficult to make a drawing stand out amongst such flashy and over whelming technology based art. Therefore, an artist must render something amazing that has the ability to withstand technology based art.
    Kentridge was very clever about doing just that. He incorporated technology into his drawings by creating these stop-action films. Of course there have been films made from illustration before, however, Kentridge’s films stand out because he was able to merge technology and drawing while still keeping them separate. Drawings from scenes in his films were on the wall at the MCA. I viewed these before watching his stop-action films. His drawings are beautiful and can stand alone. But to compete with technology based art, Kentridge merges these drawings into film. What stands out most to the viewer is the fact that these drawings are being constructed and deconstructed right before their eye. It’s almost as if one could feel Kentridge’s presence in the film as he, personally, guides his audience through his narrative.

  4. Cynthia Kukla says:

    March 27th, 2013at 10:12 am(#)

    This is a perfect analysis, Ashley. You are making his efforts vivid and alive in our contemporary millieu.

  5. Lauren Wozniak says:

    April 15th, 2013at 10:22 pm(#)

    In reference to the question, “Can the human hand compete anymore?”

    Of course! There is such beauty and life that comes out of a handmade mark regardless if it is created with ink, paint, pencils, or even clay. The hand creates such an organic and pure form of expression that no machine could hold up to. Art – to a lot of artists – is about expressing an idea or statement that they have. They want to put their word out there, and what good would it be to use a piece of equipment to produce this visual statement? Using your own hand is personal and intimate because it is the artist’s hand and no one else. A machine can produce the exact same thing over and over. Like a snowflake, when things are made by hand, that piece of art will never be the exact same as something created before. And that is what makes the human hand so wonderful.

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