William Kentridge at SFMOMA
In the catalog for “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” a major survey now showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the artist writes: “[B]efore the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture), a different, invisible work must be done. A kind of minimalist theater work of the drawing involving an empty space, a protagonist (the artist walking, or pacing, or stuck immobile), and an antagonist (the paper on the wall).”
Kentridge, a South African artist, has worked in and as theater. Most of his works are rich charcoal drawings and animations based on those drawings (though he creates other film projects and sculptural forms, as well). He refers to his animations as “drawings for projection”, and they are essentially performative works. He draws, photographs the images, then erases some of the original image and redraws over it, creating sequences and motion over time.
Kentridge, who grew up studying drawing, also spent a chunk of his life in the theater. He attempted a career as an actor but didn’t find a lot of success and says he felt isolated working only on the performance aspects of a production. In the mid-1980s he went back to visual art. “It was a critical time of assessing what it is I do well,” he said in a 2008 interview with Michael Auping included in the exhibit catalog. “I started working with charcoal and on a larger scale. Eventually, as I worked through the drawing, doing what I felt most comfortable doing, it began to develop into films, installations, and theater situations.”
For those new to Kentridge’s work, it may be a challenge to identify the personal references and iconography at play in his “five themes.” His “characters” are mostly fictional figures, taken from opera, experimental theater or of his own invention.
His more recent works harken back to his days doing absurdist, political theater; “Ubu and the Procession” is based on Ubu Rex, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s play. Other “theater situations” include the images and pre-production work he’s done for the opera, such as Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Next year, he’ll bring his production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose” to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and he has the videos he’s produced for the opera in the current exhibition. Last week, the Seattle-based Pacific Operaworks brought Kentridge’s version of “The Return of Ulysses” to SFMOMA.
But among all the characters, the one real person Kentridge displays is himself, at work in his studio, actually doing his work — which is the real theater of his art and the reason to check out his creations. “William Kentridge: Five Themes” is at SFMOMA through May 31.