Review: William Kentridge at MoMA

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By: Caitlin Dover | March 1, 2010—

It’s perplexing, but true: There is only one truly world-class fine artist working today who consistently uses animation. William Kentridge, the South African multimedia artist who is the subject of a well-deserved retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that opened last week, has been making richly detailed short films using stop motion animation since the late 1980s. Anyone who loves both animation and art probably feels two things while watching these films: Sadness that so few other major artists embrace this vivid, expressive medium, and sheer delight in Kentridge’s ability to blur the lines between two traditionally separate visual worlds—animation and fine art—thus generating some of the most rewarding art of any kind in existence.

The exhibition—loosely organized according to themes that appear in Kentridge’s work— includes a quantity of animated shorts (or, as Kentridge dubs them, “drawings for projection”), along with some of the original drawings that were used to make them. There’s also a room full of his set designs for a 2005 production of “The Magic Flute,” plus drawings associated with his latest opera production, “The Nose,” which opens at the Met this Friday. One of the most delightful segments of the show is a collection of films that play with the notion of showing the artist in the act of creation. In one, a blank sheet of paper is the setting, and Kentridge’s moving hands are the only players. They place a coffee cup on the paper, and chase a saucer as it suddenly gains stop-motion life and skitters away; then they pour coffee over the blank page, creating impossibly elegant swirls and plumes.

This is the artistic process as performance. Watching it, one feels embraced by Kentridge’s desire to entertain and communicate—motivations fitting for an artist who began his career in theater. One has the same sensation watching the more sober animated films that he created in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Centered around the character of a cigar-puffing industrialist named Soho Eckstein, these shorts are emotional testaments to the crimes of power, but they never feel manipulative. Eckstein is often shown as a hulking, pinstriped emblem of colonialism, a man who tots up numbers while his workers suffer in the mines; but he does still retain some personhood.

William KentridgeDrawing for the film WEIGHING . . . and WANTING [Soho with Head on Rock]. 1997 Charcoal, pastel, and gouache on paper, 48 1/2 x 63” (123.2 x 160 cm)Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego

© 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: courtesy the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego That’s because Kentridge’s work is, at its core, deeply human. This is true of his subject matter, which, for many years, delved into the ethical and philosophic toll of apartheid. But it’s also true of his practice. Kentridge draws the images for most of his films using charcoal; he adds to and erases his drawings and films each alteration, often working without a script or storyboard. This laborious stop-motion process makes viewers constantly aware of the artist’s hand at work, but it never takes away from the flow of skillfully rendered images arranged and framed by an expert cinematic eye. When a puff of smoke turns into a bell that Eckstein rings to summon his morning coffee, it feels like a perfectly executed magic trick: We see the magician working, but we also believe the seamless effect he’s produced. While mainstream animation glories in the (often stunning) effects made possible by software, Kentridge shows how much power lies in that suspension of disbelief, and in the hand’s mark on the page. This exhibition presents a rare opportunity to experience his achievement, and to celebrate it.

William KentridgeDrawing for the film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old [Soho and Mrs. Eckstein in Pool]. 1991Charcoal and pastel on paper, 47 1/4 x 59” (120 x 150 cm)Collection of the artist© 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist

William KentridgeStill from Invisible Mending from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. 200335mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video, 1:20 minThe Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, and David Rockefeller in honor of Peter Haas© 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist William Kentridge.Nose 13 from Nose. 2008.One aquatint, drypoint, and engraving from a series of thirty prints, plate: 5 13/16 x 7 13/16″ (14.7 x 19.8 cm), sheet: 13 3/4 x 15 3/4″ (35 x 40 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Patricia P. Irgens Larsen Foundation Fund.© 2010 William Kentridge