Printmaker? Animator? Set designer? In the grand style of the avant-garde, the artist William Kentridge has always moved across materials and media. A charcoal drawing may become an image in a stop-motion animated film; erased and re-drawn, the new image becomes the film’s next projected frame as well as an evolving work on paper. Layers of mark-making and visual quotation accumulate into both art and artifact in this reverberating oeuvre, which draws on a wide range of modernist idioms. Vestiges of Dada, Expressionism, and Constructivism (favorite Kentridge motifs include typography, mouths, and megaphones) all inform the unmistakable language of this innovative South African artist.
The challenge for the curator is how to get a handle on this wandering body of work. Kentridge exhibitions tend to go for a bit—or a lot—of everything. His startling set designs for his productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s The Nose, or Berg’s Lulu may appear in the gallery as animated maquettes. Or the museum may become a theater of its own. In 2013, New York’s Metropolitan went all in with “The Refusal of Time,” an installation of Kentridge video projections and belching bellows that turned the museum-goer into an active participant in a drama of industrial labor. And last year the Park Avenue Armory featured The Head & the Load, a harrowing performance of music, projection, and shadow that told the lost story of African engagement in the First World War.
Kentridge was raised in a Jewish family of attorneys who famously litigated against the apartheid state. So, while he works in the international language of modernism, his sensitivity to suffering and the wickedness of human behavior is informed by his native South Africa, where he continues to live and observe his country’s many changes. On August 24 and 25, concurrent retrospectives open at two new major institutions in Cape Town. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is showing “Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work.” At the Norval Foundation, which overlooks the stunning Table Mountain National Park, in the Steenberg area of Cape Town, “Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture” presents a survey of Kentridge’s three-dimensional work—a first for this protean artist.
“Most people, when you say Kentridge and sculpture, are surprised,” says Karel Nel, the Norval show’s curator. “But he has been a very innovative sculptor. Many of his images and so-called props have emerged as sculptural objects.” Unlike Kentridge’s immersive shows, the Norval exhibition promises to present a “much more distilled view” of the artist, says Nel. “One is subsumed in theatrical spaces. I am putting on an exhibition where the works will be isolated in their own right.” Beginning with his student sculpture and continuing on up to his latest suite of massive bronzes, “Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture” is Kentridge on his own, without the surrounding drama. —James Panero