MILWAUKEE — William Kentridge is a stout man with a prominent nose, a high forehead, and a silky South African accent. He often wears a button-down white cotton shirt, somewhat wrinkled. Reading glasses dangle from a cord, moving to and fro from chest to bridge, with the fluid animation for which he is known. His nose has starred in a musical theater production based on a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, staged at the Metropolitan Opera. Like many elements in Kentridge’s art, the nose — well-designed, idiosyncratic, functional — becomes warmly symbolic of larger, polarizing historical and political forces through a whirlwind process of drawing, animating, scoring, filming, and staging.

See for Yourself, a major exhibition pulled from the private collection of a Milwaukee-based couple, Jan Serr and John Shannon, brought Kentridge and his entourage of actors and musicians to town recently. The collectors, who first built an art storage facility and then opened a private 4,000-square-foot museum called The Warehouse Art Museum (WAM), believe that they own more works by the artist than any other private individual in the United States. While Milwaukee might seem like a modest locus to host the weight of Kentridge’s South African, anti-apartheid, historical outrage, one of his characteristics is shapeshifting: his flickering narratives meld to the human conditions of any circumstance or locale because suffering and survival, conflict and accord, are universals. 

In addition to the WAM show, Kentridge is currently the subject of solo exhibitions in Los Angeles and London. The Broad Museum in LA is showing 130 works along with the artist’s five-channel video “The Refusal of Time” (2012). In London, the Royal Academy of Arts is presenting the largest exhibition of Kentridge’s work ever staged in the UK.

What’s all the fuss about William Kentridge? Foremost, he is an artist who addresses global problems through dynamic rather than pedantic methods. Infusions of good-natured playfulness keep weighty messages buoyant and enticing. Secondly, he is an artist with the rare quality of privileging the simple, primal act of drawing while still straddling the scale and complexities of theatrical and multi-channel video productions. Because his work is tethered to humility and a generosity toward audience engagement, Kentridge can float from slapstick to erudition in the blink of an eye. But underneath it all, as stated by Ed Schad, curator of The Broad exhibition, is racial reckoning, the illumination and dismantling of structures of oppression, and a crucial analysis of how stories are told and by whom. 

William Kentridge, “Lampedusa” (2017), woodcut, 81 1/2 × 46 inches

Kentridge is an artist invested in process rather than product. He’s spoken of walking around his studio, circling and pacing, as a way to summon ideas. That locomotion mirrors the motion of the hand that puts charcoal to paper in endlessly expressive, whimsically dramatic fissures of assault and erasure. Kentridge works with the nonprofit Centre for the Less Good Idea, which he founded in Johannesburg. This theater think tank privileges fluid experimentation and intuition as modes of discovery. At a lecture in conjunction with See for Yourself, at WAM, he commented that a script, a plan, or a good idea might be useful tools for some artists, but not for him. The mess of uncharted trial and failure, he says, provides momentum. Meaning emerges out of process. It cannot be pre-ordained. It is important, he said, “to be open to what you yourself don’t know.” He speaks of the studio as a place of practical questions where ideas are fragmented and reconstructed with trust that the “process shows you who you are … the process offers lessons of the self.” 

The exhibition spans 47 years and presents 100 objects, mostly works on paper, that the Shannons have been collecting since they first saw a set of Kentridge etchings at a gallery in Washington DC in 1997. A linoleum cut from 1975 based on a photograph depicts three generations of his Lithuanian Jewish family gathered at a resort. The date of the photograph is printed at the top, “1933,” with the 33 reversed, suggesting the inversion of reason as Hitler gained power. Already at age 20, Kentridge was a clever guy.

Adaptations of staging or seeing devices, such as anamorphic drawings that compress distorted images into accurate reflections in mirrored cylinders, reveal Kentridge’s love of devices that are transmitters or conduits. The phone, megaphone, typewriter, or a stereoscope, as well as the nose, symbolically connect the material and immaterial (ideas, language, sound). A limited edition set of shiny tea cups (2008) becomes a tiny theater as images drawn on the saucers are reflected on the cups, like an analog projection. Much of his work invites the viewer to participate by making us conscious of how our senses work and how our brains process data. The audience ignites the objects. In an exhibition such as this, which consists of mostly small-scale black and white works on paper, this viewer engagement almost magically awakens the sleepy room.

William Kentridge, set of 6 demi-tasse cups and saucers (2008), ceramic cups with mirrored glaze; ceramic saucers with transfer illustration, produced for the Illy Art Collection

Because Kentridge’s oeuvre has gained much of its impact through large-scale video and theater productions, a quiet show like this feels pious, as if a dedicated supplicant followed the artist through life with a basket, gathering shards and memorabilia. I guess that’s what collecting art is. It makes sense that Kentridge’s work would appeal to John Shannon, an erudite Harvard business major with a love for the Classics, experimental music, literature, and art. The manner in which Kentridge nests meaning — fusing historic specificity to broad metaphoric content about seeing, the body, political greed, and the immaterial nature of pain — mirrors Shannon’s own polyglot interests. Because of the intimacy of the works presented, Shannon said in a TV interview that entering the exhibition feels like entering the artist’s studio, offering almost a private glimpse of his working process. When Kentridge toured the show, Shannon noted that he walked through slowly, telling stories about each piece.

The most memorable works in the show are the largest. In “Refugees (You Will Find No Other Seas)” (2017), he has made 36 aquatint etchings on handmade paper and then mounted them to raw cotton to form one image. A boat, overloaded with individuals fleeing their homeland, reads as a loose, smudged composition — the weight of the mark-making matching that of the voyager’s desperate, precarious quest. The piece is meant to be folded and then tied in a bundle, mirroring the small packages the refugees might carry. Even when Kentridge’s work is not technically animated, it retains a sense of animation, shifting shapes and pooling references. Another complex piece, “Lampedusa” (2017), is a woodblock print of a female figure carved from varying types of wood in 28 separate pieces that are assembled like a collage with 47 pushpins. Lampedusa is an island off Sicily, the closest landmass for the refugees in the nearby boat. The female figure is drawn in the shape of the island. 

My favorite work in the show presents one of Kentridge’s lifelong themes: a procession. “Portage” (2000) is an accordion-folded book with torn black paper figures marching in a pageant or exodus. They dance, carry objects, and trudge along. Each person’s posture is like a letter in the alphabet, and indeed, Kentridge stages this march on the pages of an old book, Le Petit Larousse, a French dictionary published in 1906. At the core of the artist’s magnanimous practice is simplicity, a return to the elements and assertion of the small gesture. And yet this book can expand and contract. It is ready to be hidden or stored, or to stretch into a gleeful victory march. It goes backward and forward, just like Kentridge himself. 

William Kentridge, “Portage” (2000), Chine-colle of black Canson paper on pages from Le Petit Larousse Illustrated (c. 1906) mounted on Arches Creme paper, folded as a leporello, page: 10 13/14 x 9 1/2, unfolded: 10 13/16 x 166 9/16 inches
William Kentridge, “Muizenbert, 1933” (1975), linoleum print

William Kentridge: See for Yourself continues at the Warehouse Art Museum (1635 West St. Paul Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) through December 19. The exhibition was curated by Melanie Herzog. 

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Debra Brehmer

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.

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