“Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting,” Willem DeKooning said of his fellow abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. “He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again.” In the same way, William Kentridge has revolutionized the practice of drawing.
Using charcoal on paper, repeatedly erased and redrawn, as the vehicle for animation, Kentridge has revolutionized the form and brought it to a new level of regard, as an ambitious and respectable end-in-itself in the contemporary visual arts. In the process, the South African artist has emerged as one of the world’s most prominent and relevant visual artists.
The intense physicality of Kentridge’s work, in which his building up and breaking down of the surface, and his methodical rearrangement of elements, are clearly visible, mirrors the intensity of the content. The stories that unfold within his drawings, films, objects and performances explore complicated social struggles and national histories, as well as the efforts of individuals to locate themselves within these trying circumstances.
A major exhibition of Kentridge’s work, William Kentridge: Five Themes, curated by Mark Rosenthal, adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art, is now touring the United States. The exhibit debuted in San Francisco and traveled to West Palm Beach, where it coincided with Art Basel: Miami Beach. It closed May 17 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Artist and professor Amy Broderick recently spoke by phone with Kentridge, who was at work in his Johannesburg studio. Intelligent and quietly pensive, he shared his thoughts about the risks and rewards of drawing without a plan, and how looking helps us to piece together who we are.
Amy Broderick: Drawing is so often seen as being something personal and intimate, really done by artists for themselves. In making your drawings for projection, were you consciously trying to shift the practice of drawing into a different, more public role?
William Kentridge: No, I think I was drawing because that’s all I could do. I was no good as a painter, so it’s got to be drawing or nothing. But the drawings for projection, those are drawings to be filmed, so they simply had to be of the right scale that I could work with. If they’re too small, then all the lines become too crude. And because there is a lot of erasure in the drawings, the minimum thickness of the line was given by the thickness of an eraser.
So in other words, if I didn’t want there to be a huge white line or huge expanse on a sheet of paper, it had to be a large sheet of paper, so it could register as a relatively fine line. So that it was a coming to terms with the fact that the drawings were about 4 foot-by-5 foot, rather than designed necessarily to work on that scale. But it also changes — when you’re working with your knuckles or your wrist or your arm — the scale of a drawing. If you work really small, then you may be drawing with your knuckles, and that’s when you get very uninteresting.
Broderick: Given the fact that your drawings are so physical and so grand in scale that way, and it seems as if you draw with your whole body, I’m wondering how your theatrical training has influenced the way you use your body when you’re drawing.
Kentridge: Well, I think it does, in the sense that it’s very clear that when the drawings really happen, there are some gestures which are actually the sweep from your waist outwards, and there are some which originate more with your elbow, and some which do happen just in the wrist or the knuckles. But generally speaking, it’s at its best when there is a much less conscious connection between your body and the charcoal, and you take it on trust that somehow your range of muscles is going to get the charcoal to move in the right way, rather than knowing a predetermined path and programming your muscles to move the charcoal along that path. Relaying that somewhere between your eye and the hand, there’s a different intelligence at work.
Broderick: That makes me wonder that when you’re at the paper working, how is your drawing mind different from your everyday mind? How does your frame of mind change when you’re actually in the process of making?
Kentridge: It changes a lot. For example, if I have to sit and work at my desk, sitting at the desk like I’m sitting now, there is a very limited range of ideas that come to me, and all ideas that come are ones that I’ve already had. Some people are able to sit at a table, writers for example, and construct new images and new worlds through their activity of internal contemplation. For me, that’s something that might happen through the physical activity both of drawing at the paper, but particularly with the films with the stalking of the drawing — the walking backwards and forwards, walking around the studio, the approaching the paper, the walking back to the camera, reapproaching the paper — that somewhere in that walk is a generation of ideas.
And secondly, very much from the actual marks on the paper, new ideas suggest themselves, sometimes connected to the drawing that you’re working on, sometimes absolutely connected to a drawing that may come much later in the film, or may not be in the film at all.
Broderick: The way you talk about the physical activity that happens in between the marks that you make, I often think about your drawings, your sheets of paper, the way printmakers think of plates. The way you work them and build them up and break them down.
Kentridge: There is a similarity between printmaking and this kind of drawing. Obviously, with an eraser it’s easier to alter a drawing than it is with a burnisher and scraper to alter an etching, but it’s not essentially different. Both of them are about a built-in provisionality. The image is provisional through quite a late stage in its process. Now, etching requires an interesting division between the drawing and the print, between what you’re are drawing on the plate and what comes back on the print. And there it goes through kind of a strange alchemy of pressure on the etching press. With these drawings for film, you have got the strange alchemy of the drawing, and then the filmic mode, whether it’s captured digitally or captured on celluloid, and then its projection. So in each of them is kind of a distancing that happens between the drawing and the finished object, film in one case, the print in the other. That’s an important kind of syllogism.
Broderick: Thinking about the provisionality and the way these drawings exist to be looked at, I’m struck by how you employ a lot of machines for looking — the camera, the stereoscope, the telescope — and how making animations seems very democratic, since these films can essentially be viewed by vast numbers of people all at once. But on the other hand, when a person looks through one of these machines like a telescope or stereoscope, the view is only available to one person at a time.
Kentridge: That’s an interesting thing you say that the telescope is only there for one person at a time. It is. There’s a strange — not anomaly, because it’s not anomalous at all; it’s the way the world is — the strange separation between objectivity and subjectivity in all, the whole category, of sight. For example, you have one image which people are looking at. That single image is in fact radiating out from itself thousands or an infinite number of possible images for reception, because when your eyes look at an image, that’s one particular viewpoint picking up that image. So it is an individual solo viewing, but as you said, it can be viewed by thousands of people.
And in the same way, the binocular is a very particular viewing instrument that one person looks through. But it’s used as an object when it’s drawn as a metaphor for that gap between the individuality of looking — that is your particular retinas that are picking up the image that is only there for that very specific angle. But everyone around, in other words, has their own unique view which is waiting to be received. Now, for example, it’s a little bit like you’ve got the cloud of the Internet above, and you’ve got your particular screen on which you are looking at it.
I did a project once which involved a projection on a ceiling in Holland, and all the viewers sitting on the floor 20 meters below the ceiling had small mirrors. Now you could either look up to the ceiling, lean your head back, and you’d all be seeing exactly the same image on the ceiling, and it seems like everybody looking at the same thing. Or, everybody could turn inwards to their own particular viewing device, which was the small postcard-sized mirror on which they could see the whole ceiling as well, reduced to the scale of that postcard mirror. So you had both this mixture of a communal looking up into the ceiling and the individualized looking down below.
So, I think the different viewing devices which are present in the work do refer to that, the activity of looking, the kind of the energy you put into looking individually, as well as it obviously being all this democratic emanation of film or an image of the world outwards to everyone.
Broderick: And the way you present your imagery — not just in the mirrored piece that you mentioned, but also in the anamorphic drawings, where you draw a distortion that is made right in reflection — you seem to be asking the viewer to straighten things out for themselves. You seem to trust the viewer.
Kentridge: Well, it’s not just a question about trusting it, because you can’t resist it. That’s a secondary question to what I’ve just been describing, and that has to do with understanding the agency we have with looking. Looking becomes natural. Let’s assume it’s a natural activity — the world is there, it gets received by our eyes, and that’s it. What the anamorphic drawings and the stereoscopic drawings similarly do, is give you a direct anomaly. The stereoscopic drawings are in one way clearer. You know you’re looking at two flat images, which are either drawings or photographs, in my case drawings, and you understand your left retina is seeing one, and your right retina is seeing the other. You know you’re looking at flat drawings. Your brain constructs these two drawings into a three-dimensional image.
Now, when you normally look at the three-dimensional world, it doesn’t seem like your brain is doing anything because it is a three-dimensional world, and you’re seeing it as three-dimensional. But in fact, what your brain is always doing is taking a flat image from your left eye and a flat image from your right eye and constructing this illusion of depth, which does seem to correspond to the way the world is made. So when you do that in a drawing, what you’re bringing attention to is that activity that we do as viewers. In this case it’s in a kind of heightened activity, because we’re aware of the difference between the two- and three-dimensionality between what we are looking at and what our brain is seeing, but it’s decidedly a heightened example of what we do when we look anywhere.
And it’s about making sense of clues that we get visually from our retina. We get a number of different images and clues, but the sense of the world that we get from it, we are constructing continuously. That’s what the anamorphic drawing is about. I mean on the one hand, it’s a trick, it’s a game. You look at the image on the flat table as it’s projected, and it’s completely distorted. In the mirror it looks corrected, and we believe the mirror more than we can believe the table.
Broderick: All this seems to suggest that the world does not necessarily provide us with the true facts, but that we have to create truth in our own mind as we live.
Kentridge: Well, that’s definitely what we do when we’re looking at anything, taking different fragments and constructing possible coherences from them. [We go] backwards in history to understand our story, and in the very moment where we take clues that we’ve got and try to understand what people are saying or what we are looking at, [we anticipate] the future. So I think that is a central thing that I’m interested in.
Broderick: Given the fact that these fragments and memory and loss and our relationship to history, that these are prominent themes in your work, it also seems that the way you make your work with individual marks or fragments of paper becomes a powerful metaphor for that. Even the way ghost images are left on the page when you erase.
Kentridge: The ghost images and those things are sort of a fortunate, I mean, they’re central, but they were in a sense fortunate byproducts. They weren’t things I decided or chose; they were what was left when the work was done. But I certainly think they obviously do carry with them various associations, thematic associations, and then these do become part of the work as well. So at the moment, I’m working a lot with fragmented images constructed out of different pieces put together of ink wash drawings.
I’m not sure yet what the difference is between drawing these on all these different sheets of paper, which I’m doing, or if I simply drew them as one large sheet of paper, but they do feel different. But at the end of the process, maybe it will become clear what the difference is. I am not trying to first work out what the meaning is before the work is done.
Broderick: That’s an interesting approach that you take. I often try to convince my students to enter the process of art making without knowing what’s going to happen. Is that ever a difficult point of view for you to maintain, this idea of entering the work without a plan?
Kentridge: It can be, because sometimes you arrive with rubbish at the end; it doesn’t always turn into sense. Sometimes it does, but sometimes you realize you’re not going anywhere, or the idea of the strategy is stronger than what actually comes out of it. But it certainly for me is an essential strategy to have, to find ways of working in which you cannot anticipate all the elements.
Broderick: Is that part of what prompted you to be an artist, that it is a line of work where that uncertainty is permissible?
Kentridge: Yes. I think it’s a line of work in which uncertainty is permissible, where making up the world or constructing the world is a virtue rather than a vice. If you were, say, a historical scholar, or a lawyer, in both cases one would be thrown out of the profession if one worked as an artist does, which is to allow us all to invent things, to fill in gaps and have a healthy disregard for the authenticity of impulses and sources.
Broderick: And yet do you see any connections between your sense of purpose as an artist and say, your parents’ sense of purpose as lawyers and advocates?
Kentridge: There may be. At the end of the day, it may come down to the somewhat different ways of approaching ideas of truth or knowledge, the one that’s kind of subject to rational dispute at the end, and another way that kind of goes around questions of rational dispute. It’s a question also of saying that without that program of rational reflection and checking, can one still arrive at knowledge? That’s kind of the big open-ended question of all these years of work.
Broderick: In conjunction with that big question, what do you think are the primary ethical or social or even creative responsibilities of visual artists?
Kentridge: The essential responsibility is to work well, and hard, and a lot, and look at the work once it’s made. In the end, the work shows who you are, and you can fool it for a certain time, but if you are a shallow or a pretentious or a vain person, that comes through in the work. If there are other elements to you, then those also come through in the work.
But to try to set the program in advance — to say, this will be my moral program, and this will be the ethical program, this will be the political program — in the end, the bad faith comes through.
Amy Broderick is an artist and writer who currently is associate professor of drawing and painting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. She regularly exhibits and delivers lectures about her work locally and nationally. Visit her at www.amybroderick.com.