The Murky World of William Kentridge Comes to Frieze New York

Artwork: William Kentridge, In Mockery of Progress (detail), 2015, red watercolor on found pages, 10 ¼ x 14 5/8 in.

“59 Years A Prisoner In This Skin,” South African artist William Kentridge declares in one of thirty images that make up the work In Mockery of Progress (2015). The words are written in block letters drafted in red watercolor on found pages of paper, aggressively asserting itself in the far corner of the Marian Goodman Gallery stand at Frieze New York, commanding the quiet dominance of a Kentridge work.

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“Resist The Attempt To Construct An Argument,” the artist suggests. Just sit back and observe, for in the world of William Kentridge, things get murky, fragmented, and profound quick enough. Here things are—and they are not. The artist reveals, “I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending—an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.”

William Kentridge, Drawings for “Lulu”, 2012-2015, mixed media on paper

Born in Johannesburg in 1955 to a Jewish family, Kentridge was an insider and outsider at the same time. His parents worked as lawyers, defending victims of apartheid, using whatever leverage they had to fight the power. Kentridge absorbed this perspective into his work, always questioning and challenging, rather than simply accepting things as they are.

He observed, “To say that one need art, or politics, that incorporate ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil. However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one’s own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters.”

William Kentridge, Eat Bitterness (detail), 2014, India ink on found pages, 115 1/8 x 57 x 1/16 in.

This understanding underscores the sense of doubt and question that pervades Kentridge’s work, the constant attention paid to the disconcertingly paradoxical nature of life. “Smash the Unhealthy Slogan” and “Find the Less Good Idea” co-exist, the mockery calling attention to the discomfort that complexity brings. There’s a sharp edge that pervades the work, one that embraces discomfort. Kentridge acknowledges, “I am only an artist, my job is to make drawings not to make sense.”

In abandoning the rational, Kentridge is liberated to do as he is wont, as his work Eat Bitterness (2014) beautifully illustrates. In India ink on found pages, the artist plants and leaves his mark with a floral ode. The words “O Sagacious Vegetable” line the top of the piece, underneath which a plant blooms and grows, its leave expanding as it takes hold. And at the bottom of the work, the bold stark words, “Eat Bitterness.” Way to hit the mark.

William Kentridge, Eat Bitterness (detail), 2014, India ink on found pages, 115 1/8 x 57 x 1/16 in.

Kentridge is nothing if not evocative, luring you in with his heavy heart and heavier hand. All things are possible. The mind is left as an afterthought. The work is non-linear and as such, free to be perceive viscerally first. As Kentridge observes, “The absurd, with its rupture of rationality—of conventional ways of seeing the world—is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world.”

All photos: ©Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.