criticismExhibitions
Monday, October 21st, 2013

Old Forms For New Uses: William Kentridge at Marian Goodman and the Met


Exhibitions of William Kentridge at Marian Goodman Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

William Kentridge: Second-hand Reading at Marian Goodman Gallery
September 17 to October 26, 2013
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212-977-7160

In Praise of Shadows: William Kentridge in the Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
26th August, 2013 to 2 February, 2014

Installation shot of William Kentridge: Second-hand Reading at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, September 17-October 26, 2013.  Courtesy of Marina Goodman Gallery

Installation shot of William Kentridge: Second-hand Reading at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, September 17-October 26, 2013. Courtesy of Marina Goodman Gallery

There is a lot to see in Second-hand Reading. And hear. Mounted high at the entrance is Untitled (Drum Machine) (2012), a noisy drum rack. Scattered throughout the front gallery are sculptures, several made of megaphone sentinels: Untitled (Singer Choir/Chorus) (2013), for instance, displays six modified Singer sewing machines with horns attached on a long, narrow table that, when activated, broadcast a common song. On one wall are large ink drawings of African trees on pages torn from an encyclopedia; on another, smaller drawings for Kentridge’s flipbook films. NO IT IS, a triptych of flip book-based films, comprised of Workshop Receipts, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Practical Enquiries (2012), is shown in a sectioned-off gallery on three flat screens. And in the back (South) gallery you find more drawings; Rebus (2013), a set of nine bronze sculptures; and Second-Hand Reading (2013) a seven minute long video with music by Neo Muyanga. In Praise of Shadows, a display at the Metropolitan Museum of works from their collections, is a useful supplement to the experience of these new works, providing an effective record of his earlier development.

Kentridge is fascinated by recycled materials like the dictionary and book pages he draws on; by the old fashioned sewing machines employed in his sculptures; and by the primitive visual technology of the flip book. He works with these archaic materials using self-imposed limitations: making drawings, not painting; mostly using just black, white and gray—the silkscreened Rubics (2013) are in red; creating videos, which are not proper movies. In a broader sense, too, Kentridge is a self-consciously anachronistic artist: his art has nothing directly to do with the 1970s worlds of conceptual art, pop art or minimalism. His magnificent tree drawings could be precursors of Mondrian’s early paintings—and his sculptures might have been made before Duchamp created his readymades. Kentridge speaks to this concern when he links together the components of Second-hand Reading with reference to “requisitioning of old forms for new uses: encyclopedias are supports for drawings, sewing machines and a bicycle become sculpture,” and so on.

William Kentridge, Whichever Page You Open, 2013. Drawing, India ink on Craggs Universal Technological Dictionary, 1826, 80-3/4 x 82-5/8 inches.  Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge, Whichever Page You Open, 2013. Drawing, India ink on Craggs Universal Technological Dictionary, 1826, 80-3/4 x 82-5/8 inches. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

Since South Africa is a modernized capitalist state which until recently had regressive racial politics, I used to believe that Kentridge’s marvelous flipbook-based videos made a political comment. He creatively used old-fashioned materials, I supposed, as an effective way to highlight these contradictions. In my happy memory, his earlier Marian Goodman exhibitions were dominated by the videos, which had marvelous narrative force. His drawings are charming, but they basically are the raw materials for the films—and once you’ve seen five, you’ve seen them all. I liked every part of this exhibition, but this time I was puzzled—for the whole was less than the sum of its parts.  He appeals to a concept of “formal mistranslations,” which creates, he says, “the pressure that imperfect understanding gives to the act of imagination.” He is “taking nonsense and seeing if sense can be constructed from it.” Good enough, but the problem, still, is that this suggestive verbal formulation didn’t inspire a satisfying visual experience- it doesn’t effectively unify this exhibition.  

Looking for more to read?  William Kentridge is one of the most frequently reviewed and discussed artists at artcritical; some fine, early takes elude our usually very efficient tagging system!  Check out our “hub” for William Kentridge.

William Kentridge, Whichever Page You Open, 2013. Drawing, India ink on Craggs Universal Technological Dictionary, 1826, 80-3/4 x 82-5/8 inches.  Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

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