All art is political, not just art that “overtly deals with politics,” as one celebrity curator recently defined it. In fact, much of the work we currently call political is political in subject matter only. Its message is ardent, if obvious, but its form is generally conservative, often regressive, and rarely original. If it weren’t about the “right” things, most of this art would be seen as reactionary or dull. Picasso mainly painted still lives and nudes; Warhol, flowers and faces. Matisse claimed painting should be a “comfortable armchair,” and Donald Judd made boxes. Yet all are revolutionary because they changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. The sooner we grasp this, the sooner the big, well-funded extravaganzas of contemporary art will stop resembling movable cultural cargo cults.
These days you can’t walk into a biennial, triennial, international, or Documenta and not see one of several pre-approved artists working one political front or another. Not to shoot the messenger or question his integrity, but since his splashy coming-out at Documenta X, in 1997—when the American art world first discovered his work—William Kentridge has been one of these artists.
At the time, Kentridge was already a highly accomplished white South African artist, widely recognized on his own continent and in Europe. Now, at 47, he’s ubiquitous on the world stage, a darling of the curators. Since his Documenta X eureka moment, in addition to having had nearly 30 solo shows, half of them in museums, he’s been in the Venice, São Paulo, Istanbul, Shanghai, Havana, and Kwangju biennials, was nominated for the 1998 Hugo Boss Prize, and won the top prize at the 2000 Carnegie International. His current exhibition is his fifth New York solo in four years. It consists of one 11-minute film, titled Zeno Writing, and 60 works on paper. The impression this show leaves is of Kentridge in trouble—simultaneously on automatic pilot and attempting to go from being a festival to a gallery artist. This is not a pretty sight, although it is an instructive one.
In spite of the charged subject matter, Kentridge’s drawings are fairly conventional. Unvaryingly done in smudgy black charcoal on biggish sheets of white, black, or lined paper, these works are somber and earnest. Kentridge is a skilled draftsman; all the drawings here have a velvety touch and a refined if awkward grandeur. The ones of surreal machines are whimsical; the landscapes, romantic. But Kentridge’s hand is heavy, his line stout. His drawings aren’t that different from academic figuration or illustration, and bear a strong resemblance to 1980s neo-expressionism, a style many of the curators who love Kentridge openly disdain.
The magic in Kentridge’s art happens when he animates these drawings and tells South Africa’s agonized history, as he’s done since 1989. Then they’re hypnotic, like Leon Golub, Sue Coe, or Kathe Kollwitz scripted by Kafka. Animation sets Kentridge’s hand free and turns his drabness otherworldly. In a typical sequence, a line might meander across the screen, do a gentle loop, fade, reappear, then turn into a wrought-iron fence enclosing a crowd. Crowds morph into buildings, beds, and quarries. Sooty skies turn into city streets.
Although his films tend to blend together, and many resemble the shorts seen between PBS shows, Kentridge’s technique is captivating. Until I saw Zeno Writing, which premiered at last summer’s Documenta XI, I thought that even if they were about weather, landscapes, or only elephants—if he were merely to tell the story of a shopkeeper, and not apartheid—Kentridge’s films would still entice.
I was wrong. In Zeno Writing, which is based on a 1923 short story by Italo Svevo, Kentridge employs his familiar vocabulary of torn-paper silhouettes and archival footage, but he abandons his apartheid story and the cast of characters he told it through. This would be fine, except he also eschews too much of his wonderful animation technique. True, a few featureless people move about barren landscapes or circle one another in desolate bedrooms; lists and ledgers arise and dissolve; hymns are heard. But the overall effect is simplistic, overbearing, and boring.
Kentridge’s art has always been stodgy, but his Brechtian theatricality and mesmerizing method saved him. Zeno Writing casts a disquieting light on his previous work, and is flawed in ways that are both hackneyed and mawkish. He splices together documentary footage of foot soldiers, battleships, explosions, and combat, inserting pompous subtitles like “Smoke. Ashes. Where are they now?” Despite his gift for synthesizing sound and image, here Kentridge veers dangerously close to sentimentalism.
Kentridge is trying to expand his art, not just tell the same story. He wants to do more than aestheticize other people’s pain. But the melodrama and pretentiousness of Festivalism are unmistakable in Zeno Writing. Without an obvious political subject, familiar narrative, and his animated bag of tricks, Kentridge’s art feels adrift. This film may play well on the circuit, but the history Kentridge is drawing is no longer his own. The ethical tension and poetry of his previous work have here turned pedantic and border on self-parody.