For years, I introduced art history lessons by addressing the notion of the “canon” of art. Over the past few years, what seemed like a pretty solid concept started to melt away – once orthodox examples like ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Elvis’ – choose your icon or text – started to lack relevance, and certainly any resonance with a new generation. Whether it’s my students, cultural geography, history, technology, or me personally, four-dimensional math is best left to mushrooms and campfires, but it’s still worth worth noting because it concerns our relationship with artists who are crossing generations, and probably paradigms.
Most would still regard the artist William Kentridge as firmly entrenched in the ever-changing list of contemporary canonical practitioners. I, we studied his work 30 years ago. A few days ago I saw a full slate of his projects at the Warehouse Art Museum in Milwaukee titled “See for Yourself” (on view until December 16). It is an extremely diverse spectacle, with prints, drawings, videos, performances (as video artifacts,) objects and ephemera. Many will recognize the charcoal drawings with their floating erasures and productive palimpsest stories.
The exhibition, assembled largely from the collection of John Shannon and Jan Serr, and curated by Melanie Herzog, offers a generous look at the deep and sinuous imagination of an omnivorous artist who came to life at a time when what was sought were long-lasting relationships built from viewpoints over years rather than seasons. It was a stark reminder to me that social media is broad, not deep. Individual ingots like Kentridge have been rolled up under the pressure of the internet into a shiny sheet that has broadened the cultural milieu while leaving it much thinner.
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So seeing what is basically an old-fashioned core sample of a stubborn individual life course shook my nerve. Yes, museums continue to do retrospectives of generational artists. I was recently bowled over by Jasper Johns’ two-part tour de force at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art, but it didn’t trigger me at the time. And sometimes you need a trigger. For me, the sprawling expanse of Kentridge made me realize just how much tightly packed, mediocre, punctual imagery I’m subjected to on social media. It looks like a drastic change. The best example of Kentridge’s enduring wisdom is a stop-motion video “Second-Hand Reading,” featuring scenes taking place at the top of the pages of an Oxford English dictionary. With its jumbled and erased designs of text, visual noise, landscapes, abstractions and constantly disturbing moments of tingling metaphorical symbolism, the work is an apt encapsulation of the spirit of the exhibition.
Messages such as “Fixing the Moment” and “Showing and Hideing” appear, flicker, and disappear before one can truly absorb them visually. The video is a hypnotic poetic commentary on human madness, sitting just above its proudest cultural achievement: a book objectifying all of its concepts in an array of abstract symbols. It is a micro-drop of a work. And there are a hundred more pieces in the show with similar, if less comprehensive, ambitions. Describing it in particular would be a bit like talking about the Alps by proposing the difference in altitude of five of its highest peaks. See it for yourself, indeed.
Kentridge is a polymath if there ever was one, part linguistic philosopher, cartoonist, filmmaker, musician, social activist and performer. This grandeur and intellectual heft is abundantly present in the show. Present in the same way as it is with Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol or Paul Simon, and absent for the most part with contemporary musicians on your Spotify “contemporary hits” playlist. You will leave See For Yourself with a deep understanding of this fact. It will leave you with a painful longing for deep dives and extended engagements. With long gasping conversations filled with piercing stares. You’ll remember listening to both sides of a record without checking your phone. I hope you will wonder where your stamina has gone. And where did he go? Put this question in your pantry with your cupcakes.