Kara Walker’s very personal introduction to her exhibition, which opens at the SCHIRN in October. With over 650 drawings, snippets, notes, fragments, and writings, the artist is showing her private archive for the first time.
At the outset there was no logic to this show. Born on an impulse to retrieve some part of my own history, I let instinct override intellect—now I am being asked to answer for it. “Just let the work speak for itself!” a voice inside snaps with indignation. With some 650-odd pieces— scraps, notes, drawings, sketches, fragments, and writings—there is a hell of a lot of speaking, screaming, and whispering going on. Oh, but let me overshare, I’ll say more.
I feel a certain wonder not only at this profusion of material, but also at the impulse I had to keep it, in file folders marked “Image Sources” or in archival boxes containing work from the early 1990s through the 2010s. I viewed some of the text-based work as unfit for human consumption after its creation.
Yet I secreted it away, betraying some urge to talk about it later, an urge toward radical openness that any proper and studied artist would prefer to keep in check. There are a multitude of voices in here, and as I picked through groups of watercolors and little collages, I was struck by all the background histories embedded within. I will just talk about the most pertinent one.
It is hubristic to believe that a saved handwritten memo reading: “A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be” taped to my wall should be regarded by me as a monument. I scrawled it in the hope its meaning would become clear to me later. The phrase was initially cartooned onto a long scroll of images and notes from 2012, the entire phrase beginning “The Sweet Sweet Smell of Success and the Stench of Ingratitude … A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be.” The image that accompanies this is that of a Black1 woman, naked, crouched— vomiting on the shoe of an empowered (clothed, pointing, scowling) white man, whose foot is perched on a shoeshine stand.
The implication is that this drawing, in its smallness, is a rejection of blind subservience to patriarchal demands that art and artists cater to the market, to the man, to art history, to scale, or to anything not of her own making. I revel in the contradictory pose of the subservient miss, giving “not what he asked for,” but giving nonetheless. The private drawing satisfies the public urge—a purgative. This phrase is also about the Anti-Art Star who finds more promise in the dark gravitational forces of the Black Hole.
Astronomically a black hole tears apart the known universe; it shakes the foundations of what science can know (and is thus ironically relegated to being “black”) and it is the potential fate of every star in the known heavens. I rediscovered the scroll with this comment fast on the heels of the news about the making of the first recorded image of a black hole—an out of focus capture, but an ultimately fascinating image taken by the Hubble telescope of the distant anomaly. Suddenly the poetic little phrase felt timely, and I rewrote it hastily and taped it to the wall as a reminder that it was ready to come into its own, to do its dark magic, as a title, and as an action.
The action: the haunts from my archive should come out and comingle with new drawings, and perhaps supernova in a Pandora’s boxlike profusion that might tear at my own known universe. That universe includes Art and Identity Politics, my Narrative Impulse, Figuration, Abstraction, Vernacular vs. Fine Art, History Painting, political art movements like the Black Arts Movement or Third-Wave Feminism, ideas about the Personal vs. the Collective, debates about Drawing vs. Painting (vs. choosing to do neither) and many more cosmologies. For me every scrap of paper is the event horizon—the boundary between the ordered world and chaos. The drawing sketch or writing navigates this edge and its permutations.
I will say no more.
I do want to thank everyone involved: Anita Haldemann for organizing and keeping a level head in the presence of so much inventory, and for sharing some amazing historical works in the Kupferstichkabinett of the Basel Kunstmuseum. As ever I thank Brent Sikkema, Scott Briscoe, Meg Malloy, Sascha Feldman, Jim Barber, and registrar Matthew Droege at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York, and Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers in Berlin. Many thanks extended to Allison Calhoun and Barb Smith in my studio for helping to organize the chaos, and assistant-at-large Mike Koller for designing the modular display cases. Also, Gilles Gavillet for the excellent book design. Thanks to Ari Marcopoulos for being my friend and sounding board and partner in crime.