I postponed seeing "William Kentridge: Five Themes" at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach longer than I should have, not because of any preconceived notions about the art but due to a generalized end-of-the-year, end-of-the-decade malaise. Don't you dally similarly — this remarkable exhibition is nearing the end of its brief run. Miss it and you'll miss the show Time magazine art critic Richard Lacayo declared the second-best exhibition in the country this year. (The top show was the New York Metropolitan Museum's Francis Bacon centenary retrospective, which I was also fortunate enough to see. This Lacayo guy knows his stuff.)
"Five Themes" was organized by the Norton and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it debuted in early 2009. It has been on view in only one other American venue — the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — and will appear in only one more, New York's Museum of Modern Art, before heading out of the country to Vienna, Jerusalem, and Amsterdam. This is only fitting for an artist whose work transcends social and political boundaries.
There are about 75 works in the exhibition, which seems small in scale even as, paradoxically, it feels large in scope. Included are animated films, drawings, prints, theater models, sculptures, and artist's books — Kentridge is nothing if not ambitious.
Time also anointed Kentridge one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and you don't have to venture far into "Five Themes" to get the sense of an artist working with big ideas. Then again, that's what most major artists (and even a few minor ones) do. The difference is that Kentridge possesses exceptional dexterity.
Visitors enter the exhibition by way of a small, dimly lit space where two related animated short films play on a screen. I came in on Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) near the beginning, but it doesn't really matter whether you see that or Shadow Procession (1999) first or whether you stumble into either one in the middle. They're equally stunning, and they're short enough — eight and seven minutes, respectively — that you can easily watch one or even both of them more than once. They're that good.
Ubu Tells the Truth takes its title from the influential avant-garde play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, first presented in Paris at the end of the 1800s. In one of a handful of short catalog pieces, the highly articulate Kentridge explains that the film is also what he calls the "residue" of another play, Ubu and the Truth Commission, which merged Jarry's sensibility with elements of South Africa's apartheid-dominated history. (Kentridge, who is South African, has long been involved with theater.) No matter. The circumstances of the film's making fade into insignificance as its imagery unfolds.
Kentridge's hand-drawn animation here is among the most fluid and expressive I have seen. The monstrous, stylized Ubu, as critic Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has observed, "is a particularly powerful metaphor for the insane policy of apartheid, presented by the state as a rational system." In the film, he is subjected to a series of radical morphings that encapsulate not just South Africa's legacy of social turmoil but also the dislocations of other parts of the world.
Shadow Procession establishes a line of figures that will preoccupy Kentridge in many other works as well. Gone is the etching-based animation of Ubu Tells the Truth, replaced by figures that have been torn or cut from dark paper, then animated as silhouettes against the sky. This seemingly endless procession of cutout characters suggests an exodus of refugees, a line of political protesters, even a chain gang. Ubu puts in another appearance, and a whole spectrum of social and political concerns is conjured up. Kentridge has evoked Plato as one frame of reference for the procession in which the characters are on a journey away from false ideology toward true knowledge.
It's a heady mix, with Kentridge expressing his ideas in an array of far-reaching contexts. And reflecting dozens of influences — after going through both exhibition and catalog, I came up with a long list of sources for the artist, who at times seems to have assimilated the entire history of Western culture. Among the influences, direct and indirect, are writers (Cervantes, Nikolai Gogol, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Laurence Sterne), composers (Mozart, Duke Ellington, Dimitri Shostakovich), filmmakers (Bernardo Bertolucci, Luis Buñuel, Georges Méliès, Dziga Vertov), and artists both past (Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas, Albrecht Dürer, Goya, William Hogarth, Picasso) and present (Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra).
The five themes of the title are "Parcours d'Atelier: Artist in the Studio," "Thick Time: Soho and Felix," "Occasional and Residual Hope: Ubu and the Procession," "Sarastro and the Master's Voice: The Magic Flute," and "Learning From the Absurd: The Nose." They're presented in one sequence in the catalog (a knockout book, by the way) and in a slightly altered one in the exhibition, which switches the "Ubu" and "Artist in the Studio" segments. This is problematic, I think. Not that the other four sections are disappointments, but the two little "Ubu" films are so enormously powerful that having them at the beginning leaves the show with nowhere to go but down, even if ever so slightly.
All exhibitions should have such problems. See the extraordinary "Five Themes" before it's gone.