If we don’t amend history by making new images and new representations, we are always going to be excluding ourselves.
Painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and installation artist Titus Kaphar confronts history by dismantling classical structures and styles of visual representation in Western art in order to subvert them. Dislodging entrenched narratives from their status as “past” so as to understand and estimate their impact on the present, he exposes the conceptual underpinnings of contested nationalist histories and colonialist legacies and how they have served to manipulate both cultural and personal identity.
Through the deconstructive techniques of cutting, shredding, stitching, binding, and erasing both subject and support, Kaphar reconstructs new codes and modalities, reckoning on Black possibilities. In Yet Another Fight for Remembrance (2014), he used thick white brushstrokes to obscure the gesturing bodies of a group of African American men in the “Hands up, don’t shoot” position, and then repainted their outlines in black to reassert their formal presence. Thus the painting process itself became the embodiment of the ongoing struggle for social visibility and recognition. During his 2017 TED Talk, Kaphar performed, onstage, the whitewashing of his large-scale painting Shifting the Gaze (2017). Based on Frans Hals’s Family Group in a Landscape (1645–48), which portrays a wealthy Dutch family and their African servant, Kaphar’s version eclipsed the family group with white paint, shifting attention entirely to the presence of this young servant.
Kaphar’s art addresses salient social and political concerns, but it also springs from his own life story. For example, his encounter with his estranged father, Jerome, has led to an ongoing multimedia exploration of the criminal justice system called The Jerome Project (2014–). This series of portraits began with Kaphar’s online discovery of the mug shots of ninety-seven African American men who shared his father’s first and last names. He paints gilded portraits of each man in the style of Byzantine devotional icons, and then dips them in tar. Initially, the depth to which each painting was immersed in tar corresponded to the time that each subject had spent behind bars; in later paintings, this has increased to represent the longer-term implications of social silencing that results from their incarceration.
In works such as Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014) and the series Seeing Through Time (2017–), Kaphar instrumentalizes the visual strategies and methods of key European classicists such as Diego Velázquez, Jacques-Louis David, and Théodore Géricault to rewrite the narratives of cultural empowerment with Black subjects. And just as historical conditions and contexts prompted artists of the twentieth century to generate radical aesthetic concepts and modes—consider the traumatic inspiration of the Second World War for artists globally, from Pablo Picasso and Albert Burri to Ibrahim El-Salahi and Norman Lewis—so is Kaphar’s subject matter responsive to the self-evident anxieties of present-day America. In his latest series of paintings, From a Tropical Space (2019–), he creates a surreal, emotionally intense landscape that is uniquely his own and firmly rooted in the present, drawing on his exhaustive study of nineteenth-century painting techniques. The saturated, artificial coloration of the suburban environments against which women and the silhouettes of their absent children are set both complicates and adds tension to these charged and enigmatic genre scenes. Coincident with renewed sociopolitical energies and content within the broader practice of figurative painting, Kaphar’s images resonate with the turbulent and uncertain times in which we live.
Key to Kaphar’s representation by Gagosian is the gallery’s substantive support for NXTHVN (Next Haven), a nonprofit arts hub that Kaphar founded with Jason Price and Jonathan Brand in 2015 in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. Nurturing creative talent within and beyond the local community, NXTHVN offers fellowships, residencies, and other professional development opportunities to artists, curators, and students. Housed in two repurposed factory buildings, it maintains exhibition and performance spaces in addition to studio and co-working facilities.
Titus Kaphar: Can Beauty Open Our Hearts to Difficult Conversations?
In this TED talk, presented during the sweeping protests against racism and police violence following the killing of George Floyd, Titus Kaphar describes how the beauty of a painting can draw the viewer in and allow difficult conversations to emerge. Kaphar discusses his own work and shares the idea behind NXTHVN, a new national arts model he founded to empower artists of color through education and access.
Seeing the Child: Braiding possibility
Titus Kaphar and Tochi Onyebuchi present an excerpt from their short story “Seeing the Child,” a poetic rumination on Kaphar’s latest body of work, From a Tropical Space (2019–).
Titus Kaphar: In the Studio
Jacoba Urist reports on a recent trip to the artist’s studio in New Haven, Connecticut, to see his new body of work, From a Tropical Space (2019–). She writes on the emotional and sensory impact of these paintings and considers their singular place in Titus Kaphar’s oeuvre.
Titus Kaphar: Intricate Illusion
Bridget R. Cooks investigates the aesthetic and narrative conventions deployed by the artist, demonstrating how his paintings force provocative confrontations with history through complex modes of depiction.
Titus Kaphar: Can Art Amend History?
Join Titus Kaphar as he talks about making paintings and sculptures that wrestle with the struggles of the past while speaking to the diversity and advances of the present. Working onstage, he points to the narratives coded in the language of art history as he creates a new painting, demonstrating how shifting our focus can prompt us to ask questions and confront unspoken truths.
Gagosian and NXTHVN
Three New Programming and Funding Initiatives
Gagosian is pleased to announce three new initiatives in conjunction with its support of NXTHVN in New Haven, Connecticut. First, the gallery will endow the paid NXTHVN Apprenticeship Program for students from local high schools. Second, it will launch a professional development program for NXTHVN Fellows, adding to the organization’s existing education projects through discussions and studio visits with Gagosian staff. Finally, it will offer sales support to Pleading Freedom, an exhibition at the NXTHVN Gallery to raise funds for work toward racial justice.
NXTHVN is a new national arts model established by Titus Kaphar with cofounder and chairman of the board Jason Price and cofounder Jonathan Brand, which empowers artists and curators of color through education and access, mentorship and collaboration. NXTHVN connects high school students, early-career artists, and creative professionals with resources and networks vital to their success.
Left to right: Titus Kaphar, Nico Wheadon, and 2020–21 NXTHVN Fellows, New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: John Dennis, courtesy NXTHVN
Monday, July 13, 2020, 11–11:30am EDT
Joining from his arts incubator NXTHVN in New Haven, Connecticut, Titus Kaphar will speak with Zoé Whitley, director at Chisenhale Gallery in London, live on the Design Emergency Instagram account. The pair will discuss Kaphar’s cover and accompanying written piece for the June 15, 2020, issue of Time, as well the artist’s use of absence as a form of visual expression. Founded by Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn, Design Emergency is an initiative that explores design’s impact on and role in the covid-19 crisis. To watch the live conversation, visit Design Emergency’s Instagram.
Titus Kaphar, From a Tropical Space, 2019 © Titus Kaphar. Photo: Alexander Harding
The June 15, 2020, issue of Time features Titus Kaphar’s Analogous Colors (2020) on its cover, as well as a written piece by the artist to accompany the work, titled “I cannot sell you this painting.” The painting depicts a Black mother holding her child, represented by an empty silhouette. “In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies,” writes Kaphar.
The iconic red border of the cover includes the names of thirty-five Black men and women “whose deaths, in many cases by police, were the result of systemic racism and helped fuel the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” writes D. W. Pine, Time’s creative director. “Their names are merely a fraction of the many more who have lost their lives because of the racist violence that has been part of this nation from its start.”
The cover is available for purchase on the Time Cover Store. The proceeds from sales will benefit Black-led organizations that are committed to advancing justice.
Cover of June 15, 2020, issue of Time, featuring Analogous Colors (2020) by Titus Kaphar. Artwork © Titus Kaphar
Language of the Forgotten
September 11, 2018–March 30, 2020
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts
Through cutting, bending, sculpting, and remixing historical paintings and sculptures, Titus Kaphar often shifts the focus of their narratives to create new works that exist between fiction and quotation. His sculpture Language of the Forgotten depicts a monumental bust of Thomas Jefferson, carved as an inversion into wood, his profile immediately recognizable. Framed against this are portraits of figures etched into glass, standing in for the hundreds of thousands of untold narratives about usurped liberty—most famously brought to light in Jefferson’s case through the story of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman believed to be the mother of his children. The work underscores Kaphar’s interest in history, in particular the question of whose stories get told and which ones get left out.
Titus Kaphar, Language of the Forgotten, 2018, installation view, MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts © Titus Kaphar. Photo: Jonathan Brand
Titus Kaphar in
June 29, 2019–March 22, 2020
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia
Forgotten Soldier explored personal stories of enslaved and free African Americans on both sides of the American Revolution and their contributions toward establishing an independent nation. Documents, artifacts, and artworks, including a new work by Titus Kaphar, traced the experiences of African American soldiers who took part in the American cause for a free nation or took up arms for British forces in hopes of obtaining their own freedom.
Titus Kaphar, Forgotten Soldier, 2019 © Titus Kaphar
Titus Kaphar in
Suffering from Realness
March 31, 2019–February 2, 2020
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts
Suffering from Realness explored the politics of representation and the ways in which artists use the body to grasp at and recenter the “aura of realness” in an age of uncertainty. The artists in this exhibition examine the human condition from all sides, creating works in various mediums that are both personal and universal, addressing racism, violence, gender equality, the politicized body of wartime, the anxious body, the complexity of responsibility, and the future. Work by Titus Kaphar was included.
Titus Kaphar, Seeing Through Time 2, 2018 © Titus Kaphar
A Project by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts
March 31–May 5, 2019
MoMA PS1, New York
Throughout their careers, Titus Kaphar and memoirist, poet, and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts have used their varied mediums to confront the abuses of the criminal justice system. Redaction brought together poetry crafted by Betts from redacted legal documents with Kaphar’s etched portraits of incarcerated individuals, blending the voices of poet and artist with those of plaintiffs and prosecutors, reclaiming lost narratives and drawing attention to some of the many individuals whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration.
Installation view, Redaction: A Project by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts, MoMA PS1, New York, March 31–May 5, 2019. Artwork © Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photo: Matthew Septimus