When artist Titus Kaphar left New York City for New Haven, his friends made sure he knew: “ ‘Your career is over,’ ” Kaphar remembers their saying. “ ‘What’re you doing? You’re leaving the mecca! ’”
New Haven, nicknamed the Elm City, was not the Concrete Jungle. And that was the point: It had fertile soil in which Kaphar has since raised a family, emerged as an eminent American visual artist, and, in turn, helped water a sprouting arts scene.
Now Kaphar’s influence is being recognized. The 42-year-old has been awarded the 2018 Rappaport Prize by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, a $25,000 annual prize given to an artist with a proven record of achievement and a strong connection to New England.
“Titus represents the exact kind of artist we want to celebrate, an artist engaged in social issues who makes strongly visual work,” said John Ravenal, the deCordova’s executive director. “He’s a powerful advocate in his art and his actions.”
A visual artist and a social critic, Kaphar is known for using styles and quotations from canonical paintings to question inequalities in the history of art. His paintings might look like copies of well-known works, but they include crucial revisions, additions, and subtractions that are both arresting and illuminating.
“My work deals with history directly,” Kaphar said in a recent phone interview. “Coming to New England, seeing the history of this place, seeing the beautiful architecture that’s been around for hundreds of years, was mind-blowing for me. It was a direct inspiration for the work.”
One painting, “Absconded From the Household of the President of the United States,” buries a portrait of George Washington beneath a fall of rusted nails and shredded yellow paper. It’s an advertisement, from 1796, promising a reward of $10 “for the capture of Oney Judge,” a fugitive slave owned by the first president.
Another work, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” on display at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., turns a painting of Thomas Jefferson into a curtain partially covering the portrait of a black woman. The painting-sculpture is a literal representation of how American artists have valorized a pantheon of heroes and relegated other, less-recognized persons to the background.
Kaphar said that the work has been damaged by museum patrons three times.
“We are steeped in history here [in New England]. But we are steeped in history told from a very specific perspective,” Kaphar said. “My approach attempts to add another voice to what has been a monologue. It tries to introduce a conversation that was always there but was silenced, understated, and by and large ignored.”
The Rappaport Prize, established in 2000, is selected by Ravenal and deCordova curators. They do not accept applications from artists; prize recipients do not know that they had been considered for the prize until they win. Recent winners include Sam Durant, Barkley Hendricks, and Matt Saunders.
The $25,000 prize, endowed by the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation, is open-ended, freeing artists to use the funds however they wish. Kaphar said he plans to use the money for his ongoing “Monumental Inversions ” project, which uses sculpture to address civic issues like the legacy of slavery.
Kaphar said he doesn’t want to erase repellent representations of history, reminders of what he called “the horrors of our past.” Instead, he said he wants to use art to build upon and complicate public narratives.
“If you talk to artists, you see a desire to make new monuments that contend with old monuments, ones that can do battle with historic injustices represented in bronze and steel,” Kaphar said. “These monuments represent the period at the end of the sentence. I believe monuments should be thought of as commas. Because every generation is going to need to add a subclause to the last one.”
Born in Kalamazoo, Mich., Kaphar received a bachelor of fine arts from San Jose State University, in 2001, and a master of fine arts from Yale, in 2006.
He will deliver the Rappaport Prize Lecture on Oct. 30. Tickets are available on the deCordova website.
Kaphar said he was excited and surprised to have won.
“I had no idea,” he said about hearing the news. “It was definitely the best phone call of the year.”
Graham Ambrose can be reached at graham.ambrose