NORTH ADAMS — Near the bottom of a big industrial stairwell at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, an apparition rises in ghostly defiance, a pale spectre etched on glass. Behind her a dark pit yaws, its contours riven like the topographical map of a deep, unknowable valley.
It makes for a jarring encounter, off to the side of a long-standing show of dryly angular Sol Lewitt sculptures and down a corridor from the playful forms of Louise Bourgeois. This is a plainspoken, forthright work; the abyss at the woman’s back seems dying to swallow her, but she’s having none of it. In fact, she’s only just barely escaped its gravitational pull.
History can be like that — carefully carved to be full of dark corners, designed from the first to absorb all attempts at illumination. For Titus Kaphar, who made this work, those very shadows are begging for the floodlights.
Step back, until that black hole starts to fall into the familiar form of Thomas Jefferson, captured in profile. You wouldn’t be wrong to suddenly see in that ghostly figure Jefferson’s slave and longtime lover Sally Hemings, who bore him children, their lineage kept secret for centuries. And while that’s part of it, it’s not so simple. How many Hemingses has history kept shrouded in darkness? What are the secrets kept by the powerful at the expense of the powerless, their strategic omissions, their lies?
That shadowy realm has been the raw material of half a career’s worth of work for Kaphar, 42, who in 2018 all but ensured himself a strong second act. In October, the New Haven-based artist, who is African-American, received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship — the proverbial “genius” grant — and all that comes with it: $625,000 doled out over five years, with no strings attached, but for the ones, perhaps, an artist ties to him or herself. (In August he was also awarded the $25,000 Rappaport prize by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum).
“Genius” is no small title to live up to, particularly when you consider some that have gone before. Kaphar joins a lineage of African-American artists whose work has shed light on hidden histories: Mark Bradford, the Los Angeles-based African-American painter and 2007 fellow, who most recently represented the United States at the Venice Biennale (in a show presented by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University), or Kara Walker, class of 1997, whose incendiary work around the gruesome history of American slavery came to set a standard for formal genius coupled with a fiery activist agenda (Walker’s best-known work, folksy cut-out mise-en-scènes cast entirely in silhouette, are unflinching in their portrayal of violence and abuse, master to slave). Fred Wilson, named in 1999, made his name diving deep into museum collections, recombining staid objects into damning displays that interrogated the selective exclusions of museums themselves, and the skewed history they represented. And 2013 fellow Carrie Mae Weems’s documentary-style works together form a quietly searing catalog of racial inequity.
This is common ground for Kaphar, who grapples in his work with both the specifics of art history and the broader churn of history in general. In one series of paintings, heroic portraits of historical figures crumple or drape away from the frame to reveal a portrait of a black figure behind (one, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” from 2014, seems the antecedent for the Mass MoCA piece, with its portrait of Jefferson dangling by one corner, a weary-looking black woman staring out from behind).
Others cannily poke at the erasures of modernism — a fresh start, the playing field leveled, or so they said — in which Kaphar obscures, with gestural white swipes, images of black men. It’s a powerful evocation — it made me think of Franz Kline’s black compositions cast in negative, undermining Abstract Expressionism’s pretense of purity with the very fair critique that it was an art, in its dominance, that obscured more than it revealed.
One of them, “Yet Another Fight for Remembrance,” in which a crowd of black protesters stand shoulder to shoulder with hands in the air in a fury of white streaks, stops you flat. It was commissioned by Time magazine as a depiction of the Ferguson, Mo., protestors for its “Person of the Year” issue in 2014.
This is rough stuff, yet it’s plied with seductive grace. Kaphar’s ideas find form with a sure hand. When he constructs an homage to Velazquez — his 2018 piece “Menina” — that shrouds one figure to focus your attention on a black child, it’s no painterly reach. He makes me think of Kehinde Wiley, whose dizzyingly precise and accomplished works lionize everyday African-Americans as though they were the heroic figures of long-ago history paintings (think of Jacques Louis David or Eugene Delacroix), though there’s something more urgent happening here. Where Wiley’s work feels celebratory, joyfully righting wrongs, Kaphar digs deep at the root of things, exhuming incomplete records to make his own insistent amendments.
Consider the work at Mass MoCA a prelude. This spring, when Mass MoCA opens “Suffering from Realness,” a group exhibition with some 16 artists, Kaphar becomes something of the headliner (his extraordinary 2018 work “Seeing Through Time 2,” in which the aristocratic form of a European woman being offered pearls by one of her black slaves has been excised to reveal the troubled gaze of a young black woman here and now, is the show’s promo image). He’ll move to the center of a conversation here around, as the museum puts it, “the ways in which artists use the body to grasp at and re-center the ‘aura of realness’ in an age of uncertainty.” Another way to think of it: All the heady deflections of an art world long built on blithe exclusion serve as poor cover for simply what was, and continues to be. Kaphar suffers not from realness — he embraces it for the fuller, troubling and richer thing it is.
Language of the Forgotten
Suffering from Realness
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, now and opening April 13, respectively. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org