Drawing a Crowd

Glen Helfand at the opening of William Kentridge’s survey at SF MoMA

San Francisco

Left: Collector Mimi Haas, artist William Kentridge, and Anne Stanwix. Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and curator Okwui Enwezor. (Except where noted, all photos: Drew Altizer Photography)

A VISIBLE PRESENCE in his drawings and animations, William Kentridge is a sturdy, balding, dadlike guy, a sort of character actor for whom a pratfall comes as easily as a political or artistic statement. He seemed uncannily familiar, dressed in dark pants and a rumpled white dress shirt, when he took to the podium last Friday during the press preview for “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” his survey exhibition at SF MoMA. After thanking the museum, curators, and collaborators, he revealed his theatrical personality to a couple dozen journalists and delegates from forthcoming exhibition tour stops––MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, Michael Auping of the Fort Worth Museum––with his South African lilt and the broad arm gestures of an orchestra conductor.

His hearty disposition was in sharp contrast to the remarks given by the show’s lanky, bespectacled curators, Mark Rosenthal, of the Norton Museum of Art, and SF MoMA’s Rudolf Frieling. They noted Kentridge’s “complex practice,” which, all things considered, must have as much to do with the content of his work as with the large number of projectors in the galleries. (“I’ve gotten a few more gray hairs with this one,” Frieling told me later.) Dealer Marian Goodman, wearing a pink scarf over a purple sweater, watched from the back of the room with an inscrutable expression.

Others, however, were more visibly moved. A few minutes later, I took a quick look at the slickly installed show and caught critics and museum staff smiling broadly at the multichannel projections that combine skillful animations with frequent self-portraits, particularly in Kentridge’s new energetic video sketches (and forthcoming stage designs) for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s The Nose. When I returned that evening for the Director’s Circle reception, even art historian Kaja Silverman seemed tickled as she watched The Magic Flute animations projected on ornate scale-model prosceniums.

Left: Norton Museum of Art curator Mark Rosenthal (left). Right: Matthew Marks director Sabrina Buell, Ratio 3 director Chris Perez, Crown Point Press's Valerie Wade, and SF MoMA's Steve Dye. (Photo: Glen Helfand)

When the reception bars finally opened, conversation turned to Kerry James Marshall’s recently unveiled lobby murals, coloring-book-style compositions dealing with early American presidents and the slave trade. A half dozen people asked me what I thought of them; their own answers were invariably ambivalent. I ran into a dealer who seemed dismayed by the crowd. “Everyone here is over sixty,” he scoffed. Behind him I noticed a harp on a stage, a hint of the lackluster party music to come.

The Director’s Circle crowd, however, wouldn’t be hearing it, as they were on a tight schedule with a mere ninety minutes to heed remarks, wander through the installations, and socialize before dinner was served in a banquet room at the neighboring W Hotel. Finances were on everyone’s minds, as the meal for nearly one hundred guests was sponsored by Christie’s and Chuck Schwab, the financier and self-proclaimed “happy chairman of the board,” who provided opening dinner remarks. Fittingly, the menu was comfort food: meat and potatoes well accented with fried shallots and gorgonzola. There was a polite but hardly electric buzz in the room—even one of the servers called it a “decaf crowd”—so it was nice to hear the rumor that the artist was gunning for an afterparty.

A fraction of the dinner guests took over a North Beach hole-in-the-wall, where a Cuban band tucked into a tiny niche of a stage got the crowd dancing. A few curators brought a spirited presence to the floor––Frieling, Biesenbach, Gary Garrels, and Trevor Smith (of the Peabody Essex Museum) all capably cut the rug. Kentridge and his wife, Anne Stanwix, smoothly twirled through the group, expressing their hearty nimbleness as they worked the room.

Left: Artist Lynn Hershman (right). Right: Okwui Enwezor with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach.