Soggy Notion

New York

Left: A view of the Central Park Bandshell. (Photo: Tom Powel Imaging) Right: The audience.

On Monday night, I excused myself early from a friend’s book party to go uptown for the Public Art Fund-sponsored screening of William Kentridge’s Nine Drawings for Projection in Central Park, arriving just as an intermittent light rain began to fall. In the otherwise empty park, my companion and I found a few hundred people at the band shell, among them New Museum Director Lisa Phillips, Marian Goodman and almost all of her staff, composer Philip Miller (Kentridge’s longtime collaborator), and the artist himself. Staffers handed out clear plastic ponchos to everyone and, after a twenty-minute delay, the program began with Journey to the Moon, 2003, Kentridge’s eight-minute homage to George Méliès’s early experimental animation of the same name, accompanied by Jill Richards on the piano. The film whimsically mixes animation with live-action footage, and offers a peek at the artist at work in his studio, which transforms into a rocket ship that navigates the night sky and into the pages of an encyclopedia. Kentridge then introduced himself and the classical musicians who would play along with several of the films, telling the story of how he began making animations in 1989 to alleviate the monotony of “exhibiting drawings every eighteen months.” He noted that “Soho Eckstein,” the name of the main character in almost all nine of the films, came to him in a dream, and that since the beginning he has worked without a storyboard or script, using his characters in an allegorical manner akin to the Italian commedia dell’arte. He added that Felix Teitlebaum, his other protagonist, came to him in a dream that included the phrase “Felix Teitlebaum’s anxiety floods half of Central Park”; the irony of the night’s unfortunate weather was not lost on him or the audience members, who laughed appreciatively. Watching what amounted to a mini-retrospective, it became apparent that the richness of that dream still fuels his animated chiaroscuro world. There has been little “progress” in his technique over the years: Drawn lines become slightly more sinewy, the techniques used for panning across the page and pushing the narrative forward become slightly more sophisticated. His favored motifs, among them black phones, black cats, cluttered desks, and people walking through desiccated landscapes, were present from the beginning. The musical accompaniment, which ranged from plaintive to anguished, added emotional punch to the films, several of which were familiar from the artist’s 2001 retrospective.

As the night wore on, the rain intensified, scattering the few who hadn’t taken the ponchos to the cover of nearby trees. Everyone else gamely donned their rain gear, transforming the audience of art-world sophisticates into something resembling the crowd at a Gallagher comedy show, but, notably, hardly anyone left until after the last reel. The audience responded heartily to each short work, their claps mixing with the constant patter of raindrops. At the end of the evening—well past eleven o’clock—the artist, composer, and musicians bowed on stage, and received a well-deserved standing ovation from a crowd whose appreciation was not at all dampened by the meteorological conditions.

Brian Sholis