PRINT December 2021


Kara Walker, untitled, 1997–99, watercolor and ink on paper, 10 1⁄4 × 7 1⁄8". From the thirteen-part suite Untitled, 1997–99.

KARA WALKER’S TRADEMARK SILHOUETTES are as opaque as the irreducible differences that put the politics in difference. The artist is equally adept at eliciting responses to both. Indeed, Walker’s manifold contribution includes the crises of category irreducible difference typically instigates. An engaged observer is exposed to projections that seem to issue from Walker’s personality at force. So many are the quirks in play that some find the work impenetrable, that it pushes too much other-than-me substance to merit Walker a place under a shared sign. Which is fair. But when an observer’s resistance renders the observation undiscussable, it’s clear how identity-protective viewing can block what flows freely from creative living. Clear enough, anyway, to make the late-1990s effort to banish Walker from the ranks of Black artists look like a rehearsal for the present.

“Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?” “Is this white back-lash, art elitist style?” The questions are Betye Saar’s, issued as part of an illustrated letter-writing campaign launched after Walker was named a 1997 MacArthur Fellow. One option available to Saar, an esteemed Black-art figure, would have been to grant Walker her perspective on a matter of common concern—representation—and move on. The option Saar exercised instead sought to evict Walker from what the elder artist considered an area of omnipotent control. Spotting danger, Saar universalized her private consciousness as traumatized Black consciousness. No account of the episode that I know of (including my own) makes enough of the core art fact at the crux of this transaction: There is difference, even here—enough to argue that we’re talking about a cross-cultural encounter. Saar looking at Walker is an interpersonal communication. As long as Black artists are people, irreducibles are bound to appear. It’s how those unwelcome, inevitable emergences matter that’s made their course through history so endlessly bizarre.

Kara Walker, Untitled, 2008, collage, graphite, and cut paper on paper, 30 × 22".

Walker’s “imagery” took the hit, but there was more than imagery at stake. Her debut, marked by such works as the pricking, jarringly expansive (note the dimensions) The Means to an End . . . A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, 1995, alerted her audience to several indisputable facts. This was major art of palpable originality and unimpeachable quality, pointing in unfamiliar directions, not presuming to say which. Responders foreground the work’s involvements with Blackness and womanhood, yet Walker spoke candidly about her distrust of any collective pieties. Her work as a narrative artist who leaves ample space for observers to inhabit and be creative with and into, does the same. (Walker also found painting, the whole thing of it, thoroughly inhospitable; if in possession of an idea she can’t draw or build on a definitively ambitious art-scale, she waits until she can.) Provoked by the Black artist/Black art ratio and unconvinced by half-hearted critiques of it, Walker was explicit from the first about the art that she didn’t want to make. Off the table was another Image of the Black in Western Art, be it the bad image—deconstructed—or the “positive” kind that levels the playing field for a game that never seems to begin. Everything about her production declined the comforts of a sedate and familiar object, legible from space, comprehensively knowable, well-possessed. She wanted something spacious, particular, and demanding, involved with what the inward eye sees. That eye was voracious, and Walker’s gift astounding. She used it to place “realistic” menageries in the space between the races, where you can’t conceive a fixed and reliable color line or otherwise abstract away interhuman dynamics. And she resourced the twisted temporalities of the historical present, where priors and currents coalesce. Walker’s image brims with transgressions, from aggressive anachronism and taboo sex acts to serialized revenge killing and distressing, convoluted truths about power—manifested by graphic examples, through direct address. This was noticeably important art. And it was a penetratingly novel way to do Black cultural politics, more ambivalent than affirming, and peculiar.

You might say Walker specializes in subjects of collective avoidance. Her stuff seriously problematizes habits endemic to art’s culture that, morally and procedurally, are consistent with enforced separation. She tried to start conversations we still aren’t having: One deals with a radical-chic visuality that promotes the supplying of a market commodity over the practice of an art; another, vastly more important, concerns the reality that real people, with all our weaknesses and needs, lie at the heart of the idea of Black culture. The representational regime that targeted Walker, spearheaded by Saar, is but one example of a kind of identity program where this reality takes a back seat to ready-to-wear words and images for what people are and do. This optic overlooks or elides how Walker changed the terms of Black self-reporting in art, as if such a change brings no difference to the table. Which says a lot about the table. In the lately favored sense of identity—blandly asocial, de-psychologized, congenial to replication—personality is so much unformatted data. (And creativeness equals costly risk.) Above all, identity is innocent—until and unless it’s someone else’s. Still today, then, at a time of unprecedentedly high faith in representation, Black art persists unprepared to accept “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject,” as Stuart Hall well described the situation, already in 1988:

Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that “you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same.” This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity.

Kara Walker, untitled, 2019, ink and watercolor on paper, 11 × 8 1⁄2". From the forty-four-part suite Untitled, 2019.

FOR ALL WALKER’S SUCCESSES, available accounts of her practice poorly reflect the clarity, rigor, and insistent creativity of the thought that powers it. Reading them, you’re astonished by the priority given to talking points that, as searchlights circle prison yards, circle both the work and the rich discourse Walker has elaborated in writings and interviews. Kara Walker, Great American Slavery Artist! Kara Walker: Oh No She Diint! “It hasn’t been about slavery for years!” grumbles one drawing in the artist’s voice, addressing a familiar verbal discharge that fails the work by misprision, conveniently remaking it as the art that Walker would never make, abolishing the confusing conceptual interplays that make the art go. Her art bids one forgo conceptual orientation awhile and take to its stream. It’s a big ask, regularly declined.

It’s easier to subdue art through interpretation by assimilating it one aspect at a time—the very undoing by which much interpretation falsifies its subjects. Walker’s subjects, though, are sex, psyche, race, art, force, narrative, Americanness, the partially past present of each, and death—not infrequently all these simultaneously, played out by ingenious clusters of recurring characters. We refuse serious art when we say it’s about one thing. Nothing is one thing. Serious art avails, distinguishes itself by its breadth of affordances: It does a lot for many; difficulty in saying what it does may be integral to the experience. Diffuse, varying accounts and variously intense experiences register its impact. “It’s for sure to do with sex and race in this country but I can’t say exactly what she’s after” is the sort of report that inspires explainers and deciders. What specifies Walker’s brand of work on limits, how she conducts her singular experiment with the possibility of going beyond them, are the precise, material deliberations she brings to bear on themes routinely communicated in generalities. Complication is a crucial tactic, a process point for noticing—intense but traceable, bearing its own momentum: what is literally meant by “advancing thought.”

Kara Walker, untitled, 2002–2003, collage and ink on paper, 11 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄4". From the thirteen-part suite Untitled, 2002–2003.

If it’s hard to report an experience of Walker’s art in wholes, that’s because hers is an art of parts, an assemblage of mediums, scales, characters, and tones. They emerge continuously, fade in and out of one another, overtake or are overtaken, dip in and out of the real. Their implications play out within and between us, a theater of parts slipping the apartness that specifies logic as snakes slip skins. Nowhere is this clearer than in Walker’s indispensable concept of the “inner plantation,” her solemn challenge to the notion we can comprehend slavery objectively. According to this framework, slavery is at once alive in us and as distinctive as its host, a haunting and a resource—very much part of the usable past, no framework for historicizing Blackness rivals it—yet as susceptible to distortion as anything subjectively perceived, and so not, actually, the only past available for Black people to use. As a consequence, slavery itself cannot escape irreducible difference, and instead shuttles between what it is in impersonal time and what it becomes in the mind. This is how deadly serious Walker is about the ways fantasies complicate facts. As between past and present on the inner plantation, relating never stops in Walker’s pictures of social life: Where costumes, styling, and position would denote role, sometimes-cryptic, usually unorthodox action regularly undermines it. Meaning: Normative pictures of persons welded to identities don’t jell. As if continually to remind the onlooker that “complicated” stands on a Latin base—complicare, “to fold together”—Walker’s art doesn’t happen until legibly different elements combine and combust. What happens then will have you thinking difference differently, according to your capacity.

A woman and a man, both apparently white, pucker up and lean into a chaste kiss—she’s perched in tiptoe stance; he sports coattails and an upturned coif. Faint and featureless, they’re drawn in cool magenta, and their hands touch in a washy, hard-to-read passage that implies nonexistent connection. Beneath them, a young Black woman, very much faced, stares out in disbelieving exasperation while jerking off the two wedding-cake toppers with both hands. This is my job? (She looks so intently to the space to our right that, when I met her, by myself in a gallery of Basel’s Kunstmuseum, I didn’t feel alone at all.) The “dominant” faceless conceptual pair exist to bore us into submission to the norm they stand for, and, as drawn, they’re diminished, just props. The drawing seizes a portion of the actual for the kneeling figure. It turns on this figure, which is to say, on how we think it. A first-order reading centers racial and sexual subjugation, with a knowing gesture of plus ça change—an interpretation as conventional as its object. Though not false, such a reading makes no use of the art in the drawing, only the surface of a trope it employs. Very much like Toni Morrison before her, Walker interests us in a variant of the trope, one that is more substantial, claiming a greater share of the real, than its originating genre allows. Of the drawing’s three personages, the Black woman has the most personhood. Not only does blood flow through her, it is she who understands that representatives of even the most vaunted categories don’t always source identity and pleasure in the same place. The very figure the structure would vanish Walker renders instead as deep cognition. She is, moreover, transitional: structurally integral, the very figure of interrelation. The watercolor medium only brings home her fluency, serving at the same time to indicate that it’s Walker for whom she works. Our dilemma is to think together the overpowering attraction of the binary (Black/white, server/served) and the slippages Walker’s realism enshrines.

Kara Walker, The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam, 2018, graphite, sumi ink, gofun, and gouache on paper, thirty-eight drawings. Installation view, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2021. Photo: Jonas Hänggi.

IF THERE WERE A SOUNDTRACK to unexamined common sense, it would have to include the song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

This American standard, written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, is seventy-seven years into an amazing career, having been rerecorded multiple times since its 1944 release. Its assistive cadence masks a moralism brutally phobic of all that is transitional in human experience. Why does the song endure? It’s a litany of warnings against relations with the interstitial of any kind (chiefly the sexes), its speaker a paragon of vigilant, paranoid scanning. The song’s antihero, Mister In-Between, is a hyped masculine allegory with infamous powers of temptation (the righteous souls he has drawn near his abyss include Jonah and Noah). Figured exclusively via implication, Between still haunts the entire tune, alternately as misconduct, gloom, chaos, darkness, disinhibition, or the trespasser (in that order). Buttressed by Arlen’s imploring harmonics, the very sound of incorrupt normativity, the tune has no ground to yield to Between. Any “mess” the dallying listener might make is mere pretext for a swift restoration of the given order.

Awkwardly to say the least, Mercer liberally deploys lyrical blackface to interpret the stabilizing racialism at the song’s core. The deep affinity between racism and racialism is a paradoxical truth of this artifact. (The lyric’s originator was a Black cleric named George Baker, who went by Father Divine and thought he was God.) The priggish imperatives throughout “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate” hope for a hearer who will incline away from whatever—a difference, an other—troubles the song’s organizational models. It knows well the lure of such, and by repetition it underscores its threat. Lite as it feels, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate” preaches fear of perplexity, its aesthetic actively preempting the space where Walker’s art happens. “Negative images” was the inaugurating shorthand applied to her work by Saar et al., whose letter warned: “Please take a good look at the images below. . . . Also contact your local art museum. These images may be in your city next.” That the song’s lesson won’t stay learned must mean Between offers something broadly felt to be needed. Ignorant of or indifferent to the organizing dichotomy positive/negative, Between occupies a range, not a position. It’s readily apparent that Between effects connection as much as, if not more than, separation. Furthermore, Between is identified with surprise, perpetually “liable to walk upon the scene.” He cuts a figure so spacious, so full of usable space, that he’s no figure at all—the speaker attempting to invoke it can do no better than allusion—and yet he is so familiar that allusion alone suffices.

Kara Walker, untitled, 2002–2003, gouache on paper, 9 5⁄8 × 6 1⁄2". From the thirteen-part suite Untitled, 2002–2003.

A fact readily faced in “A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be,” the Basel Kunstmuseum’s large drawing exhibition, richly interwoven with the artist’s collages and handwritten text-based works—a show affording a special opportunity not to be mistaken for access, so prized today—is that the artist is a person, not a paradigm. I want to be explicit that, for me, an excitement of Walker’s practice is the unknowability of the self who makes it go—and this unknowability reads as evidence not of hiding but of processing, a keeping-open of everything to view. Its intelligence, attuned alike to the made and the unmade world, puts shared resources to unexpected uses. Its mobile and protean way means a plenitude I can observe but not master, especially not by going behind to foreknown sources. The source of Walker’s thought, being personal, is justly private. I’m limited to its issue.

That makes familiarity a burden on this scene. The more I insist on the primacy of what we share, what I know from elsewhere and before, the less this encounter is like human communication. I swoon at Walker’s drawing, and find her ways with ideas and words and words for ideas similarly compelling. Excited, I imagine points of relation between us and extrapolate from there. Such lucubration is a gift of the work, surely, but an unintended one. That Walker’s art touches, delights, and inspires me so—for more than twenty years it has empowered me to get to grips with terribly hard, crucial stuff—makes it not at all mine to portray any way I feel moved to. I feel I have a companion in history. No small thing. But this identification doesn’t annul the difference between my companion and me. In fact, the realer to me our irreducible difference remains, the more inexhaustible I can think Walker—and the more Walker I can get in my life.

The artist had never publicly shown a great deal of the material in Basel, which comes from an archive of private and solitary work. Again, one finds her inclined openly toward anyone who wants to understand. Even more vividly than before, it seemed as though the work comes from wherever Walker goes to remain human. Among much else, you see the toll 1997 has taken, in frank drawings and writings derived from the artist’s ruminations on it. D. W. Winnicott put a frame around a related idea in 1958. Winnicott had come to believe an isolate lay at the self’s core, a seat of imagination and creative living—isolate connoting a potential space within the self for exclusive use by the self, according to its needs, for making contact with primary satisfactions, forming images, combining them into new patterns, etc. Such a space for reflection matters most for being dependably available when ordinary failures of relating arise, as inevitably they do. Winnicott gave his theory life in clinical practice by ensuring, as he could, that patients had, and felt free to use, a place to withdraw into without fear of retaliation, or of being followed. Small wonder Walker couldn’t take these measures in the United States just now.

“A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be,” organized by Anita Haldemann and Katharina Dohm, is on view at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt through Jan. 16, 2022; travels to the De Pont Museum, Tilburg, the Netherlands, Feb. 19–July 24, 2022.

Darby English is the Carl Darling Buck Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago and a Visiting Professor at the UCLA School of Art.