Kara Walker unearths her private drawings in new book

Kara Walker's "Fealty as Feint (A Drawing Exercise)" (2019), conte crayon on tinted gessoed paper.
Contributed by Kara Walker
Kara Walker's "Fealty as Feint (A Drawing Exercise)" (2019), conte crayon on tinted gessoed paper. Contributed by Kara Walker

Former Georgia artist shows a new side to her boundless creativity

For artist Kara Walker, moving to the South was a kind of wake up call to the centrality of race in American life.

Walker’s family left California when she was 13 so her father, celebrated artist Larry Walker, could take a position at Georgia State University.

She spent her high school years here and received her undergraduate degree at the Atlanta College of Art. But leaving progressive, multicultural California to live in Stone Mountain, where the Ku Klux Klan still had a foothold and an enormous Confederate monument defined the skyline, had to be a singularly rotten coming of age.

“There is I suppose, historically, this seminal moment in the lives of African Americans where one becomes black,” Walker told The Guardian newspaper in 2015. “And I guess that was my moment. I think of California as a golden diverse kind of period, which is not entirely true. But certainly in Georgia, in high school, things were very locked down into black and white. You were forced to determine your allegiance.”

“Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First” was the title of her 2015 solo show at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery.

But without that formative time in the Deep South, Walker might not be the artist she is today — fierce and fearless — channeling the justified rage at America’s 200-plus year history of slavery, of Jim Crow and the various indignities and horrors that have occasioned the Black American experience.

A fresh streak of rage, often cathartic and vicious, is vented in a new book centered on Kara Walker’s art, “A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be” (JRP Editions, $65).

This Sears catalog-thick, 598-page monograph features more than 700 never before seen drawings from the artist’s private archive created between 1992-2020. It’s a tsunami of imagery even Walker marvels at in an accompanying essay. “I feel a certain wonder not only at this profusion of material, but also at the impulse I had to keep it, in file folders marked ‘Image Sources,’” she writes.

Courtesy of JRP Editions
Courtesy of JRP Editions

The work in “A Black Hole” is a revelation. The drawings are a glimpse into another dimension of Walker’s creative vision because they are such a noted departure. Their quick, intense, furtive lines and chaotic subject matter are a dramatic break from her meticulous silhouette images presented on gallery and museum walls like her sardonic riff on the hagiographic Stone Mountain Confederate monument, “The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin” purchased in 2015 by the High Museum of Art.

Those black cut-outs of antebellum chaos mash up the romanticism of the Southern imagination with ugly, violent historical reality.

It also reflects a break from two more recent iterations of Walker’s art: the “blockbuster” installations that have gained her major press attention and large crowds. “A Subtlety,” the massive sphinx sculpture made entirely of sugar she created in a former Brooklyn sugar warehouse, and “Fons Americanus,” a four-tiered fountain at London’s Tate Modern, both expanded Walker’s commentary on race to the global slave trade and colonialism.

The drawings in “A Black Hole” will be the subject of an exhibition at Kuntsmuseum Basel in Switzerland from June 5-Sept. 19, organized by curator Anita Haldemann.The show then travels to Germany and the Netherlands. Haldemann contributes a fascinating essay to the book about how Walker’s drawings define a career-long desire to challenge hierarchies and to seduce our eye while shocking our constitution.

“I think she’s one of the most daring artists,” says Haldemann, speaking via Zoom from Basel. “She doesn’t avoid any taboos and is quite outspoken.” Walker’s work feels especially relevant to 2021 because she refuses to see the present divorced from the foundational violence and racism of the past.

The book is also an interesting subversion of the usual format for these kinds of highbrow art catalogues. Instead of featuring a host of academic essays at the front of the book, the essays are placed at the end.

"Untitled" (2018) by Kara Walker from the series "The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam," Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, graphite, ink and gouache on paper.
Courtesy of Kara Walker
"Untitled" (2018) by Kara Walker from the series "The Gross Clinician Presents: Pater Gravidam," Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, graphite, ink and gouache on paper. Courtesy of Kara Walker

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“We first wanted the drawings to speak for themselves,” says Haldemann. “So you kind of have go through a lot of pages.” Haldemann says Walker wanted the book to feel thick and bulky, like a phone book or a tool catalogue.

For Haldemann the drawings allow Walker a kind of visceral, liberating expression, a taproot into deep, private feelings that is unique to the form. “You know, you can express yourself more freely,” in drawings, notes Haldemann. “It’s like, when you write a diary with the intention of it being published later. Maybe you have more freedom to express yourself the way you want, and to explore ideas that you might not want to put on a painting. But you make drawings about it to just explore the idea and show what you’re thinking.”

She likens Walker’s drawing style to the great social critics and brilliant draftsmen of art history, including Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, Urs Graf, Hans Holbein the Younger and Francois Boucher.

Inside its deceptively plain burlap-colored soft cover, “A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be” is a visual assault.

Artist Kara Walker.
TINA FINEBERG / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Artist Kara Walker. TINA FINEBERG / ASSOCIATED PRESS

“Faced with such a super abundant quantity and variety of material, the viewer may alternate between fascination and overload,” Haldemann admits of the sheer excess of the hundreds of images compiled in “A Black Hole.”

At times suggesting a marriage of alternative comic artist R. Crumb and Hieronymus Bosch, the book contains a varied collection: snippets of text, notes on index cards, postcards, collages, news clippings, advertisements and frantic, disturbing drawings. Often profane and flush with excess, there are sketches of lynched bodies, images of graphic sex and supersized genitalia, eviscerations, Confederate flags, rape and violence of every sort, a kind of splattering of the ugliness of human behavior onto the page.

An image of Congressman John Lewis breaking down at the groundbreaking of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., and a cheesy Atlanta postcard featuring a Lynyrd Skynyrd-era “belle” in hoop skirt waving hello from a Southern paradise are indications that Georgia and the South remain a potent image bank that Walker continues to draw from.

Considering that this kind of violence and rage has more often been the province of male artistic expression, Walker’s drawings can feel shockingly cathartic. Art goers are used to the scatological imagery of male artists throughout art history as well as from contemporary figures like Paul McCarthy and Jeff Koons. But when a woman artist expresses that same kind of fury or excess, it’s powerful, profound, maybe a little cathartic, even for a dignified Swiss museum curator.

“I can totally understand or relate to this,” says Haldemann of Walker’s drawings, “this anger, and that it must have its place in art.”

ART BOOK

“Kara Walker: A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs to Be”

Edited by Anita Haldemann, art by Kara Walker

JRP Editions

598 pages, $65

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