Fredonia art exhibition features works of renowned South African artist

Doug Osborne-Coy
Six Birds art piece

“Six Birds,” from the “Universal Archive” series by South African artist William Kentridge.

Renowned South African artist William Kentridge reflects on a lifetime of work and reimagines elements of everyday life in the exhibition “Universal Archive,” on display in the Cathy and Jesse Marion Art Gallery from Aug.18 through Oct.11.

In this expanding series, Kentridge revisits familiar personal iconography. Meticulously based on ink sketches, the 75 linocut prints on dictionary and encyclopedia pages shift from identifiable subject matter to deconstructed images of abstract marks, suggesting skepticism about the creative process and knowledge construction. Kentridge’s 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University, entitled “Six Drawing Lessons,” inspired the drawings.

Together with charcoal drawing, printmaking forms the core of Kentridge’s studio practice. Since the 1970s, he has made more than 300 prints utilizing a range of techniques, including etching, drypoint, engraving, silkscreen, lithography, and linocut. Unlike the act of drawing, in which the artist’s engagement with the support is mediated only through the hand and eye, the act of printmaking involves the surprising intrusion of an outside force — the mechanical act that creates the print, not only reversing the drawn image, but also potentially introducing unexpected changes.

The works in “William Kentridge: Universal Archive” began as drawings in India ink, executed using both what the artist calls a “good brush” as well as a “bad brush,” one with damaged bristles that produced less controlled marks. Kentridge, together with master printer Jillian Ross and her team at the David Krut Workshop in Johannesburg, then translated the drawings into linocuts, a technique capable of capturing the fluidity of line in a manner similar to that of drawing.

Many of the images are recurring themes in Kentridge’s art: cats, birds, trees, coffee pots, typewriters and nude figures. While some images are obvious, others dissolve into abstracted forms suggestive of Japanese Sumi-e painting. Image misidentification is core to Kentridge’s practice and is richly explored in this series. The parallel and displaced relationships that emerge between the image and the text on the pages relate to Kentridge’s inherent mistrust of certainty in creative processes.

Ross, who has worked with Kentridge since the early 2000s, stresses that an in-depth understanding of the series requires knowledge of the multiplicity inherent in many of Kentridge’s projects, in which the same imagery recurs in varying forms.

“Because he often works on a number of projects at once, his ideas for one project tend to fuel another,” she said. “Images that you see in ‘Universal Archive’ overlap considerably across many mediums.”

Ross added that she sees the title as “a reference to his personal ‘universal archive’ – the themes and images that he repeatedly draws on to animate his work.”

Kentridge has exhibited widely since 1981. He has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1999), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (2001), New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (2001), Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (2002), Castello di Rivoli in Italy (2004), Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2004), Deutche Guggenheim in Berlin (2005), Museum of Modern Art in New York (2006), Moderna Museet in Stockholm (2007), and Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008), among other venues.

A major survey of Kentridge’s work was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2008 and traveled to the Norton Museum of Art (2008) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010). He has also participated in many group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (1993 and 2005), Istanbul Biennial (1995), Sydney Biennial (1996), Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1997 and 2002), São Paulo Biennial (1998), Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1999), Shanghai Biennial (2000), and Auckland Triennial (2004). In addition, he has appeared in many international film festivals, among them the New Zealand Film Festival and the Internationales Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart (both 2000).

He has received many awards for his work, including the Blue Ribbon Award at the American Film Festival in New York (1985), the Carnegie Prize at the Carnegie International (2000), the Sharjah Biennial Prize (2003), and the Kaiserring prize from the Mönchehaus-Museum für Moderne Kunst in Goslar, Germany (2003).

Kentridge lives and works in Johannesburg.

For more information about the exhibition, contact Marion Art Gallery Director Barbara Räcker via email at or call (716) 673-4897. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. The Marion Art Gallery is located on the ground level of Rockefeller Arts Center and is most easily accessed from the Symphony Circle side of the building.

Please be aware that COVID-19 state protocols are in place. Visitors must wear a face mask or face covering and practice social distancing.

“William Kentridge: Universal Archive” is organized for tour by the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College and is made possible, in part, by contributions from Alva Greenberg, ʼ74; the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and Ohio Arts Council. The Cathy and Jesse Marion Endowment Fund of the Fredonia College Foundation and the Friends of Rockefeller Arts Center provide funding for the exhibition at the Marion Art Gallery.

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