One: Titus Kaphar
During the dramatic finale of his TED Talk, “Can Art Amend History?,” in April 2017, Titus Kaphar whitewashed his own painting—based on Family Group in a Landscape, by the renowned seventeenth-century Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals—to create Shifting the Gaze. Both Kaphar’s TED Talk and Shifting the Gaze make a compelling case for the need to tell the histories of groups who have been deliberately excluded from the official record. Kaphar points to the dominance of a European bias through which histories, including art history, have been written, and advocates for expanding them to put forward more honest and inclusive narratives.
By obscuring significant parts of the group portrait with broad strokes of white paint, Kaphar drew attention to an individual whose race and class historically would have placed him at the margins of seventeenth-century European society. Through veils of white pigment, we discern traces of family members: the white European head of the household, flanked by his son and wife, with his daughter off to the side. Kaphar’s painting highlights the black boy, likely the family servant, situated between the two female figures. In Hals’s painting, this boy melds into the background foliage, but here, his carefully rendered and illuminated face, set off by a broad white collar, is the center of attention.
Kaphar takes care to note that he is not permanently erasing or eradicating figures: the linseed oil mixed into the lead white oil paint he used will become increasingly transparent as it ages and will allow the faces and bodies of the family members to reemerge over time. This strategy invites us to refocus, to shift our gazes to what we have overlooked in the past. Shifting the Gaze is representative of Kaphar’s artistic practice, in which he seeks to make paintings and sculptures that honestly “wrestle with the struggle of the past but speak to the diversity of our present,” allowing us to imagine alternative historical narratives in the future.
One: Titus Kaphar is presented in conjunction with Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper, a selection of artworks from the Museum’s collection that is on view on this floor. In that exhibition Kaphar provides commentary on some of the prints and drawings included, offering insights into how we might shift our gazes to view familiar works in new and unexpected ways.
One: Titus Kaphar is curated by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum. One Brooklyn is made possible by a generous contribution from JPMorgan Chase & Co.
About Titus Kaphar
Titus Kaphar was born in Kalamazoo Michigan, and grew up there and in San Jose, California. He received a B.F.A. from San Jose State University in 2001 and an M.F.A. from Yale School of Art in 2006. In addition to his studio practice, Kaphar is currently engaged in launching NXTHVN (Next Haven), a nonprofit arts incubator in New Haven, Connecticut, where he now lives. He founded NXTHVN in 2015 with Jonathan Brand and Jason Price in Dixwell, a historically black neighborhood, to “cultivate a sustainable creative community that attracts and supports talent within and beyond New Haven.” Housed in former factory buildings, NXTHVN offers studios, work spaces, residencies, fellowships, a gallery, and professional training, as well as opportunities for local high school and college students and artists from around the world.
Kaphar’s strategy of partially obscuring his portraits dates back to his series The Jerome Project, consisting of portraits of black men rendered on the gold grounds of shaped panels. Resembling Byzantine icons of saints, including Saint Jerome, the portraits are based on mug shots that the artist discovered online while researching his estranged father’s prison records. All show incarcerated men who share Kaphar’s father’s name, Jerome. Each completed portrait is partially submerged in tar, obscuring parts of the faces and affording the subjects a degree of privacy they lost when their mug shots became part of the public record. The Brooklyn Museum’s The Jerome Project (My Loss), 2014, is one of the largest works in the series and takes the form of a diptych, or two paired panels.
The Jerome Project was followed by the whitewash paintings, including Shifting the Gaze. Time magazine commissioned Kaphar to make a painting for one of its 2014 “Person of the Year” finalists, the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, who mobilized after the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. The work, Yet Another Fight for Remembrance, depicts protesters with their hands raised and their faces and bodies obliterated by broad strokes of white paint. In 2019 Kaphar employed a similar visual strategy in Redaction, a portfolio of prints combining his portraits of incarcerated individuals with poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, lawyer, prison reform activist, and former convict. The verses, made from documents filed by the Civil Rights Corp on behalf of people incarcerated for their inability to pay court fines and fees, use the legal strategy of redaction, or expunging selected text.