Cover Artist: Kara Walker on New York magazine’s Art & Design issue (April 17-30, 2017).
FOR THE NEW ART & DESIGN ISSUE of New York magazine, writer Doreen St. Félix profiles Kara Walker. She spent time with the 47-year-old artist at her brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, her Garment District studio, and also talking on the phone. She begins by detailing Walker’s maiden experience creating and presenting a public art work.
Three years ago, Walker stepped outside the white-wall exhibition spaces of fine-art museums and galleries into the sphere of public art. She did so on a grand scale, presenting “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at an abandoned factory slated for condominium development. A collaboration with Creative Time, Walker’s monumental sphinx sculpture, was controversial, powerful, and popular—130,000 people traipsed out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to view it (read: photograph it).
The sculpture depicted a mammy figure as a sphinx, built with a styrofoam foundation coated with 40 tons of sugar mixed with water and resin. From the front, smartphone cameras captured the handkerchief on her head and her bare breasts. From the rear, lenses were trained on her exposed vulva. The images went viral on social media.
The venue was new, but the content was familiar. Walker works in a variety of mediums, but is most recognized for her cut paper silhouettes exploring the vestiges of slavery and the antebellum South, and the attendant issues of race, gender, sexuality, power and violence. With the monumental sphinx, she was tangling with subjugation again.
The venue was new, but the content was familiar. …With the monumental sphinx, she was tangling with subjugation again.
“The Sugar Baby’s extended title referred to the workers who had been degraded, maimed, underpaid, and killed in factories like this one: ‘an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,’” St. Félix wrote.
It not only drew record crowds, according to the magazine, the sugar sphinx was the largest public art installation ever staged in New York City in terms of its physical scale.
KARA WALKER’s sugar sphinx sculpture was on view the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn May 10-July 6, 2014. Its creation was the subject of “Afterword,” the artist’s subsequent exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins in November 2014. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
WHAT HAS WALKER BEEN UP TO SINCE? The lengthy cover story fills in the gap. In “Kara Walker’s Next Act,” St. Félix gets the artist to open up about the arc of her practice and the source of her obsession with America’s sordid race history. Walker also reflects on her first foray into public art and and talks about how she plans to wade back into the arena. Here is the news and a few take aways with added context:
Walker’s next projects are in Greece and New Orleans
She is embracing the public art concept and will revisit it in Europe and down South. The sugar sphinx was destroyed to make way for gentrifying development, but Walker saved her left hand, which will be on view this summer in a former slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra in Greece, an exhibition sponsored by the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art.
St. Félix quotes Walker describing the situation: “What’s going to happen is, this summer, the important art people of the world are going to go to the Venice Biennale, and then they’re going to go to Art Basel, and then some of them are going to get on a boat and come to Hydra and see something they’ve already partially seen,” she says confidently. Currently, it’s sitting in a box in a storage facility “in New Jersey or Long Island.”
In November, Walker is participating in Prospect.4 in New Orleans. She is working with an engineer and a composer to realize an elaborate idea involving a newly fabricated musical instrument with whistles that will “play macabre versions of traditional protest songs.” The artist said the concept came to her when she was visiting Algiers Point in New Orleans, “a site where slaves were held before being auctioned in the 18th century and black men were shot on sight by white vigilantes in the 21st, just days after Katrina viciously rearranged the earth.”
Walker is moving out of her Manhattan studio space
She said the rent for the Garment District space where she worked for seven years had “grown exorbitant.” To address the issue, she found a space in Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, closer to her home. In May, she is transitioning to the spacious quarters with views of IKEA’s loading dock and the Statue of Liberty, in the distance.
Feb. 24, 2016: Kara Walker and Ari Marcopoulos at Milan Fashion Week arriving at the Gucci Show. | Jacopo Raule, Getty Images
Photographer Ari Marcopoulos lives with Walker
Visiting Walker at home, St. Félix wrote that photographs by Marcopoulos take of most of the wall space. She continued observing that Marcopoulos is in the living room, rifling through Walker’s collection of records, eventually selecting Miles Davis. “I’m sure people already figured it out, but if they didn’t know yet, they’ll know now,” says Walker.
“I’m sure people already figured it out, but if they didn’t know yet, they’ll know now.” — Kara Walker
The lead up to the revelation about the cohabitation wasn’t subtle. In November 2015, they held hands and posed for a photo with Frédéric Cumenal, then CEO of Tiffany’s. Last February, Getty images photographed the couple holding hands, arriving at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week. In September 2016, when Walker’s exhibition “The Ecstasy of St. Kara” opened at the Cleveland Art Museum, the promotional images of her working in Rome where she created the new works presented in the show, were credited to Marcopoulos. All of the portraits of Walker featured in the New York magazine article were photographed by him too.
A few years ago, the artist and photographer met when Marcopoulos came to Walker’s studio to take her portrait. They have collaborated on several projects since. In 2015, he traveled with Walker to Atlanta. The California native spent her adolescent years in Stone Mountain, a nearby suburb, before studying at the Atlanta College of Art and heading to the Rhode Island School of Design. She went South to do some research and recollection for “Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First,” her 2015 exhibition at Victoria Miro in London. The catalog for the show features a conversation with Marcopoulos.
Walker is not a diva, but knew she’d attain fame
This is according to her cousin, the successful author James Hannaham who is close with Walker and regularly collaborates with her. Walker illustrated the cover for his novel “Delicious Foods,” which won the 2016 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He wrote the catalog essay for “Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First,” and has contributed other writings to her work over the years.
Hannaham says she has the temperament and confidence to handle the attention her work garners, from both fans and detractors. “Even as interest turns her way, Kara Walker is not excitable,” says Hannaham. “Kara is almost as calm as Obama. She has the hermeneutic idea of the role of the artist in society—a person who is strong enough to withstand projection and then can project ideas back to the people in such a way that their minds change. Or not.”
“Even as interest turns her way, Kara Walker is not excitable. Kara is almost as calm as Obama.” — James Hannaham
A monument to Confederate heroes has influenced Walker’s practice
Stone Mountain, the Atlanta suburb where Walker grew up, is named for a geological monument to the Confederacy. Post-reconstruction, images of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis were carved into the side of the mountain, a project sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The site loomed large in her adolescence and later in her memory and actions.
Two years ago, St. Félix reported, Walker realized the chiseled mountainside was a major factor in her choice of technique and subject. The artist gave pause when she acknowledged the intrusion. Walker told her: “I make work that’s historical, that’s profiled, that’s cut out. There was a moment, looking up at it, where I knew that this …this monument was the biggest influence on my work.” CT
Documenting Kara Walker’s two-decade career, several volumes have been published on the occasion of her exhibitions. Recently, “Kara Walker: Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First” was published to coincide with her fall 2015 show at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. “Kara Walker: Norma” documents a unique project Walker undertook during the 2015 Venice Biennale, the direction and art direction of Vincenzo Bellini’s two-act opera.
Detail of Confederate Generals carved into Stone Mountain in Stone Mountain National Park, Georgia. | MPI/Getty Images