Titus Kaphar in his New Haven, Conn., studio.


YEARS BEFORE THE DEBATE about decolonizing America’s public squares where monuments pay homage to slaveholders and Confederate generals reached a fever pitch in 2017, Titus Kaphar was engaging with representation in Western art history and its overwhelming penchant for foregrounding white men while people of color are sidelined and ignored. Kaphar’s paintings reference Classic and Renaissance-style portraiture and at the same time recast accepted narratives. He physically manipulates and transforms his canvases by ripping and cutting them, white washing them and submerging them in black tar in order to surface suppressed histories, reckon with the nation’s racial past and connect it to contemporary concerns.

His innovative and insightful practice has been critically recognized for about a decade. In 2009, Kaphar was the first recipient of the Seattle Art Museum’s Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence fellowship. He’s since received grants from Creative Capital, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Art for Justice Fund. In August, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum announced he is the recipient of the 2018 Rappaport Prize, which includes a $25,000 award and a public lecture on Oct. 30. Before Kaphar got a chance to give the lecture, he received another accolade—genius status.

Kaphar is among 25 creatives named 2018 MacArthur Fellows. Each year, the MacArthur Foundation selects extraordinary figures across the arts, sciences, and civic and community engagement, and invests in their potential. Recipients are nominated by a rotating pool of experts in a variety fields. Fellows receive $625,000 awards—commonly called “genius” grants—paid over five years, to be used at their discretion.

The latest class of fellows includes two other visual artists—filmmaker and performance artist Wu Tsang and artist and curator Julie Alt. Kaphar and Tsang, along with choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili and writer John Keene share common pursuits, exploring hidden histories, suppressed voices, and overlooked narratives in their work.

“…Fellows are solving long-standing scientific and mathematical problems, pushing art forms into new and emerging territories, and addressing the urgent needs of under-resourced communities. Their exceptional creativity inspires hope in us all,” Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said when the grants were announced.


These two paintings are featured in “Unforseen,” Titus Kaphar’s exhibition currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. From left: TITUS KAPHAR, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Guillermo Nicolas and Jim Foster, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; and TITUS KAPHAR, “Drawing the Blinds,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Dr. Charles M. Boyd, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


TITUS KAPHAR, “Twisted Tropes,” 2016 (oil on canvas with antique frame). | Eileen and Richard Ekstract, ©Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


KAPHAR EARNED HIS MFA from Yale (2006) and is based in New Haven, Conn. He makes paintings, drawings, sculpture and installations and says he approaches his subject matter through a personal lens rather than a political one.

“I make paintings that people perceive often as being very social or political. But for the most part they are all very personal,” the artist says in the video below, made by the MacArthur Foundation. “Everything stems from my relationship to a situation, to a narrative, to a story.”

“I make paintings that people perceive often as being very social or political. But for the most part they are all very personal. Everything stems from my relationship to a situation, to a narrative, to a story.” — Titus Kaphar

A particularly personal project was inspired by his father’s experience with the criminal justice system. Kaphar was researching his prison records and discovered dozens of men, who had also been incarcerated, that shared the same first and last name as his father.

The Jerome Project is a series of small-scale painted portraits based on mug shots of these men. The artist dipped each work in black tar obscuring the portraits to various degrees initially based on the amount of time each man served. He later also took into account their loss of basic rights, including the right to vote and access to federally funded programs. Those with lengthiest sentences were covered almost entirely with tar. The Jerome Project opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem in November 2014.

A month later, Kaphar painted the “Ferguson Protesters” for Time magazine in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Missouri. The protesters were among the final figures considered for Time’s Person of the Year distinction in 2014. The artist portrayed the crowd with their hands up and white-washed the image with violent slashes of white paint, symbolizing the silencing of the community, the erasure of black men, and strong arm of the criminal justice system.

For The Vesper Project, Kaphar recreated a 19th century house that succumbed to fire. The 360 degree installation invoked the narrative of a real family based on the memory of Benjamin Vesper. The Vespers were considered Negro by law, but were able to pass as white. The family’s hidden heritage and history weighed on Benjamin who, suffering psychologically, attacked one of Kaphar’s paintings on view at the Yale Art Gallery. He was admitted to a Connecticut hospital that treats people with mental illness. The Vesper Project was inspired by the episode and the letters Benjamin sent to Kaphar and the documents he shared with the artist.

Kaphar installed “Impressions of Liberty” outside Maclean House, the president’s residence at Princeton University, last year. When Samuel Finley (1715–1766), the university’s fifth president resided there, slaves lived and worked at the house. Upon Finley’s death, six slaves, considered a part of his estate, were sold at the site on July 31, 1766. The sculptural commission was a part of the “Princeton & Slavery Project,” the university’s campus-wide exploration of its direct ties to slavery.


Sept. 14, 2018: Titus Kaphar in his New Haven, Conn., studio. | Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


The artist’s work is currently on view in “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Dayand Titus Kaphar” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is the largest presentation of Kaphar’s work to date. His next exhibition “Suffering From Realness” opens in March 2019 at Mass MOCA.

Kaphar’s ambitions extend beyond his own practice. He is also opening NXTHVN next year, a nonprofit art incubator committed to cultivating the next generation of artists and curators in New Haven. NXTHVN provides studio space, exhibition space, fellowships and residencies, and apprenticeships for high school students.

He was inspired to embark on the enterprise in part by the late collector and philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947-2018). She was a mentor and early collector of his work and he contributed to “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” a recently published volume about her life and art collections.

“Peggy made an art world that was quite opaque, understandable in a way that has been invaluable to me. I am hoping to provide this kind of support for other artists,” Kaphar said in the book.

In an interview with NPR about his MacArthur grant, the artist explained his views on the Confederate monument debate, which go to the heart of his practice. “We’re having a national conversation right now about public monuments. And in this discussion …we have this sort of binary conversation about keeping these sculptures up or taking them down,” Kaphar said.

“And I actually think that that binary conversation is problematic. I think there is another possibility, and I think that possibility has to do with bringing in new work that speaks in conversation with this old work. It’s about a willingness to confront a very difficult past.” CT


TOP IMAGE: Titus Kaphar in his studio in New Haven, Conn., Sept. 14, 2018. | Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


READ MORE about Titus Kaphar on his website


“Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz” documents the life and art collections of philanthopist Peggy Cooper Cafrtiz. It features writings by Kerry James Marshall, Jack Shainman, Hank Willis Thomas, Uri McMillian, Simone Leigh, and an interview with Cafritz conducted by Thelma Golden. The volume also includes commentary from several artists the collector supported included Titus Kaphar.


Artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar discusses his practice. | Video by MacArthur Foundation


In a 2017 TED Talk, Titus Kaphar paints and talks about how he discovered art and whether art can amend history. | Video by TED


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