FOR HIS FIRST EXHIBITION since joining Gagosian in April, Titus Kaphar is showing a series of new paintings. “Titus Kaphar: From a Tropical Space” is on view in New York.

Kaphar has developed a practice around challenging art historical images from the 18th and 19th centuries and the American history narratives they normalize. He physically manipulates his canvases by cutting them, rolling them up, covering them with tar, or whitewashing them with paint in an effort to center overlooked subjects, surface suppressed histories, and reckon with the nation’s racial past.

 


TITUS KAPHAR, From a Tropical Space, 2019 (oil on canvas, 92 x 72 inches / 233.7 x 182.9 cm). | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Christopher Gardener, Courtesy the artist

 

His latest work represents a shift, a turn to the contemporary. Kaphar is focusing on Black women, specifically mothers. Employing a palette of intensely saturated colors, his seemingly ordinary scenes capture mothers pushing their children in baby carriages, playing with them on the family room floor, or braiding their hair. Nearly all of the images possess the trappings of joy in the everyday, yet a stark sense of loss and mourning is front and center.

In each of the paintings, the children have literally been cut out of the picture. The images speak to the fear, trauma, and collective loss experienced by many Black mothers and, by extension, Black fathers, Black families, and communities at-large due to the uncertain futures of so many Black children. In the years to come, will they literally disappear, falling victim to America’s familiar social ills—poverty, gun violence, mass incarceration, police murder?

Alongside their physical removal from the work, additional visual cues inform the fate and circumstances of Kaphar’s subjects. In “Expecting (From a Tropical Space)” (2019), a mother holds a baby in the kitchen. The entire backyard seen through the window is brown, dry, and lifeless. In another work, “The Aftermath” (2020), a mother stands outside of a storm-ravaged home in the midst of severe structural damage and debris. Vehicles are overturned in the yard. Her children—one held in her arms, the other sitting on a discarded tire—are empty silhouettes, cut from the canvas.

Employing a palette of intensely saturated colors, his seemingly ordinary scenes possess all the trappings of joy in the everyday, yet a stark sense of loss and mourning is front and center.


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 

When Kaphar first undertook the series, he had a different idea about the identity of his subjects. “The way I understand these paintings now is completely different from when I began,” Kaphar told Jacoba Urist for an article published in Gagosian Quarterly. “When I first started, I assumed they were about caretakers and nannies.”

That direction didn’t feel right, so he stepped back from the work and realized the freighted history of Black women’s roles as caretakers of other people’s children (at the expense of time and care devoted to their own), was influencing his perspective.

After considerable rumination, Kaphar returned to the series with a focus on motherhood. He also came to understand how the unique palette he had chosen was informing the work.

“When I got to the third painting, Expecting (2019), I recognized that this wasn’t a geographic place. Rather, the color I was seeing is a reflection of an emotional and psychological space, an internal geography, where these mothers’ collective trauma crescendos in the disappearance of their Black children,” Kaphar told Urist.

“Analogous Colors” (2020), shows a mother with pure anguish on her face as she holds her young son to her chest (he is absent, his body cut from the image). Presumably referencing the COVID-19 pandemic, she is wearing one blue rubber glove. Helpless, she is mourning.

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Analogous Colors,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 66 x 60 inches / 167.6 x 152.4 cm). | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Christopher Gardner. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

 

The painting was featured on the June 15, 2020, cover of Time magazine, representing a distinct moment in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police when protestors took to the streets nationwide in response.

For the first time in the news magazine’s history, the signature border that frames the cover image, featured text—the names of 35 “black men and women whose deaths, in many cases by police, were the result of systemic racism and helped fuel the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Another work on view in the exhibition, depicts two mothers waiting to board a Greyhound bus, their children are absent from the picture, represented by blank silhouettes. The painting has a poignant title: “The distance between what we have and what we want” (2019).

Kaphar recently discussed the complexity of his work and the challenging subjects he addresses in a June TED Talk.

“I believe there is beauty in hearing the voices of people who haven’t been heard. That’s a complex idea because the things that must be said are not always lovely, but if they are reflective of truth, I think fundamentally that makes them beautiful,” he said, speaking from his New Haven, Conn., studio.

“There’s the aesthetic beauty of the work that in some cases functions as more of a Trojan horse. It allows one to open their hearts to difficult conversations. Maybe you feel attracted to the beauty and while compelled by the technique, the color, the form, the composition, maybe the difficult conversation sneaks up.” CT

 

“Titus Kaphar: From a Tropical Space” is on view at Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., Oct. 1–Dec. 19, 2020. Currently open by appointment only

 

FIND MORE about Titus Kaphar on his website

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Twins,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 83 3/4 x 68 inches / 212.7 x 172.7 cm). | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Alexander Harding, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “The distance between what we have and what we want,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 108 x 84 1/4 inches / 274.3 x 214 cm). | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Alexander Harding, Courtesy the artist

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Braiding Possibility,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 83 3/4 x 68 inches / 212.7 x 172.7 cm). | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Christopher Gardener, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

 


Installation view of “TITUS KAPHAR: From a Tropical Space,” Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, N.Y., 2020 | © Titus Kaphar. Photo by Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

 

BOOKSHELF
“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 philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947-2018). The volume includes commentary from several artists the collector supported including Titus Kaphar. When he first started thinking about the kinds of programs and opportunities realized at NXTHVN, a New Haven, Conn., arts incubator for emerging artists and curators, Kaphar reached out to Cafritz. In the book he says, “When I first started thinking about the project, it began with a call to Peggy. She has made me very aware of my responsibility to others, especially younger artists. My work in New Haven has absolutely been influenced by her work. She leads by example.”

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent art history project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.