In 1992, a year before starting her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker, then 22—and only five years from winning a MacArthur “genius” award—had an epiphany while looking at a nineteenth-century silhouette of a young black girl in profile. She later recalled that it “kind of saved me.”
Two years later, I had an epiphany in an MFA student’s studio in the same school, having just seen something—either a cutout silhouette or a drawing in what looked like chocolate—of a plantation worker. “What is that?” I asked. The young woman said, “It’s by my classmate Kara Walker.” I felt like a thunderbolt had hit the back of my head. This was an image of mad America. I was sickened, thrilled, and terrified.
There’s a good chance you’ll have some of those feelings, as well as a guttural jolt of what James Joyce called the nightmare of history, in Kara Walker’s bitterly beautiful, psychically naked, carnal charnel house of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The elevator doors open onto part of what saved Walker’s life—a 50-foot-long dream-doom-death machine, a tableau filled with a series of black-and-white cutout silhouettes. This is the first work Walker ever showed in New York. Seeing it here allows you to reexperience some of the toxic shock Walker released into the aesthetic air back then.
more from New York Magazine here.