The smell hits you first: sweet but with an acrid edge, like a thousand burned marshmallows. Then you’re struck by the space, five stories high and more than a football field long. The storage shed of the Domino sugar factory, on the East River in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was built in 1927 to hold mountains of raw sugar due for whitening. The plant was shuttered a decade ago, yet its crumbling walls still drip with molasses.
But head farther in, and that mess gives way to the pristine: Rising to the rafters and stretching 75 feet from paws to rump is a great sphinx, demure as her Egyptian cousin but glowing from a recent sugar coating. It is a sight so unlikely it seems Photoshopped.
Kara Walker, the sphinx’s creator, appears dwarfed by her almost-finished colossus, an ode to the cane fields’ black labor that she has chosen to make grotesquely white. She has titled it “A Subtlety” — after the intricate sugar sculptures that were centerpieces for medieval feasts — even though it is absurdly unsubtle. Its subtitle is “The Marvelous Sugar Baby, 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.”
The work was commissioned by Creative Time, the group known for its public art projects. “This feels like a Cecil B. DeMille set,” said Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s chief curator, gazing up at the result. From May 10 through July 6, on Fridays through Sundays, the public will get to be its cast of thousands.
Ms. Walker is a proudly tall woman — “5-10,” she tells me, correcting my guess of 5 feet 8. For protection from the room’s floating sugar, the artist wears yellow rubber overalls and a blue bandanna with shamrocks. Her face bears an uncanny likeness to her sphinx.
“I just noticed that her nose and profile are me, for sure,” Ms. Walker said. The “just” is hard to believe: In March, when I first visited studio in Manhattan’s garment district, she talked about enlarging the nostrils on an early draft of the head and, maybe unconsciously, pointed to her own nose as she did so.
Doubters — and there are more than a few — might read the sphinx as being all about inflating Ms. Walker’s ego and status. But it could as easily be a sendup of the genius-artist role foisted on Ms. Walker by others. “To joke about it isn’t necessarily to dismiss it,” she said, “but it is to acknowledge the complete folly of that whole notion.”
In the 20 years since her breakout installation at the Drawing Center in New York, when she was only 24, Ms. Walker has become a towering figure herself, an African-American visual artist who has achieved unparalleled global success. Her cut-paper silhouettes and animations, exhibited and owned by museums across the United States and abroad, harness genteel 19th-century imagery to magnify the dysfunctions bred by slavery.
“Mommy makes mean art,” was the judgment that the artist’s daughter, Octavia, delivered 12 years ago, when she was 4, and that gets pretty close to the truth. Awarding Ms. Walker a $190,000 “genius” grant in 1997, the MacArthur Foundation noted that Ms. Walker’s images explored the “vestiges of sexual, physical, and racial exploitation” handed down by slavery. She has portrayed sex of every conceivable kind between master and mistress and slave; her panoramic views of the antebellum south include scenes of defecation, amputation, emasculation and decapitation. Violent, yes, but Ms. Walker also sees an absurdist side to the gore in her work.
Ms. Walker’s first museum survey, in 2007, was organized by Philippe Vergne for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York and several other cities. As a Frenchman, he said he finds that her work transcends the context of slavery or race or even American culture. “You just need to open any newspaper anywhere in the world to see that the gender abuse, the sexual abuse, the power abuses are part of our fabric, unfortunately,” Mr. Vergne said from Los Angeles, where he is the new director of that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Kerry James Marshall, an older black painter who won a MacArthur the same year as Ms. Walker, says he appreciates her work almost as much for its formal elegance as for its content.
“Because you have to keep oscillating between the two aspects of the work, it becomes destabilizing in a way,” Mr. Marshall said by phone from his Chicago studio. “But that kind of tension between those two things is a really interesting place to be.”
Not all of his colleagues agree. In 1997, the veteran black artist Betye Saar led a letter-writing campaign against Ms. Walker’s work, railing against negative stereotypes of blacks as both victims and aggressors that she said catered to the expectations of whites. Ms. Saar spoke of “a sense of betrayal at the hands of a black artist who obviously hated being black.”
Ms. Walker said she was aware of the risks her work runs and of the issues it raises about revealing dysfunction versus celebrating achievement, about loyalty to race versus “kowtowing to the dominant culture.” She insists she likes the idea of a “protesting audience” that is so engaged by her art that it is willing to be enraged by it, too. Ms. Walker casts her conflict with Ms. Saar in clash-of-the-titans terms: “You are Biggie, and you are Tupac, and you battle it out through your art, and the art is the stronger for it.”
Or at least bigger.
“In some ways, doing a project like this is a bit of a nose-thumbing at detractors, naysayers, haters,” Ms. Walker said of her Domino sphinx. With her earlier work, even her supporters conceded that the recurring antihero of Ms. Walker’s work — known as “the Negress” — had never had true control of her fate. But with Ms. Walker’s Negress-as-sphinx, that underdog may have at last become the unbeatable overcat.
Ms. Walker told me of reading about a monument that lawmakers proposed in 1923 to honor the nation’s “mammies.” It was approved by the Senate but allowed to die in the House. The sphinx is something like Ms. Walker’s realization of that dream, but as a racist’s nightmare: The figure may be wearing a mammie’s kerchief, but she’ll never be beaten into submission.
The sculpture, the artist’s first, may meet a challenge in her career: Ms. Walker has been courting the danger of repetition, with her works in different mediums tending to share a trademark look, cast of characters and emotional and political tone. One set of silhouettes is easy to confuse with another, whereas the “Marvelous Sugar Baby” is unlike any of them. What is unclear is whether the Domino piece, for all its size, has sacrificed some of the gravitas of the earlier, crueler work.
Ms. Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, Calif., where her father, Larry Walker, was the chairman of the art department at the University of the Pacific. She would paint and draw in his studio, “and I’d be so fascinated by what she was doing that I’d just stop and watch,” he recalled, speaking from his home in Lithonia, Ga.
The family moved to Mr. Walker’s native Georgia in 1983. Ms. Walker remembers her school in California as having included a rainbow of races, whereas in Atlanta there seemed to be African-Americans, whites and a vast gulf in between. “It became a black-and-white world for her,” her father said.
During an interview, Ms. Walker dredged up a long-lost memory of reading Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” under her desk in high school. That novel prefigures the surreal violence and sex in Kara Walker’s mature work, but it’s hard to find the book’s hints of redemption in her art. (The poster for the 1985 film version of the book, which came out when Ms. Walker was 16, featured a silhouette surprisingly close to those of her later work.)
She studied painting in Atlanta, then got a master of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, while telling herself, she said: “You have to stop painting. You cannot paint.”
In the 1990s the notion that the medium had long been owned by white males was too strong to be ignored. So she came up with her cut-paper technique.
She describes a teacher, Michael Young, as crucial to her transformation. Speaking by phone from Austin, Tex., Mr. Young said his contribution was to convince her to play down her bookish side, advising her to be “as operatic as you can be about it — you’re not a conceptual artist.” He said that shyness had once left her close to silent.
Spend a few hours with Ms. Walker today, and you get an acute sense of shyness overcome. She talks plenty, showing a brassy surface that seems meant to hide a softer core.
Ms. Walker married a professor of jewelry in Rhode Island (they have since divorced) and later left for New York. She has taught art at Columbia University since 2002 and until quite recently lived in modest faculty housing, her longtime dealer, Brent Sikkema, pointed out. Like other friends of Ms. Walker, Mr. Sikkema emphasized that the aggression in her work does not prepare you for her wicked sense of humor, although the humor in her work is so dark it’s easy to miss.
Mr. Vergne, the curator of the 2007 survey, points to the mix of over-the-top gore and seriousness in her art. He described the silhouettes as straddling “Django Unchained,” — a “vaudeville parody” — and “Twelve Years a Slave,” a historical drama. “She bounces between both,” he said.
I accompanied Ms. Walker and her team to the current Domino factory in Yonkers, where we got an introduction to pest control and bagging and “green” processes. (Domino donated 160,000 pounds of sugar for the sphinx, but its core is carved polystyrene.) We were told that it now only takes seven people to run the refinery process, whereas in Williamsburg it once took dozens.
In some ways, then, her piece is about the passing of blue-collar America. The Domino building on the East River now belongs to the art-friendly developer Jed Walentas, who has lent the space to Creative Time while he prepares to level most of the the structure and put up apartments for Williamsburg’s new elite (with some set aside for the less privileged).
Ms. Walker has written: “Sugar crystallizes something in our American Soul. It is emblematic of all Industrial Processes. And of the idea of becoming white. White Being equated with pure and ‘true’ it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure.”
There was an early moment, she recalled, when her research “led me to this place where I could only think about death and destruction, and more death.” Seeking something to counter that — “a gift, something that was promising” — the sphinx idea came to her and took hold.
Of course, in its origins in the ancient world, the sphinx could be a riddler as well as a protector. Ms. Walker’s may well stand for the scale of the questions she is asking, and for her refusal to give easy answers.
article by Blake Gopnik via nytimes.com