Titus Kaphar (b.1976)
Titus Kaphar (b.1976)
Titus Kaphar (b.1976)
Titus Kaphar (b.1976)
3 More
Titus Kaphar (b.1976)


Titus Kaphar (b.1976)
signed and dated 'Kaphar 11' (on the reverse of each element)
diptych—oil on canvas
overall: 70 x 106 in. (177.8 x 269.2 cm.)
Painted in 2011.
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Private collection, Toronto
Acquired from the above by present owner
New York, National Academy of Design, Beyond the Classical: Imagining the Ideal Across Time, October 2014-January 2015.
New York, David Benrimon Fine Art, Rethink America, October-November 2020.

Brought to you by

Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Titus Kaphar (b. 1976) is one of the most inventive and thought-provoking artists working today, and his 2011 painting, Sacrifice, is an excellent example of his disruptive and conceptual practice. By transforming the medium of painting through technical innovations, Kaphar examines the history of representation in Western painting. He is known for physically disrupting the picture plane by cutting away characters, shredding portions of the canvas, “White-washing” his own images and adding thick layers of tar to the painted acrylic surfaces. All of these techniques draw attention to the physical nature of the painting, while simultaneously carrying the painting into a conceptual realm. The work of art is no longer exclusively about the illusion of the painted image; instead, the viewer is prompted to consider the painting as a three-dimensional artwork, and why the artist has chosen to manipulate it as such.

In Sacrifice, Kaphar juxtaposes two canvas elements hung side by side. Initially Kaphar painted a single formal grouping of the three men, two Black and one White, who appear to be posed for a portrait. Kaphar then cut out the White seated figure and attached it to a bare stretcher, which hangs alongside the primary canvas. The resulting juxtaposition is thought-provoking and puzzling. The seated figure is now thrown against a white background. His absence in the original painting creates a White void. Kaphar knows that these paintings are hung on white walls, and he effectively activates the wall and the seated figure’s White identity by replacing and surrounding the figure with Whiteness. On the other side of this, the painting’s bare stretcher is juxtaposed with the standing Black figures. Are the Black men to be read as the supporting framework? What is the relationship between the seated and standing figures? These are all questions prompted by Kaphar’s arrangement.

The relationship between the three figures is intentionally ambiguous. The scene appears to date from the 19th century and is likely derived from an actual portrait photograph, but does the image pre-date or post-date the Civil War? Are the Black men slaves, or servants, or employees, or veterans? And is the seated figure a slave owner, or an employer, or an abolitionist? The answer does not appear in the painting. These questions generate a multiplicity of answers, and that is partially Kaphar’s intention. “This idea of layers and multiplicity is a reoccurring theme in my work. There are always multiple narratives. I’m asking the viewer to try to piece that whole story together without leaving behind the valuable narrative of in many cases those people who have been silenced over years” (T. Kaphar, quoted from his 2018 MacArthur Fellow video, https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2018/titus-kaphar).

The painting’s title, Sacrifice, offers a clue as to how the viewer should understand the painting and the artist’s message. But this clue is purposefully enigmatic. Who is being sacrificed? And is the excision of the White figure the sacrificial act, or is it the result of a sacrifice that has occurred beyond the painting? The artwork can be read either way, and without knowing the identity of the sitters and the source of the photograph, it is difficult to say with any certainty which reading is correct.

What is certain is that Kaphar is drawing attention to the historical representation of Black people in painting. “I had one art history book that had a particular chapter in it that actually did focus on Black people, people of color. These characters are often enslaved, in servitude, or impoverished. It drew me to wanting to understand how this all came about—representing Black people—what was their symbolic purpose in the paintings and in the sculptures that they were in, because clearly it wasn’t for them to be the primary character” (T. Kaphar, quoted from his 2018 MacArthur Fellow video, https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2018/titus-kaphar).

In this way, Kaphar is an important disciple of artists such as Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall and Jean-Michel Basquiat, all of whom have made it a goal to increase the visibility of Black people in painting. “If we don’t amend history by making new images and new representations, we are always going to be excluding ourselves or folks that look like us. This is a significant thread in my practice: illuminating the characters who were inevitably there, but no one cared to document their existence” (T. Kaphar, in conversation with C. Rankine, Language of the Forgotten, 2018, p. 49).

More from Post-War to Present

View All
View All