Titus Kaphar - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'If we don’t amend history by making new images and new representations, we are always going to be excluding ourselves.' —Titus Kaphar

    In his dramatic facing down of the marginalisation and outright omission of Black narratives and subjectivities within Western art historical tradition, American painter, sculptor, filmmaker and installation artist Titus Kaphar belongs to an important tradition of Black artists challenging and reimaging the canon that includes Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshal, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Painting in a highly polished academic style, Kaphar’s figurative scenes and portraits are powerful visualisations of absence and trauma rooted in history and persisting to the present day. 
    Using classical works as a starting point for his own paintings, Kaphar works through a process of covering, defacing, manipulating and cutting away elements from these source materials as a highly expressive means of making visible certain submerged histories. 


    Turning to one of the most iconographic scenes in Western painting – the crucifixion and lamentation of Christ – Holy Absence II offers a bold statement on the erasure of Black experience from the canon of Western art, and of the racial bias and exclusion upon which European religious discourse has been historically built upon. 


    Frans Porbus, Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, second half of the 16th century, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg  
    Detail of the present work 


    Evidence of Things Unseen 

    'This body of work is not a critique of the church, per se, it’s a visual representation of those religious stories, those stories that often took place in Africa and the Middle East, but somehow forget what people in Africa and the Middle East actually look like.' —Titus Kaphar

    Renaissance religious paintings and Christian imagery form an important source of inspiration for Kaphar’s work, as his 2020 exhibition The Evidence of Things Unseen presented by Maruani Mercier Gallery in a deconsecrated Church in Brussels emphasised. Riffing on the Biblical figure of ‘doubting Thomas’, who refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ without tangible proof, the exhibition title, and the Biblical story that it references, illuminate key preoccupations of visibility and absence interrogated throughout the artist’s varied body of work. 


    Just as Thomas took proof of the material reality of a resurrected Christ by placing his hand inside the wound in his side, Kaphar opens up physical wounds within his paintings, not to erase the histories they represent, but to shift his viewer’s gaze to what or whom that history has omitted. As with the first Holy Absence painting, included in The Evidence of Things Unseen, the present work prominently features a cut-out area where the figure of Christ should be. However, where the first work retains this wound as a stark, white absence, in Holy Absence II, Kaphar has inserted a tentative Black figure, adding a second layer to the painting that, the artist seems to suggest, was perhaps there, behind the Christ figure all along. 
    'Art history helped me to realize that painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important. It's coded.' —Titus Kaphar

    Absence and Trauma 


    Working in the tradition of Kerry James Marshall, Kaphar shares a similar awareness that Black figures ‘are often pushed to the corners of the compositions. They’re hidden. They’re in the shadows.’ However, where Marshall’s focus remains on re-centring Black experience through a celebration of ‘a certain kind of normalcy; a kind of everyday-ness, a commonplace-ness – a sense of simple presence’, Kaphar’s interventions go somewhat further into questions surrounding the trauma of this absence.ii In the present work and a related painting Jesus Noir, Kaphar reinserts the Black figure into the centre of these religious narratives, effacing the grieving faces of prominent Biblical characters and detaching their powerful and universal expression of grief from racial limitations.


    As we can see in Holy Absence II, the manipulation of the visual codes of the original painting goes further than recentring the Black figure in this narrative alone, but in the effacement of the grieving faces of Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary Kaphar also detaches their powerful and universal expression of grief from racial form racial limitations. 


    Using a razor blade to cut directly into canvas, Kaphar’s methods are already in close proximity to trauma and pain, a technique that the artist has used to haunting effect in his recent series of paintings exploring loss and Black motherhood. Presented at Gagosian in 2019, these are powerfully affecting in their representation of loss, the cut out absences of babies from their mother’s arms a shocking visual acknowledgment of the global work being done by the Black Lives Matter movement. 


    Moving from appropriations of religious painting to the tender depiction of George Floyd’s mother on the cover of TIME magazine in the wake of his murder, Kaphar collapses any sense of historical distance between historical painting and contemporary painterly issues, Kaphar’s interventions expose the complex racial politics of representation, and ongoing prejudice and injustice in contemporary American society. 



    A post shared by TIME (@time)

    Titus Kaphar’s cover for TIME magazine to commemorate George Floyd 


    Collector’s Digest


    •    With works now residing in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, Titus Kaphar has exhibited extensively in the United States and internationally with solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. The artist was awarded with a MacArthur fellowship in 2018.  


    •    Represented by Gagosian since 2019, Kaphar’s first exhibition with the Gallery From a Tropical Stance, 2020 was a critical success. His work was also selected for inclusion in the Gallery’s Socia Works group exhibition, featuring socially engaged work by Black artists. 


    •    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.
    i Titus Kaphar, quoted in “Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism in Art?,” National Public Radio: TED Radio Hour, November 10, 2017, online 
    ii Kerry James Marshall, cited in Gabriel Coxhead, ‘When you put black people in a picture what should they be doing?’, Apollo, 13 July 2019, online 

    • Provenance

      Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Jack Shainman Gallery, Titus Kaphar: Drawing the Blinds, 15 January - 21 February 2015

    • Artist Biography

      Titus Kaphar

      Titus Kaphar’s work questions the nature of history and its representations in the past and today. By altering the materiality of his paintings, sculptures, and installations, Kaphar subverts conventional understandings of historical representations and exposes the uncomfortable and troubling realities of the racism in America’s past. Kaphar’s examinations of historical representations and the omissions of such representations encourage viewers to question their own relationships to history and understandings of the past. He strives to dislodge history from the past and to promote its relevance in the world today. 

      Kaphar’s work has received considerable acclaim, and his paintings have graced two covers of Time magazine. He is the recipient of a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship and his work is represented in such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, and the Perez Art Museum Miami. He lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.

      View More Works


Holy Absence II

signed and dated ‘Kaphar 14’ on the reverse
oil and gold leaf on canvas
142.2 x 88.3 cm (56 x 34 3/4 in.)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £315,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021