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by Deborah Ripley
A handful of great artists are able to work across disciplines with ease, and the South African animator, artist and stage director William Kentridge seems to be one of them. A major retrospective of his work has opened at the Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 24-May 11, 2010, and his new production of the Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center on Mar. 5, 2010 -- and both are winning rave reviews. Move over, Picasso

The South African print and book publisher David Krut, whose New York gallery is located at 526 West 26th Street in Chelsea, has worked with Kentridge since 1992. On the occasion of the new opera, he published a special suite of 30 etchings entitled "Nose." Done in an edition of 50, the suite of etchings is priced at $80,000; individual prints are $3,300.

Kentridge himself is expected at the David Krut Gallery at 10:30 am on Saturday, Mar. 13, 2010, to sign copies of his new book, Nose --which is published by Krut as a catalogue of the "Nose" prints, which are currently on view in the space. The following interview was conducted with David Krut on Mar. 9 at his gallery.

Deborah Ripley: When did you first start working with Kentridge?

David Krut: I met William in 1992 at an opening in Johannesburg. We found out we had a lot in common and developed a friendship. At the time he was working with one guy who had a print shop about 300 miles outside of Joberg -- who was very innovative but not a practiced printer. Kentridge was going to England for an exhibition and I suggested he meet with Jack Sherreff, the master printer at 107 Workshop, so that he could work really big. The large yellow print The General done in 1993 was one of the first results. William worked with Jack on and off until 2000. I also introduced William to David Hockney’s printer, the fine intaglio printer Maurice Payne, and in 2001 we completed a marvelous set, "Zeno at 4 A.M," which is part of the MoMA exhibition. And now this project, a set of 30 etchings, which encompass the ideas that developed into "The Nose" opera.  

DR: How did "The Nose" suite of prints develop?

DK: After seeing Kentridge’s 2005 production of "The Magic Flute," Metropolitan Opera director Peter Gelb asked Kentridge to direct and design an opera. Gelb was familiar with Kentridge’s work; in fact he had collected his prints. Kentridge was intrigued by the famous Gogol story that follows the adventures of a pompous government official named Kovalyov, who wakes up one day to find that his nose has left his face and gone walking around St Petersburg.

When Kentridge begins a project, he works through ideas really intensively, starting with drawing on a copper plate. The prints are a way for him to think out loud -- to try on different ideas that will eventually lead to the opera. He often uses art historical sources; he’s got this great collection of great paintings of postcards, including Manet’s Bar at Folies Bergere, Ingres’ Olympia and Degas’ Absinthe Drinker. I went to see him on a Friday and when I came back on Monday, he had copied them all as gouaches and they became a starting point for the earlier prints in the series.

Kentridge works unbelievably fast. There are images of the Nose riding horses -- Kentridge was making equestrian sculptures at the time, but he was also exploring this old Russian saying that is used to deny guilt, "I am not me, the horse is not mine." As he went along, Kentridge decided to project Gogol’s story forward to the 1917 Russian Revolution and he used archival footage as a source. But he also decided to include allusions to Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.

DR: Is there an order to the 30 prints in the suite?

DK: The prints didn’t actually include the engraved number in the upper corner until the end. Just like Kentridge doesn’t storyboard his stop-animation films, he doesn’t know where he’s going to end up. He often puts down ideas and then finds ways to connect them. At the later stage he had the idea of what the opera was going to look like so the prints start to reference specific scenes -- here you see a man executing the nose, and this one has the letters "XA," which is the Russian sound of laughter. One of my favorites is this print of the love letter written by the daughter of Podtochina to the main character Kovalyov after he accuses her of stealing his nose.

DR: Can you talk a little about the production of the prints?

DK: In 2006, when I told Jillian Ross, the master printer of my print workshop in Johannesburg, that she was going to be working with William, she was terrified -- he’s the most famous artist in South Africa, but also he is a brilliant printmaker himself -- he taught etching at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. William looks at a plate and analyzes immediately what he needs. Unlike many artists, William considers printmaking on an equal level with all his other artistic activities –– the MoMA show has over 100 prints in it.

DR: How did you come to doing a suite of 30?

DK: In 1980, William wanted to do a suite of 40 etchings, but he never finished the project, so originally he had that number in mind, but it ended up being 30. When we started this project in 2005, it was very low-key -- we were receiving three or four plates and we would pull proofs and then send the plates to London to be steel-faced. But eventually that got too laborious (and there was an incident when a plate went missing in the post) so we installed a steel-facing machine in South Africa. When we had this March deadline, the pace picked up and happily Jillian and William really developed a rhythm of working together to finish on time.

I have come a long way from when this gallery ten years ago was a print shop, with a press operated by Randy Heminghaus, and we had a rather casual way of working. This is the biggest project with any artist I have ever done, with close on 2,000 prints (30 prints in an edition of 50). A word about the edition size -- Kentridge is very generous and he likes to give the prints as thank you gifts to his numerous collaborators on the opera and so on.

DR: The layout here in the gallery of the set is very different from how the prints are installed at MoMA. Can you explain any reason why?

DK: William had only two walls at MoMA so the installation is much more compact than here at the gallery, but he specified that the prints shouldn’t be chronologically or numerically displayed

DR: How many sets will be kept intact?

DK: I am reserving 10 sets in the hopes that museums will acquire them. A lot of the curators still don’t get the importance of his prints. William’s work is so cerebral, and these are harder to grasp than the stop-action films or even the drawings.

DR: What do you think your contribution has been to the understanding of Kentridge’s work?

DK: Prints are all about the popularization of knowledge. The dissemination of prints allowed art audiences outside of South Africa to get to know Kentridge’s work long before he had an international following and a big gallery. And in South Africa, I am trying to encourage intelligence -- prints have first and foremost allowed communication at all levels in society -- and I hope this is especially true with these prints.

DEBORAH RIPLEY is Artnet’s print specialist.