Titus Kaphar is an American painter whose work reconfigures and regenerates art history to include the African-American subject. His paintings are held in the collections of Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, New Britain Museum of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Titus Kaphar was born in 1976 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His first introduction to art was in a junior college art history course, and he taught himself to paint by visiting museums. He received his BFA from San Jose State University in 2001 and his MFA from Yale University. His work is often multidimensional and sculptural, with canvases slashed and dangling off the frame, or hanging over another painting. One such example is his portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted in the Neoclassical style, which he attached to the corner of a nude Sally Hemings' portrait frame. The juxtaposition of the fully clothed Jefferson with Hemmings' nudity reinforces the unfair power dynamic between the two, and revises Jefferson's public image to include his sexual relationship with his much younger slave.
The Vesper Project
The Vesper Project is one of Kaphar's most immersive installations. It concerns a fictional African-American family in the 19th century that passes for white. Kaphar created an installation where visitors would walk through a 19th-century house, uncertain about what was reality and what was remembrance. The project was inspired by Kaphar's attempt to paint a portrait of his aunt, only to realize that parts of his memories of her were fictive. He spoke about the experience while promoting his show: "It occurred to me that, for some reason, my brain had decided to insert her into periods in my life when I needed extra support. That left me reeling; it left me frightened. It made me feel as if I couldn’t trust my own memory. I felt like I was losing my mind." The Vesper Project was also a collaboration with a visitor to the Yale Art Gallery, where one of Kaphar's paintings was displayed. The visitor, Benjamin Vesper, experienced a mental breakdown during his visit and punched one of Kaphar’s paintings. During Vesper's subsequent institutionalization, Kaphar and Vesper began a correspondence. The two exchanged letters for some time, writing about family and mental instability. Vesper broke out of the hospital and visited a 19th-century house, believing it was his family's home. Kaphar intended to create a physical space for Vesper to return and face his memories, and this became the foundation of The Vesper Project. The rooms contain fragments of memories, specters, and paintings. These rooms are able to be walked through and experienced.
Kaphar was commissioned in 2014 by Time magazine to paint a response to the Ferguson Uprising. The work was a 4 ft x 5 ft oil on canvas and used Kaphar's signature style of painting over his own work with white paint. The painting is titled Yet Another Fight for Remembrance and depicts two protesters with their hands raised with white paint streaked over their bodies and faces.
Behind the Myth of Benevolence
In 2014, Kaphar painted Behind the Myth of Benevolence, which depicts President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Jefferson and the mother of six children fathered by Jefferson. Kaphar painted the canvas in such a way as to create the illusion that the portrait of Jefferson painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1800 is being pulled back like a curtain to reveal a seated Hemings. The portrait is effectively a painting within a painting. Kaphar, speaking about the painting and its subject, Sally Hemings, said, "This painting is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and yet it is not. The reason I say, ‘And yet it is not,’ is because we know from the actual history that Sally Hemings was very fair. Very, very fair. The woman who sits here is not just simply a representation of Sally Hemings, she’s more of a symbol of many of the Black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers."
Behind the Myth of Benevolence was damaged on three occasions while it was on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., prompting the museum to post security guards by the painting for the remainder of its exhibition.
- 2000: The House That Crack Built (San Jose State University Gallery)
- 2004: Visual Quotations (Anno Domini Gallery)
- 2005: New Revolution (Yale University Art Gallery)
- 2008: Painting Undone (Gutstein Gallery)
- 2009: History in the Making (Seattle Art Museum)
- 2011: Classical Disruption (Friedman Benda)
- 2012: Behind a veil of beauty (SEM Art Gallery)
- 2013: The Vesper Project (Friedman Benda)
- 2014-2015: The Jerome Project (Studio Museum in Harlem)
- 2015: Drawing the blinds and asphalt and chalk (Jack Shainman Gallery)
- 2015: 99 Jeromes (Art Space)
- 2015: Titus Kaphar: selections from Asphalt and Chalk
- 2000: Black Artists: creations (San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society)
- 2001: The African American Spirit in Contemporary Art (Mexican Heritage Plaza)
- 2002: RePresenting Ourselves (San Jose Museum of Art)
- 2003: (Stop Art Gallery)
- 2004: Edges (Euphrat Museum of Art)
- 2006: Materiality (Kravets Wehby Gallery)
- 2007: Salon Nouveau (Galerie Engholm Engelhorn)
- 2007: My Love is a 187 (The Luggage Store Gallery)
- 2007: Midnight’s Daydream (The Studio Museum in Harlem)
- 2008: Cancelled, Erased & Removed (Sean Kelly Gallery)
- 2009: Your Gold Teeth II (Marianne Boesky Gallery)
- 2010: The Gleaners: Contemporary Art from the Collections of Sarah and Jim Taylor (Victoria H. Myhren)
- 2011: Roundabout (The City Gallery)
- 2011: Reinterpreting the European Collection (Bermuda National Gallery)
- 2012: Pose/RePose (SCAD Museum of Art)
- 2013: 11 Dimensions: Titus Kaphar, Demetrius Oliver, Wardell Milan, Louis B. James (Louis B James Gallery)
- 2014: Beyond the Classical: Imagining the Ideal Across Time (National Academy Museum)
- 2015: To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (Goodman Gallery)
- 2015: New Arrivals 2015: Collecting Contemporary Art at The University of Maryland (Stamp Gallery)
- 2015: Breath/Breadth: Contemporary American Black Male Identity (Maier Museum of Art)
- 2015: The Art of Idea Festival (21c Museum Hotel)
- 2016: I see Myself in You: Selections from the collection (Brooklyn Museum)
- 2016: Winter in America (The School)
- 2016: Us Is Them (The Pizzuti Collecion)
- 2018: UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar (National Portrait Gallery (United States))
- 2020: Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism (University of Michigan Museum of Art)
- 2001- California Arts Council Grantee
- 2004- Belle Arts Foundation Grantee
- 2006- The Studio Museum in Harlem
- 2009-Seattle Art Museum
- 2015-Creative Capital Award
- 2018- MacArthur "Genius" Grant
- "Modern and Contemporary Art". yale.edu. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- "Titus Kaphar". moma.org. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- "Time Person of the Year". time.com. December 10, 2014. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- "Local Donors Strengthen VMFA's Contemporary Collection". vmfa.museum. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
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- "Exchange: Flay (James Madison)". exchange.umma.umich.edu. Retrieved 2020-09-25.
- "Annette Gordon-Reed and Titus Kaphar — Are We Actually Citizens Here?". The On Being Project. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- Frank, Priscilla (2013-02-17). "Artist Titus Kaphar Talks Memory And Madness In His Latest Installation, 'The Vesper Project' (INTERVIEW, PHOTOS)". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- "Exhibit | Titus Kaphar: The Vesper Project - Crave Online". CraveOnline. 2016-12-02. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- generator, metatags. "The Vesper Project - TITUS KAPHAR". TITUS KAPHAR. Retrieved 2017-12-07.
- "Titus Kaphar on Putting Black Figures Back Into Art History and His Solution for the Problem of Confederate Monuments". Artnet News. 27 March 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2021.
- Jacob Urist (23 September 2020). "TITUS KAPHAR, ARTIST OF THE TIMES, PAINTS WITH EYES OPEN". Cultured Magazine. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- Stockman, Farah (16 June 2018). "Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson's Relationship With Sally Hemings". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Mary Louise Kelly (4 October 2018). "Meet The MacArthur Fellow Disrupting Racism In Art". NPR. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- Ray Hardman (11 June 2020). "Painting By New Haven Artist Makes Cover Of Time Magazine". WNPR. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- Victoria L. Valentine (28 March 2018). "National Portrait Gallery: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day Explore 'UnSeen' Narratives in Historic Portraitur". Culturetype. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- Daniel Boffey (27 September 2020). "Rebel US artist puts black lives in the Renaissance frame". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- Alicia Ault (4 April 2018). "Two Artists in Search of Missing History". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
- "UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar, March 23, 2018 - January 6, 2019". Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. 2018. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
- "Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism | University of Michigan Museum of Art". umma.umich.edu. Retrieved 2020-09-25.
- "MacArthur 'Genius' Grant Winners for 2018: The Full List". Retrieved 2018-10-05.