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Universal Archive
William Kentridge
Text and photos courtesy DKW

The Universal Archive began at the David Krut Workshop (DKW) in 2012 and is made up of linocuts printed onto non-archival 1950s dictionary and encyclopaedia paper.

The series contains over 70 individual images, many of which represent recurring motifs commonly seen in Kentridge’s art, ink drawings, sculptures, and stage productions. They depict everyday images such as coffee pots, trees, cats, female nudes, typewriters, horses, and birds.

Kentridge is known for his work in printmaking. In this series gestural marks are achieved in linocut with a remarkable likeness to an ink drawing. The prints began as simple Indian ink drawings, for which Kentridge used what he calls a “good brush” and
a “bad brush”. The former refers to the pristine new brush, which gives perfectly intentional lines. The latter has damaged, splayed bristles which gives a less certain mark. Artists tend to discard the worn, mistreated brush but Kentridge embraces its
individual qualities.


The drawings were initially converted to linocut prints through meticulous hand-carving methods, requiring a dedicated team over a four-year period with each plate taking 20-30 hours. The near-identical replication of Kentridge’s free-hand brush strokes makes for unexpected nuance at the level of technical achievement. Jillian Ross, former Master Printer at DKW points out the influence of Japanese art in terms of line quality. When the series expanded, a photo-transfer process was adopted. Ross speaks of the exacting process as “a giant puzzle constantly solving”.


As the project grew in the number of works Kentridge produced, Ross gave the works individual reference numbers corresponding to when the images were produced. Kentridge enjoyed the technical terminology as well as their link to his subject matter as reference.

Creating editions from multiple overlapping sheets of paper requires complex registration, technical skill, and planning. The project culminated with two large-scale tree images. The first made up of 30 sheets of dictionary paper and the second 104 sheets all overlapping. The sheer scale of these final prints demonstrates the level of technical perfection that the team had reached in order to accomplish this task.

The decision to use non-archival paper is an unusual one in printmaking but was deliberately chosen by Kentridge for its unfixed nature. The dictionary paper resists the ink, which creates a glossy glow on its surface. The dictionary paper serves as
a reference, a tribute even, to a forgotten “old-world” method of accessing information now that the Internet has become so prevalant.


The images in Universal Archive are familiar but abstracted – resembling a person and a coffee pot simultaneously. This merging of objects relates to the artist’s skepticism towards certainty in creative processes. Image mis/identification is core to Kentridge’s practice and is richly explored in this series. If the printed image is not rendered overtly ambiguous, like the ‘coffee pot man’, varying depictions (or deconstructions) of one image, such as a typewriter, are grouped together. In this instance, the recurring image moves from an unquestionable portrayal of the object to a collection of loose lines, that merely suggest the original form. The process by which the viewer projects meaning is sincerely rattled.

Watch a stop animation  on the assembly of If you Have No Eye

William Kentridge , If You Have No Eye

Artist. William Kentridge Title. If You Have No Eye

Dimension. 202cm x 108cm (79½’” x 42½”)

Medium. Linocut printed on Encyclopedia Britannica 

Master Printer. Jillian Ross Date. 2014

Ross, who has worked with Kentridge since the early 2000s, headed the printing process. She stresses that an in-depth understanding of the series requires knowledge of the multiplicity of Kentridge’s projects where the same imagery recurs in varying forms. “Because he often works on a number of projects at once, his ideas for one project tend to fuel another. Images that you see in Universal Archive overlap considerably across many mediums.” Ross adds that she sees the title as a reference
to his personal ‘universal archive’ – the themes and images that he repeatedly draws on to animate his work. Ross indicates that it is important to note that while most artists approach printmaking as a secondary medium, Kentridge treats it as a fundamental tool to continually develop and improve his practice.


It is difficult to get a sense of the staggering volume and variety of work encompassed by this series. The Universal Archive is compiled of over 70 works made using linocut, printed in black ink on dictionary paper and mounted onto a sheet of Velin Arches Cover White 400gsm. The final prints range in size from single dictionary pages to larger works which are assembled from multiple dictionary pages. The subject matter and complexity of the works are a reflection of a project that naturally grew and developed over time. 

Publisher. David Krut

Printed at. David Krut Workshop

Printers. Master Printer Jillian Ross

Mlungisi Khongisa

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