In Conversation

Isabelle Dervaux and Dorothea Rockburne with Phong Bui

In the midst of preparation for the exhibition Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockburne, and the Old Masters, which will be on view from October 12th, 2006, to January 6th, 2008 at the Morgan Library, Isabelle Dervaux, the curator of modern and contemporary drawing at the Morgan, and Dorothea Rockburne, one of the participating artists, paid a visit to the Rail’s headquarters to talk with publisher Phong Bui about the exhibit and more.

Isabelle Dervaus and Dorothea Rockburne at the Rail’s hq. Photo by Phong Bui.
Dorothea Rockburne, Prime Partition Three, 2006. Watercolor on Dura-Lar. 40×30 inches. Courtesy of Greenburg Van Doren Gallery.

Phong Bui (Rail): Drawing has always been treasured by artists because it reveals so much about an artist’s process. As Ingres once said, “Drawing is a probity of art”, and Colin Eisler referred to it as “the seeing hand.” In the 20th century, as our conception of space evolves, the relationship between painting and drawing begins to change. Franz Kline’s habit of drawing on phone book pages and later transferring the visual ideas to large scale painting is an early example of a painter’s feeling his way into a new understanding of space by means of drawing, which must have influenced Dorothea when she studied with him at Black Mountain College. Later, in New York, she joined a group of artists that included Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham and Brian O’Doherty, who used drawing as a primary tool to further examine phenomenological experience of space though geometry. The seminal exhibition, Drawing Now, curated by Bernice Rose at The MoMA in 1975, brought some of these artist’s work together with artists like Oldenberg, Rauschenberg, Johns and Beuys, who were also relying on drawing, though for other ends. The pioneering work done by the artists in this show helped pave the way for an understanding of drawing as not only fundamental to, but potentially independent of painting and sculpture. Now artists as diverse as Mark Lombardi and Dawn Clemens work exclusively in drawing, as does Russell Crotty, who carries on the tradition of using astronomy for inspiration, just as Dorothea’s been doing all along. So what took so long for the Morgan to finally become interested in contemporary drawing, for which you are the first curator?

Isabelle Dervaux: Well, you know J. Pierpont Morgan himself was not particularly interested in the art of his own time—that is the late 19th Century—his drawings collection extended until about 1825. Later on, especially thanks to the generosity of Eugene Thaw, the Morgan acquired superb nineteenth-century drawings. Finally, in the 1990s, the decision was made to extend the collection into the twentieth century, and a position was created for a curator of modern and contemporary drawings. That’s how I came into the picture, two years ago. We have now, I would say, about a hundred drawings from the 20th Century, along with a few from the 21st. A core group consists of major drawings by classic modern—Picasso, Matisse, Pollock—also given by Eugene Thaw. And in 2005 we received a remarkable group of 43 German and Austrian drawings from the early part of the 20th century, with the bequest of Broadway lyricist Fred Ebb.

Rail: The idea of inviting artists to juxtapose their work with work from the museum collection has been carried out by a number of museums, let’s say the National Gallery of Art in London with the popular exhibit, Encounter: New Art from Old, the Connection Series of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and certainly at the MoMA with the Artists’ Choice Selections. But the Morgan’s vast collection of old masters leads me to suspect your vision of this exhibit has a different conception?

Dervaux: There have been comparable exhibitions, more often in Europe actually than the United States. A major one, as you mentioned, was “Encounters” at the National Gallery, for which artists were commissioned to create works based on a work of their choice in the museum collection. For example, Jasper Johns did a painting based on Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, Kiefer created a work in relation to a Tintoretto, etc. There were about twenty-five artists. The Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris have also invited artists to create works in response to pieces in their collection. But in our case, we did not commission any work; instead we invited the artists to select some drawings from the Morgan’s collection to exhibit next to their own, with the idea of engaging a reflection on the medium of drawing. So it’s more specific, in a way, than these other exhibitions, which included various mediums.

Rail: Let’s begin with Dorothea. You often thought of drawing as being as essential to your work as your skeleton is to your body, which tied directly to your love for the art of Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, Mannerism, as well as Russian Constructivism. But knowing that you had studied with Max Dehn at Black Mountain College, how would you describe science and mathematics in relation to your work?

Rockburne: After Black Mountain, I came to New York. My life then was topsy-turvy and I entered a transitional period in my work during which I scrambled to make a living, look after my daughter, and find my artistic identity. Through all of this, I was doing Max Dehn mathematics constantly. I was hooked on his profound teaching of topology. I find it appealing because unlike other forms of science, it is not counter-intuitive. In simple terms, topology can be described as a way of thinking about the space in our universe as one continuous surface with gravitational indentations that we call stars and planets. I was trying to understand this new concept of space as continuum with all previous pictorial re-evaluations of space in art. From Egypt through Greece, Byzantine space, perspectival space, cubism and on into the work of Barnett Newman and many others in America, the underlying issue in art is one of understanding abstract space. The depicted subject matter of art has changed very little from its very beginning. The subject matter has always been the same: people, animals, and still lives. More importantly, it is the structure of art that has changed through the centuries. From the geometric divisions of ancient Egypt through Byzantine Greece, Persian perspective through Renaissance Italian perspective, from Cubist to Non-Objective space, and then crossing the ocean to post- war American painters like Barnett Newman, the revolution lies within the radical perception of a kind of spatial geometry. So, as a young artist Max Dehn, in good part through his work with Henri Poincaré, presented me with a difficult but exciting “ah ha!” moment – which at the time, I couldn’t relate to in my painting. However, my strong feelings let me know that I had to keep on this path until I could figure it out and make concrete objects from the vision of space I was seeing in my head. It was a kind of compulsion. Geometry is a visual mathematic and I work visually. The final painting is meant to be experienced visually. I take it for granted that my depth of soul and visual discernment will be contained in everything I do and that this depth, which is a different kind of struggle in art, will be perceived by those viewers who are open to receiving it. I’d like to add that there is a kind of magic to geometry and higher mathematics. Mathematics is everywhere in the natural world, and since we are part of that world, our emotional responses and keen observation enable us to gain access to this understanding. That understanding of nature through geometry gets transformed in art into ways of perceiving spatial construction. My ambition in painting is to perceive and construct a spatial geometry for the 21st century. I am not alone in this pursuit. But I work visually, and the final painting is meant to be experienced visually. Although it is now apparent that the ancients knew a great deal of astronomy, I think in the 21st century, we have achieved a greater understanding of outer space than ever before. Certainly, astronomy for a long time has recognized that there must be life on other systems and planets.

Rail: And what made you select these particular early “Conservation Class” works?

Rockburne: I made these choices intuitively. Continuity in art has to do with a shared sensibility toward nature. Everything in nature is related to everything else in terms of its material make up. So when the movement in a Mannerist drawing seems to vibrate in tune with one of my own works, I know that they are saying something similar about the world and that they should be paired with one another. Again, it all has to do with issues of movement in space. In this instance, I chose “Conversation Class” series, #5 and #9 from 1973 to correspond to the compositions of Tintoretto’s “Man Climbing into a Boat” and Guercino’s “Galatea Accompanied by Two Tritons” respectively. I was attracted to the way these drawings reflected the fluidity of movement in my own work. The “Conservation Class” series deals with topological and celestial concepts in physical terms.

Rail: How did that tie in with your interest in the Golden Section and perspectival studies?

Parmigianino, Study of Figures in the Foreground of the Marriage of the Virgin, ca. 1526. Red chalk, pen and brown ink, light brown wash on paper 7×9 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Rockburne: When I was a kid in Montreal, I would go to Mont Royal, which is the equivalent of Central Park in New York, to paint landscapes with my Beaux Arts class. One day, I had a revelation. As I was partitioning my canvas according to the golden ratio proportion, I suddenly realized that this was a mental construct. I saw that the landscape had as much to do with the sound of the wind in the trees and the feel of it on my face as it did with color and form. I knew then that what I was engaged in what could be far more than just representation. It was an abstract language akin to thought. This moment has remained with me. By the time I went to Italy in the late 1960s, I was once again working exclusively with the Golden Section in painting. So I was able to grasp its complexities as the mathematical foil by which the Renaissance painters composed their paintings. They would divide and subdivide rectangles according to the Golden Section, then they would move the geometric portions they created from one area of the canvas to another in order to create the complex forms of falling drapery. In fact, I made four paintings called “The Robe Series,” painted in the mid 70s, in reference to how inventive they were in employing the Golden Section, right down to the rendering robes!

Rail: And when were you first exposed to Mannerist paintings? I notice you have chosen their drawings in your presentation.

Rockburne: From the beginning, I was drawn to Mannerism. As a teenager in Montreal I copied their drawings. Then, in 1972 and there onward, Alberto Moretti, who was my dealer and an artist himself, would take me to see many Mannerist frescoes and paintings in obscure places. At once I was moved by the mannerist painters’ reactions against previous formal standards of perspective and color. In place of normal perspective devices, they chose to distort, elongate and exaggerate the forms. The commonality of their composition is often represented by and ‘S’ shaped curve. As you know, there’s always been discussion about who was the first modern artists—whether or not it was Delacroix, Courbet, or Manet. It always seemed to me that Mannerists were the first modern artists, in the sense that you can see what they did in creating this continuity that led up to Romanticism, Impressionism, Matisse, Picasso, and the rest thereafter.

Dervaux: Absolutely. The Renaissance established a whole set of rules of representation. When the Mannerists came along, they rejected those rules, or took great liberties with them for the sake of expression. They explored what you could do with the specific properties of painting or drawing. One could say the same thing about what happened in the late 19th century with the Realist and then the Impressionist artists rejecting the academy, at the beginning of Modernism.

Georg Baselitz, Untitled, 1966/67. India ink, pencil, watercolor on paper, 17 1/4×12 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Rail: And how does this relate to your selection of more recent work for the show, Dorothea? Could you talk about the impetus for “Dark Angel: Elephant” from 1982?

Rockburne: Well, “Dark Angel: Elephant” stems from my fascination with the construct of angels. The Catholic Church conceived of monastic life ideally as mirroring angelic orders so that there were types of angels to represent variations in human activity. This was a revitalization of an ancient concept that seems to have originated in Egypt. I decided to make my own angels. I mentioned vibrations earlier. At a certain point, I began to conceive of angels as representative of the vibrations given off by all matter to which humans can respond if they train themselves. I found that this fit with my scientific interests and in “The Plan of St. Gaul,” I was able to explore how these same vibrations were present in the plans for the construction of the Cistercian Abbey which is meant to allow sound to travel harmonically and sequentially through the rooms according to the Golden Ratio. My interest in these subjects was later reinforced in my visits to Italy, especially my stay in Florence in 1973, where I spent the entire month looking at Pontormo’s great altarpiece,The Entombment” at the Capponi Chapel of Santa Felicita. That’s why I picked his two studies of arms and hands. As for my recent work, “Prime Partition Three,” from 2006, and “The Poincaré Conjecture,” from 2007, they both contain eliptical curves in transition from one to four imagined dimensions, which has to do with my interest in astronomy. I chose the one head of Tintoretto and two of Beccafumi because of the way they attacked the concept of drawing a head – through proportion, distortion and visual invention.

Rail: Could you tell us a little more about Baselitz’s selection?

Domenico Beccafumi, Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right. 1530s, Egg tempera on brown paper; outlined indented; varnished. 10×8 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Dervaux: Baselitz focused his selection on Parmigianino. In 1965, he spent several months in Florence, where he discovered with enthusiasm the work of Parmigianino, Pontormo, Rosso, and other Mannerist artists. His own art was very much informed by that experience—until then he was painting figures that were rather grotesque in their deformation. This was a reaction to the German tradition –that of Dürer for instance—which he found rigid and boring. In Mannerism he found a freedom that appealed to him. He could relate to the Mannerists’ paintings for their freedom and excesses.

Rail: He went back and kept a studio in Florence and started another in Castiglioni Fiorentino, a small town near Arezzo. And he collected many of their prints.

Dervaux: That’s right. He has a collection of 250 or more Mannerist prints. They influenced his fractured drawings, which, in turn, led to the reversed or upside-down images from 1969 on. We have great examples of the relationship between mannerist drawings and Baselitz’s works in the exhibition with drawings such as Divided Hero from 1966/67 and Ism of 2006.

Rockburne: I recognize Baselitz’s process and I find it very compelling. I’d also like to add that I’m passionate about the way the Mannerists employ color. Even though it seems to be derived from nature, whether or not the pinks and greens all come from nature, they were all painted with such intensity. They were really pushing the envelope.

Rail: And what about Ellsworth Kelly? In addition to his brilliant understanding of the power that can be found in an economy of line, the acute observation from nature, and the ability to relate that experience to abstraction, I think Kelly has found a way to achieve plastic form in two dimensional representation without having to go through the analytical process of Cubism.

Dervaux: Kelly selected old master drawings that are very much in keeping with his own practice, that is drawings that have a strong linear quality, an Ingres for instance, or Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, Saint-Remy de Provence, from 1889, in which the multiplicity of lines gives the image a wonderful rhythm. He also chose drawings that are sketches, as opposed to finished drawings, because of what they reveal about the artist’s process.

Rockburne: If you look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” with its swirling sky and inventive space, it seems he must have been thinking about Mannerist expression.

Rail: Kelly’s exhibit, Tablet: 1948 – 1973 three years ago at the Drawing Center, was a real revelation to me. Everything he did and continues to do is so rooted in his keen observation, which is well-documented in the form of photographs, cut or torn pieces of newspaper, and so on. I remember quite clearly two examples, one a photograph from some exhibit which was taken from a slight angle, and the top left of one painting is cut off, so in classic Kelly fashion, he drew the two lines of the top and the left side of the painting as they should continuously meet. The other was another photograph of a bridge—left completely untouched—that lies vertically, somewhat off from the center, and seen from a bird’s-eye view, with the two main cables curved upward on each side, both of which got transformed into his more realized paintings later as we all know. So if Brice Marden thinks of Bob Ryman as our Vermeer, I’d like to think of Kelly as our contemporary equivalent to Matisse. Let’s shift to the question of how you see the various differences and similarities between Baselitz’s and Dorothea’s perception of Mannerist drawings, since they both selected drawings from that period from the Morgan Collection.

Dervaux: Well, I can’t really speak for Dorothea, but the way she was looking at those drawings, it seemed to have more to do with space, whereas Baselitz was attracted to the excesses of Mannerism.

Rockburne: Absolutely. Space as the summation of Neo-Platonic philosophy stretching from Egypt into the 21st century.

Rail: Isabelle, could you elaborate on Penone’s work in relationship to his selection?

Dervaux: I’ve always admired his work, which seems to be better known in Europe than here. Penone’s approach to drawing is very original and very much related to his sculptural work. To him both mediums are similar in their processes. Both are about leaving a mark of the body on a support. He describes drawing as “the organization in space of a dirty material.”

Rail: Penone has a profound identification with nature, partly due to his upbringing in a small rural village near Turin, as well as his admiration for his father who was trained as a traditional sculptor. So while the former manifests in certain motifs such as the potatoes, twigs, stones, and so on, the later reveals his respect for crafts and technique.

Dervaux: Yes, the relationship to nature is essential to him, and especially trees, which play a major role in his art. When he came to the Morgan, we spent a whole day looking through countless old master drawings. The next day, he made his selection, which ranges from Breugel, Ribera, and Piranesi, to Cézanne and Klimt, and reflects Penone’s own interest in the relationship between man and his surroundings. Penone was particularly happy when he came across Ribera’s drawing of Marsyas Bound to a Tree. This is really a scene of torture (it illustrates the myth of Marsyas who, after having lost the musical contest to Apollo, was bound to a tree to be flayed), but for Penone, this anthropomorphic tree, with its two branches extending upward like two arms on either side of the trunk, is directly related to his own work. The fusion of man and tree is central to his art. He saw in Ribera’s drawing a close correspondence with his own interventions in nature.

Rockburne: What’s so interesting to me about Penone is that he has somehow integrated Surrealism into his work. There is a wonderful thread connecting what is real and what is surreal throughout the body of his work. And he expresses this in a completely new way. I find it both fascinating and moving.

Rail: That’s what he shares with Mario Merz—the ability to make large scale works look intimate.

Dervaux: And that’s all about sensuality.

Rockburne: Yes, however assertive the conceptual basis may be, still the work is made by hand.

Rail: How do you feel about the show as a whole, given that it is the of this kind for the Morgan?

Dervaux: I’m very excited and pleased with the exhibition. First of all, it’s been a wonderful experience and privilege to work directly with the artists and to look at drawings with them. I think what’s important for the Morgan is that in this exhibition, instead of presenting our old master drawings—Mantegna, Dürer, Bruegel, Watteau, Ingres, Degas, and so on—in an historical context, among other drawings by the same artist, the same school, etc, we’re showing them among contemporary works, and through the eyes of contemporary artists, so that the emphasis is on the process of drawing itself. These old master drawings are shown as living art. In the context of this exhibition, their historical meaning or importance is irrelevant. The exhibit is about looking at drawings, period.

Rail: That’s terrific, because the Morgan has a past history of contemporary artists who would come to look at the various treasures in the collection, and in some instances, their work is forever changed by the experience. Of course, the most well-known example would be that of Meyer Schapiro, who actually brought Léger to the Morgan, during his stay in New York for his 1935 retrospective at MoMA, to see the great 10th century illuminated manuscript: a commentary on the Apocalypse written by the Spanish Monk, Beatus. When Léger came back as a refugee during World War II, his canvases were painted with figures against wide bands of strong color, as he had seen nearly twenty years before in the Beatus. I’m just glad that the experience comes around in full circle, and I’m sure general viewers will find this exhibit interesting, particularly young artists.

Rockburne: I think that art is the greatest continuum in human history. For the most part, artists don’t make art for art history, or for any other reason, but for each other. I’m certain that by presenting art in this context, all artists are in a position to benefit.

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Phong Bui

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