Drawing Now: Eight Propositions

Curated by Laura Hoptman

The Museum of Modern Art, Queeens

The art of drawing has been crucial to modernism from its inception through its complicated demise, and for several reasons. As Charles Baudelaire perceived in his reflections on Daumier, the speed and immediacy of drawing is peculiarly suited to the cacophonous shock of the modern city, and this virtue was again deployed with venomous black humor in George Grosz’s depictions of greed, lust, and violence in 1920s Berlin: As one already knew from Goya’s great etchings, the drawn line can bite with a viciousness more nuanced mediums cannot. The points and lines out of which drawings are built (consider the infinitesimal hatchings with which Dürer and Mantegna model their drawn figures) are among the fundaments of the pictorial and are therefore the focus of artists seeking to transfigure visual language or to distill it to its basic elements—think of Seurat’s pointillist charcoal sketches, Picasso and Braque’s fierce early cubist studies, or even Umberto Boccioni’s ghostly motion drawings: simple and intimate, a kind of ground zero, drawing has served as a space, not of polished masterpieces, but of risky experiment. For New York School painters like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, the practice of drawing involved liberating both inward emotion and the propulsive energy of the free line, and for subsequent generations drawing has served as an alchemical laboratory where expression, material, and the boundaries of art are tested. Artists as diverse as Ellsworth Kelly, Eva Hesse, Brice Marden, and Richard Tuttle all have important bodies of drawings which are marked by their exposure, fragility, lyricism, and openness. In short, drawing is important; drawing has always been important; there is no such thing as a renewal of drawing.

Curated by Laura Hoptman, formerly an Assistant Curator in the Department of Drawing at the Museum of Modern Art and now Curator of Contemporary Art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Drawing Now: Eight Propositions at MoMA’s temporary home in Queens through January 6, 2003, presents over 250 drawings by twenty-six artists and one collective, all of them relatively young and many of them relatively unknown. The show is accompanied by a catalogue with an extended essay by Laura Hoptman. The “Eight Propositions” around which Drawing Now is organized are not programmatic theses of the kind put forward by Sol LeWitt in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” but are rather thematic headings which at most suggest tendencies in drawing over the past decade: “Science and Art, Nature and Artifice,” for example, “Ornament and Crime: Toward Decoration,” “Mental Maps and Metaphysics,” “Comics and other Subcultures.” Unlike the drawings of process-oriented artists of a previous generation like Mel Bochner, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Serra, Laura Hoptman suggests that recent practitioners are free of Modernism’s obsessive, self-conscious scrutiny of the material, language, and performance of art-making, and view drawings as highly finished, self-contained objects. Inverting Mel Bochner’s comment in “Anyone Can Learn to Draw” that “drawing is a verb” (the quote is usually misattributed to Richard Serra, perhaps because of his famous “List of Verbs”), Hoptman entitles the introduction to her catalogue essay “Drawing is a Noun,” meaning that the works in this very attractive exhibition are not the traces of some other activity, are not searching experiments, but are complete in and of themselves. And while one should not belabor clever phraseology, and there is surely nothing wrong with finished drawings and refined draftsmanship, the epithet “drawing is a noun” haunts the show with the suspicion that what we are being offered is work that is slick, static, and self-satisfied, work which answers easy questions rather than raising and groping towards difficult ones. Hoptman’s touting of a revival of skilled draftsmanship should raise suspicions. Is it so obvious at this point what good draftsmanship is? Is that something we value in art in and of itself?

Five Nocturnes, Russell Crotty, 1996. Ballpoint pen on paper in linen bound book containing 5 gatefold drawings. closed: 62 × 31 1/2 × 2" (157.5 × 80 × 5.1 cm). open: 62 × 117" (157.5 × 297.2 cm). Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

Drawing Now’s first proposition, “Science and Art, Nature and Artifice,” is devoted to drawings which reflect both traditional scientific draftsmanship and drawing from nature: prior to the advent of photography, drawing was, after all, an investigative tool—think of Vesalius’s gruesome anatomical drawings, Dürer’s drawings of animals, Leonardo’s drawings of the destructive forces of nature. One of the show’s most compelling and idiosyncratic discoveries is Los Angeles-based amateur astronomer, surfer, and artist Russell Crotty. Crotty does intricate and sometimes enormous ballpoint pen drawings of his observations of the night sky from his makeshift observatory in Malibu Canyon. Set against silhouettes of plants and trees or of astronomical instruments and with huge expanses sky above, Crotty’s drawings are at once minutely detailed and awkwardly literal, stars, planets, comets, and galactic clouds all a haunted, luminous presence. Whereas Ross Bleckner’s paintings of the cosmos assert vaulting, transcendent allegories, the strength of Crotty’s drawings is that they are an attempt to chart the observed heavens from a finite and largely unaided point of view. Better known for his coolly glamorous installations of photographs and videos, Ugo Rondinone also makes sketches of Alpine strolls in his native Switzerland which he then blows up into huge ink drawings. In part imitating the kitsch 19th century drawings of beautiful views, precursors of picture postcard photographs, the scale of Rondinone’s drawings, and the dense black of the ink against the shimmering white of the paper, renders them claustrophobic and abstract: the lines twist and snarl, resisting perspective, and the blank, shining highlights seem to skitter and flicker. In her “Flow Chart for the ‘Perfect Ride’ Animation” (1999-2000), Jennifer Pastor aspires to chart the flow of energy in a cowboy’s bucking bronco ride, but, despite the undulating lines diagramming the motion, the drawings themselves remain static. The mechanical style of Pastor’s drawings fails to embody the rider’s precarious balance atop the broad back of the thrashing bull.

The highlight of “Ornament and Crime: Toward Decoration” are Chris Ofili’s drawings. Ofili became famous (and in pious circles infamous) for the wildly psychedelic, bead-encrusted paintings to which he affixed fat balls of elephant dung, and by comparison his drawings are austere and elegant. In “Albinos and Bros with Fros” (1999), strings of little heads with dark afros and beards bow out toward the viewer, and above smaller, lightly drawn outlines of heads curve upwards, the whole structure forming a curtain pulled tight at the center; the sheer goofiness of the funky heads is counterbalanced by the pristine tautness and motion of the lines. “Prince Among Thieves with Flowers” (1999) features Ofili’s signature ornamental African prince, familiar from paintings like “The Shadow of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars” (1998). Built up out of the little heads with afros, the profiled head and beard and the decorative arabesques curling across his shoulders are drawn over faint sketches of plants and flowers. Like Ellen Gallagher’s send-ups of Agnes Martin paintings with their fine, horizontal lines disrupted by swarms of minute Sambo lips, Offili’s drawings are at once luxuriant and mocking, a hybrid of formalism and satire. Laura Owens’s wispy Victorian plant and mirror motifs in her watercolor and colored pencil drawings, on the other hand, while full of knowing pleasure, never get beyond their decorative prettiness. The title “Ornament and Crime: Toward Decoration” refers to Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s seminal polemic against ornament in his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime.” Modernist architecture’s repudiation of the ornamental is directed against features of buildings that are structurally superfluous, but the issue has never been the same in painting and sculpture: Picasso, Braque, Gris, Matisse, Brancusi, and Klee, among others, all made use of decorative patterns to various ends. The pejorative sense of “decorative” comes from its being static and not bearing meaning. The stunning gift drawings by second-generation Shaker women displayed last year at The Drawing Center, as well as the in many ways similar drawings in the late Margaret Kilgallen’s installation at the Whitney Biennial, have an urgent, active, visionary quality which Laura Owens’s drawings so palpably lack.

One of the curious features of Drawing Now is that the propositions often appear arbitrary; “Drafting and Architecture” and “Mental Maps and Metaphysics,” propositions three and five respectively, are at least akin to one another. Kevin Appel’s rotating perspectives on a simple one-story bungalow, its sliding rectangles painted with a translucent liquid acrylic which makes them look like scrims, are sleek but hardly visionary and add nothing to the language of either architecture or geometric abstraction. For an authentic exploration of the language of architecture, one can just walk down the hall in the Museum of Modern Art and look at The Changing of the Avant-Garde, selections from Howard Gilman’s stunning collection of visionary architectural drawings. Julie Mehretu’s drawings in ink and colored pencil on vellum take fragments of architecture culled from the Internet—buildings, seating plans, urban maps—and pull them into a layered, centripetal vortex of bands and fierce gestural scribblings, so that the generic, institutional shapes seem to be disassembling into kinetic abstractions. In a way, Mehretu’s drawings are anti-architectural, anti-diagrammatic. Viewers may have seen Matthew Ritchie’s recent exhibit of paintings and a wall installation at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, but Ritchie is at best an efficient, graphic painter with little feeling for material, and his idiosyncratic hybrid of crackpot biology and visionary comic book fantasy is better served in a more whimsical idiom. Drawn in colored ink and graphite on long, horizontal sheets of plastic, the seven drawings of “Everyone Belongs to Everyone Else” (2000-2001) trace a circular myth of origin through morphing correspondences: flayed sylph-like figures dance in translucent green water, shafts of light knife down from rafts of clouds, clouds and drifting islands disintegrate into molecules, cells, and wriggling biomorphic creatures, and this whole fluid, transfiguring process is overwritten with diagrams and equations. Ritchie’s drawing has an effortless, liquid facility which evokes, not Gnostic visionaries like William Blake, but rather Surrealist masters like Max Ernst. And yet, despite Ritchie’s explanations of his own symbolic system, something mechanical has crept into Ritchie’s work and it increasingly feels like clever artifice; unlike William Blake, or for that matter Henry Darger, Ritchie’s art lacks the harried urgency of authentic cosmic vision. German artist Franz Ackermann travels the world extensively, and the mixed media drawings he makes as he goes are psychedelic fantasies—“mental maps,” he calls them—based on his experiences. None of these bright, thick drawings contain figures; they are congested swirls of distorted architecture, maps, and abstract shapes; they are anonymous, uninhabited cities glimpsed in passing. In “trans east west (tew) no. 6: rebuilding beirut” (1999), thick, blood red arterial lines spread over the map of a city, and in “trans east west (tew) no. 23: two ruins representing one state” (1999) there is a double window into which lines resembling electrical cords snake and in which two cell-like shapes open onto views of ancient ruins. Whereas both Julie Mehretu’s and Matthew Ritchie’s work imply the generative and combinatory possibilities of digital technologies, Ackermann’s work is compelling in part because of the literalness with which it is executed.

“Drawing Happiness” includes three artists whose work is obsessive, deadpan, and dystopian. Massive and rendered in crazed detail, Paul Noble’s “Nobson Newtown” is a Piranesian deconstruction of Le Courbusier’s Radiant City. In the aerial view of “Nobson Central” (1998-1999), for example, a kind of monument is raised in the center of a neighborhood that is randomly arranged and either unfinished or recently bombed: there are no streets, no trees, and most of the grimly geometrical structures are half-demolished. In “Nobspital” (1997-1998), the elaborately stacked futuristic shapes, a helipad on a scaffolding rising from the top, exclude the building from being used as a hospital or for any other human purpose. David Thorpe’s collages are impressive if only for the labor intensive, mad hobbyist quality of the craftsmanship involved in fashioning landscapes and buildings out of strips of colored paper. In “Out from the Night, the Day is Beautiful and We Are Filled with Joy” (1999), bat-like, radar-evading bombers bank over a picture postcard Western landscape, and in “We Are Majestic in The Wilderness” (1999) tiny RVs are perched atop a soaring cliff, the sky dawn pinks and lavenders. Thorpe’s collages reference both Thomas Cole’s sublime landscapes and tourist kitsch, but here the mythic American wilderness is sullied by religious fanatics, research institutes, and military training exercises. Both Paul Noble’s and David Thorpe’s work is reserved and meticulous, and by comparison East German born artist Neo Rauch’s drawings in oil on paper are raucous. Like fellow East German Georg Baselitz’s early work, Rauch uses Socialist Realism’s monumentalizing, historical style to sardonic ends. In “Warner” (1999), men dressed in generic work gear sit at a picnic table wielding weird devices which look like they might be used to spray insecticide, and in the disjointed spaces of “Messe” (1999) there is a garage, clunky sculptural figures waiving long batons, and figures with the spraying devices milling about. In what may be the strongest piece, “Weiche” (1999), two formidable amazons, one in a green smock holding flag with a curved arrow on it, the other in a short skirt and jackboots, hold up what may be a lid over a grave. Paul Noble’s and David Thorpe’s critiques are barbed yet self-evident; Rauch, on the other hand, has hit upon something more unsettling. Rauch’s paintings are ironical allegories of work and history, and yet Rauch seems to understand that, in this post-Cold War, post-capitalist, post-historical era, there is some basic way in which we can no longer understand what we are doing and where we are historically.

The sections of Drawing Now which fall under the rubric of “Popular and National Culture” and “Comics and other Subcultures” are redundant and generally weak. This should come has no surprise, since these charged yet dated terms typically shut down thought rather than provoke it. Does anyone make a sharp distinction between popular and high culture at this point? Between mainstream culture and subculture? Is there even such a thing as national culture in the age of corporate globalism? Kai Althoff’s melancholy watercolors may express a longing for the woodcutting and strolls through the primeval forest of his German ancestors, but the drawings themselves, with their fuzzy, saturated, bleeding tones, drip with sentimentality. Shahzia Sikander’s illuminated pages can be complex, beautiful, and pointed, but the pencil drawings and the collage included in Drawing Now are clearly minor efforts and are nowhere near the level of her best work. Kara Walker is best known for the silhouetted figures that are part of her savagely comic installations, one of which is currently on view at the Guggenheim in the Moving Images exhibit, but it is nice to see her accomplished sequence of watercolors, “Negress Notes” (1996). Walker’s theme is always African-American history as it has been deformed by racist narratives in film and literature, and her watercolors are deft, funny, melodramatic, and satirical in the tradition of Goya and Daumier: In one drawing, a diminutive, cowering black man decked in courtly attire is impaled on a pole spiked by an American eagle and bearing an American flag. San Francisco graffiti artist Barry McGee is best known on the East Coast for his wall-paintings of mutant, sad-eyed figures. The untitled compilation of framed drawings of figures and texts, photographs of the artist tagging walls, and found objects displayed in Drawing Now, however, seem mannered and self-conscious. And while Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s two versions of “Study for SMP Ko2” (1999) are too slickly imitative of his anime influences, Yoshitomo Nara’s series of drawings on crudely torn-out sheets of notebook paper and envelopes return to the angry, childish, doodling roots of cartoons. In one drawing, there is a stuffed, spiky-haired dog nailed to the wall, the scrawled caption reading “Stuffed dog. No pain/no again.” Whereas McGee’s drawings have a hipster polish, the entries in “Time of My Life” (1992-2000) are jagged and raw.

The work included under Drawing Now’s final propositions, “Fashion, Likeness, and Allegory,” constitute the show’s one unqualified and sadly unnecessary misstep. Elizabeth Peyton’s tender, roseate celebrity friends and oversensitive slackers have been compared to Watteau. Yet Watteau was a great stylist and his figures are deeply melancholic; Peyton’s generic, poorly rendered figures are not so much sad as totally vacuous. Graham Little’s florid, anonymous colored pencil portraits of women in designer jackets, blouses, and skirts, while strenuously realized, have nothing to add beyond the fashion advertising they imitate: the women are empty, the fashions are of no interest, and anything resembling a critical perspective is wholly absent. Foregrounding glamour and posture is not without interesting possibilities. The sheer dress in Frederic Leighton’s allegorical “Flaming June” (1895), which Laura Hoptman reproduces in the catalogue, is full of immediate, decadent, sexual heat, and Ingre’s late portraits of women, in which the women look overwhelmed by their tresses of hair, their ball gowns, and the accoutrements of their boudoirs, have a tragic and demonic perversity. The figures Elizabeth Peyton and Graham Little draw, free of inner life, are fully satisfied to remain pure commodities.

Drawing Now: Eight Propositions is an exhibit full of interesting art but which is hindered by its arbitrary categories and the philosophically unreflective and historically confused nature of its premises. A symptom of this are Hoptman’s claims in her catalogue essay that the use of ornament, of architectural drafting tools, or of vernacular idioms are bold and inventive, when in fact they are not, and the implicit idea that we are witnessing a revival of traditional figurative skills is dubious: much of the drawing in Drawing Now is fussy and mechanical and lacks stylistic specificity and depth. The notion that recent drawing has been conceived of as a noun rather than as a verb is misleading. While many artists after Pollock have been critically concerned with their tools and materials, works like Richard Tuttle’s wire drawings, Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut drawings, and Robert Morris’s Blind Time drawings are surely not just the traces of performances, but are powerful works in and of themselves. In addition, process is crucial to much of the best work in Drawing Now: Russell Crotty’s drawings form books that document astronomical observations, Franz Ackermann’s drawings are bound up with his travels, and Yoshitomo Nara’s “Time of My Life” consists of what are effectively diary entries reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’s astonishing Insomnia Drawings. One of the things that process oriented artists from the 1950s through the 1970s did was scrutinize what drawing and more generally what mark-making is, and curator Laura Hoptman’s failure to understand the impact of that work on contemporary art results in a limited notion of drawing and its possibilities: almost all of the work in Drawing Now is in traditional media, framed and hung vertically on the wall. One would have liked to see, instead of second–rate Shahzia Sikander or superfluous Graham Littles, works like Janine Antoni’s eyelash drawings, or Tom Friedman’s drawing made from spider legs, or Vik Muniz’s photographs of drawings made with chocolate syrup, or Jeremy Blake’s abstract video drawings, or Wim Delvoye’s mad tattoo drawings on the backs of live pigs. Although Drawing Now is a pleasure to stroll through, it fails to inspire or to open new possibilities.

Drawing is still a verb.

Contributor

Daniel Baird

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