Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockburne and the Old Masters

The Morgan Library and Museum
October 12, 2007 – January 6, 2008

George Baselitz, "ism (21. IV. 2006),", 2006. Feather, pen, watercolor, India ink on paper. 21 1/8 × 20". The Morgan Library & Museum. Photography by Joseph Zehavi.

It’s no secret that writers begin as readers. Even a genius such as Mozart listened to his sister practicing on the piano before he began playing it himself, and shortly afterward, at the age of five, began composing. Similarly, while Adolf Wolffli, Martin Ramirez, or James Castle didn’t spend any time in museums or on the couch turning the pages of the newest Artforum, all them passed their time drawing, and it is because of their drawings that they are remembered. As Guy Davenport has said, the difference between Mozart and Castle is “before all a difference of imagination.” Everyone should remember this distinction before going to “Drawing Connections,” which was organized by Isabelle Dervaux, the first person to hold the newly created position of curator of modern and contemporary art at The Morgan Library and Museum, formerly known as The Morgan Library.

Dervaux asked four contemporary artists, Georg Baselitz, Ellsworth Kelly, Giuseppe Penone, and Dorothea Rockburne to select Old Master drawings from the Morgan’s vast treasure trove to pair with their own. In having these very different contemporary artists choose Old Master drawings to juxtapose with their own work, Dervaux is essentially reposing the question that Renzo Piano had to answer when the Museum’s trustees selected him to build a structure that would unite the Morgan’s very different and separate structures, including a McKim, Mead, and White Beaux Arts building built in 1906 and, a short distance away, a large, undistinguished brownstone. Without resorting to imitation, parody, fragmentation, or citation (all the expected moves), what kind of dialogue can you establish with the past?

Some people will find the conception of the exhibition, as well as Dervaux’s choice of artists, problematic, but I am not one of them. Like the Whitney Biennial, but on a much smaller scale, its premise makes it an easy target. You can substitute your favorite artists for the ones here, which is a game all of us play, but, in this case, should not take too seriously. Or, if you happen to agree with those who have theorized that artistic labor (such a ridiculous name for drawing) is a thing of the past, this exhibition isn’t for you. After all, starting a dialogue with past art means that you believe that it isn’t necessary or even useful to defenestrate everything that was done before you were born. And yet, even while there are theorists who have dispensed with drawing because, like phlebotomy, it is judged to be a thing of the past, there are artists whose project consists almost entirely of drawing (Dawn Clements, Simon Frost, Whitfield Lovell, John O’Connor, and Daniel Zeller), and others for whom drawing forms a significant part of their inquiry (Richard Artschwager, Susan Frecon, Bill Jensen, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, Catherine Murphy, and Stanley Whitney). This is the battlefield that The Morgan Library and Museum, under the guidance of Isabelle Dervaux, has chosen to enter.

I like the show because Dervaux asked the artists to confess to their fervor. Confessing to one’s enthusiasms is a far cry from being given the opportunity to appear hip and cool. When it comes to one’s passions, it is easy to look foolish or delusional, not to mention feeling embarrassed later. From their selections, it is clear is that all the artists took their assignment seriously. That is, they tried to illuminate the ways they thought about drawing, as well as demonstrate connections between their practice and the art of the past. They did so without being didactic, meaning that for viewers to see the relationship between one drawing and another requires the acceptance that the affinity is one of imagination and not, as too many detractors are apt to focus on, technique. Unless, we are sympathetic to the fact that the living artists can have a fruitful dialogue with past art, and that continuum constitutes what Frank O’Hara called “the living situation,” we are apt to focus on similarities or differences. That’s the easy and rather lazy way of looking.

Although the four artists work very differently and made very different choices, all of which broke down any hierarchy as to what kind of drawing (finished, unfinished) is more important, they all did something that is increasingly rare in a museum exhibition of contemporary art. They didn’t try to be entertaining, and they collectively made a reflective space where one had to slow down and be willing to be surprised, as well as be open to the pleasure of seeing drawings both new and old that aren’t often seen. How many times do you get to see an oil sketch by Edgar Degas, a drawing by José de Ribera, a study by Tintoretto and another by Parmigianino in the same show? By selecting and juxtaposing these works with their own, we get to see them through the artists’ eyes, as well as on their own. As expected, there is little consensus among Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, and Rockburne in how they see the drawings by acknowledged Old Masters, ranging from Lucas Achtschellinck and Domenico Beccafumi to Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse.

Another pleasure is in seeing how differently artists use something as basic as line (Penone and Kelly), and, going from there, how differently they think of the relationship between form and space (Kelly and Rockburne) or of surface (Penone and Baselitz). Penone uses line to bring sight and touch together; he feels his way across the drawing, and this emphasis on touch is also central to his subject matter. Nearly seven feet high and more than four feet wide, “The Imprint of Drawing, Right Ring Finger” (2001) is one of the modern masterpieces in the exhibition. Following on his show of twenty-five years of drawings at the Drawing Center a few years back, Penone’s metaphysical investigations of the relationship between man and nature constitute a provocative and engaging inquiry that shares something with the great postwar Italian poet, Andrea Zanzotto.

Another modern masterpiece is Kelly’s “Allan Kelly, Sr. (After Death)” (1982). The slight, downward tilt of the head, rendered in near profile, both animate the drawing and mark his subject’s departure into what Dylan Thomas called the “good night.” Among other things, the view evokes the artist’s proximity to his subject, which inflects it with another layer of feeling. Nothing is announced, and yet so much is stated through Kelly’s precise, attentive line, point of view, and the scale of the form to the paper’s size. In contrast to Penone, Kelly uses a spare line to draw what I would call a strong, almost sculptural form. He evokes the thingness of things through a line that is sensitive yet definite. The line doesn’t waver, doesn’t convey any crisis or doubt. It looks deceptively simple until we realize that the artist doesn’t go back over his lines (as Giacometti did), and that he is able to convey volume and movement without emphasizing weight or utilizing perspective. Every move feels dictated by necessity. Rooted in reality, Kelly’s drawings are among the high achievements of the previous and current century. And in pairing his drawings with a quick sketch by Degas, a study by Watteau, and a quick, decisive, self-portrait by Matisse, among others, Kelly suggests that he learned as much from studies and sketches as others learned from finished drawings.

Rockburne’s works are the least like drawings, and constitute an intriguing part of the exhibition. Her reevaluation of drawing derives in part from a series of “Notes on Drawing Procedures” that she wrote in 1973, one of them being “Construct an investigation of drawing based on information contained within the paper and not on any other information.” Her cut, folded constructions in white paper (“Conservation Class”) from 1973 convey her interest in the relationship between form and movement. Her interest in geometry and perspective includes the use of the Golden Section, and an understanding that the wondrousness of the infinite is contained within the mathematical structures found in physics. And while her interests might strike some as too heady, what comes across in her constructions from the 70s and 80s and her recent, materially dense, luminous watercolors on Dura-lar (they are not like any watercolors that you have ever seen) is the artist’s formal and material inventiveness, all in the service of her interest in the continuum between the visible and invisible, and between the known laws governing reality and the unknown and incompletely glimpsed ones. In this regard, Rockburne, who is interested in astronomy, shares something with Penone, who is interested in nature. An unclassifiable artist, Rockburne’s work confronts us with mind-bending connections and cosmological possibilities, and sadly, most museums, in their pedestrian thinking, refuse to take that challenge up.

In 1965, while he had a residency in Florence, Baselitz discovered the work of Parmiganino and other mannerists, all of whom found ways to subvert the classical notions of beauty associated with artists such as Raphael. In choosing to pair his drawings only with Parmiganino’s, Baslitz inadvertently offers us another lesson, which is don’t settle into a reassuring idea or style because they all too quickly become a signature trait, losing the possibility of being fresh. And, in Baselitz’s case, the style and the overarching idea lose their potency through repetition. In the ink and watercolor “Ismus” (2006), the two feet rising in the air have become a predictable shorthand view of the artist’s vision that there is no securing ground, no safe place on which to stand in a world where everything has been tipped over. In contrast to Rockburne, Baselitz’s vision feels received, like new age crystals.

In an age where the spectacular is repeatedly touted (think Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Mathew Barney), an exhibition where artists largely confine themselves to rudimentary tools amounts to a radical suggestion. And for all the different ways the artists find to challenge themselves (Kelly’s commitment to a making a form with a contour line that isn’t gone over or changed), what comes across is the immensely satisfying pleasure that comes from an activity that involves seeing, thinking, and doing. It is that deep and lasting pleasure that the artists communicate.

Contributor

John Yau

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