PRINT April 1976

Drawing Now (and Then)

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS innumerable museums and art galleries across the country have been swept by an epidemic of drawing and “works on paper” exhibitions, a phenomenon which began to receive in-depth attention from New York museums in 1973. In that year, the now-defunct New York Cultural Center’s “3-D into 2-D,” an exhibition of drawings by 28 contemporary artists loosely described as sculptors, was followed a few months later by the Whitney’s “American Drawings: 1963–1973,” which presented, in overloaded Annual style, two to three drawings by 87 American artists. The current popularity of drawings and exhibitions of them is probably due in part to the crunch on both museums’ and collectors’ budgets, to inflated art prices and to a certain amount of curatorial timidity. (The drawing exhibition provides an inherent mediumistic unity when all else fails.) But if it can be relatively inexpensive and noncommittal, a drawing exhibition can also provide freedom to a curator and fresh insights to the public. It can efficiently and succinctly sum up the developments and particularly the diversity of a given period, covering more ground and taking more risks than is feasible with an exhibition of painting and sculpture. The inherent continuity of drawing can be a revealing equalizer, providing a unique opportunity to compare artists who work in different media, or at different times, on a common basis. And despite the conservatism implicit in drawing’s continuity, it is an intimate, lively form; good drawings from any period remain fresh and contemporary, yielding direct access to an artist’s touch, mannerisms and ideas, and special insights into his other work. The pleasures and popularity of drawings are one thing. The development of drawing, or, more specifically, the role of line and gesture in recent and not so recent 20th-century art, is another. This January two more New York museums unveiled major drawing exhibitions which probe this development, each with a specific historical mission.

At the Guggenheim, Diane Waldman has organized “Twentieth-Century American Drawing: Three Avant-Garde Generations,” which included 223 drawings by 29 artists. The three generations are, roughly, various members of the groups of artists associated with Alfred Stieglitz (Dove, O’Keeffe and Hartley) and with the collector Walter Arensberg (Joseph Stella, Demuth, Duchamp, and Man Ray); various Abstract Expressionists (Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Still, Kline, Newman, Motherwell); and various members, mostly proto-Pop and Pop, of the Leo Castelli Gallery (Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, along with Twombly, Kelly and Frank Stella). To these Waldman has added other artists who are contemporary with, or connecting links between, these artists, or who linked developments in Europe with those in America: Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, Stuart Davis, Hans Hofmann and Joseph Albers, and Joseph Cornell. At the Museum of Modern Art, Bernice Rose has organized “Drawing Now,” an exhibition of some 225 drawings by 45 artists which spans the last 25 years. This exhibition begins where the Guggenheim’s leaves off, overlapping exactly with the generation which begins with Jasper Johns and continuing through groups of artists generally known as Minimal, post-Minimal and Conceptual, with a few additions from Europe in all areas.

Quite different in organization and content, in strengths and weaknesses, both exhibitions offer a lot to look at and think about. Since they meshed chronologically and were on view at the same time, each supplied the other with constant feedback on every level: from the definition of drawing and selection of artists, on up to museum architecture and policy. The Guggenheim’s exhibition represents its first foray, perhaps bicentennially inspired, into the area of early 20th-century American art and also one of the rare occasions in which that earlier generation is grouped on equal footing with later, more acclaimed ones. It presents the crisscrossing developments of abstraction and collage as phenomena with American, not just European, roots and defines drawing broadly, to encompass watercolors, even paintings on paper, as well as collage. The show spirals down the Guggenheim’s ramp, almost like a series of discrete one man shows (usually one artist to a bay), some of which are amazingly, or devastatingly, comprehensive. There are a few inclusions which seem to have been made primarily for the sake of history, to acknowledge achievements that occurred elsewhere. But for the most part the works are here for their visual merit, and the arrangement along the ramp allows the viewer to make his own connections, to get the exhibition’s points, and to enjoy its many isolated pleasures in equal amounts.

“Drawing Now” is the Modern’s first broad recognition of contemporary developments since “Information,” organized by Kynaston McShine in 1971. Its mission is to chart the emergence of drawing as a major art form, equal to painting and sculpture. Here the definition of drawing is expanded to include just about everything, but the show sticks to a rather narrow, well-trod path in terms of the selection of artists. It contains no risks or surprises; with few exceptions all the artists are already in the museum’s permanent collection. Even the younger artists featured have already been seen in “Information,” in the smaller “Eight Contemporary Artists” from last year, or in various of the Museum’s “Projects” exhibitions. But this may in fact be two exhibitions rolled into one, neither of which is what it might have been on its own, without the other tied to it. Despite the few large-scaled works executed in situ, the fewer objects-as-drawings and the general this-is-drawing-if-I-say-so attitude, the majority of the space is devoted to very well established artists and to works which are usually on paper and are often studies for something else. The show is slightly schizoid, a cross between a traditional drawing survey and an exhibition with a theory to prove about drawing’s transcendence of its traditional position.

The Guggenheim’s is a show with an illuminating, if somewhat erratic, beginning, a thoroughly sustained middle and a predictable, but respectable, finish. The exhibition seems to begin in the 19th century, with a beautiful Seurat-like charcoal drawing of an underpass (1908) by Joseph Stella, followed by his collages from the 1920s which on the other hand seem to presage Motherwell’s. In this section Arthur Dove’s pastels and Marsden Hartley’s emblematic charcoals (which must have influenced Stuart Davis), both from the mid-teens, are particularly impressive and as big in scale as almost anything in the show. Georgia O’Keeffe’s wonderful semiabstract charcoal drawings of loose undulating forms seemed betrayed by her bright watercolors and her tight, precise still-lifes; this contrast pinpoints a problem with color and illustration that has persisted throughout her career. A series of Demuth watercolors in the same bay, pale and fragile Precisionist equivocations of Cubism, were the first disappointments, despite his evident skill as a watercolorist. In this area the omission of John Marin’s watercolors and drawings was particularly glaring. Marin was the most innovative draughtsman of the Stieglitz circle. Although he claimed to hate abstract art and probably would have objected to the “avant-garde” tag, he freed line from form, if not always from its descriptive function, and scattered it about with a raw chaotic energy like Pollock’s. The selections for Man Ray and Duchamp looked a bit miscellaneous, although their particular brands of cynical, intelligent refinement were adequately conveyed: Duchamp’s work seemed especially like a stand-in for something more powerful. This was also true, later on, of the three line drawings (c. 1960) by Joseph Albers, whose real contribution is in the area of color and whose drawings have a stiff, revised Bauhaus quality. The highlight of the first third of the exhibition was a group of ten works by Stuart Davis which almost encapsulated his development, centering on three large line drawings from the early ’30s in which he worked out a larger scale, an evenly dispersed composition and a shallow space, all in his jaunty vernacular. In Davits, a 1932 ink drawing, Davis seems to have taken Hartley’s floating lines and emblems and worked them into a scaffolding anchored solidly on the horizontal and to the surface of the paper. It might have been interesting to have included some of David Smith’s drawings, since Davis’s scaffolding was probably one point of departure for them and for Smith’s sculpture of the late ’40s.

In the following section of Abstract-Expressionist drawings, the exhibition sustains itself more consistently as we witness from bay to bay the various assimilations of Surrealist drawing and/or imagery. The selection of Gorky’s work begins with a drawing of the artist’s mother (1926); her face is so mesmerizing you almost fail to notice how Gorky subtly emphasizes and lifts forward the area outlined by the lapels of her jacket—an irregular shape, both bulbous and pointed, like those which, diminished, multiplied and loosened, proliferate in his later work. The exhibition’s dialogue with painting becomes more audible and each group of drawings establishes its particular relationship to the artist’s paintings. Rothko, after his early biomorphic watercolors, abandons line completely, his works on paper become small, dense paintings. Some of Gorky’s and de Kooning’s works are almost interchangeable with their paintings; the use of line and color is equally developed in both and scale change poses no problems. But Pollock’s paintings on paper are often significantly weaker, and Newman’s always are. In one instance, using only black paint, Pollock achieves on paper the openness and scale he gets on canvas, but usually he is cramped by the size and the results are crowded and overdone. Newman suffers even more when away from the size and especially the material substance of paint and canvas, but his drawings are drastically underdone. As with his canvas, Newman seems to pass across the surface of the paper just once, but here it’s not sufficient, nothing takes hold. Newman, like Albers, doesn’t have much to do with making drawings, although his paintings themselves involve drawing. The zips that cut through his expanses of color combine the two extremes, both the geometric line and the gesture, of drawing. It seems appropriate that Cornell should share a bay with Newman, because his works on paper are equally weak; the most credible use of his particular kind of drawing technique, collage, occurs in his boxes. In this area, with the work of Pollock, Newman and Cornell in particular, an issue surfaces that will become even more significant in deciphering the Modern’s exhibition: the instances of artists whose best drawing or best use of line occurs in their painting and sculpture.

After the surprises of the first, the sustained color and emotional density of the second, the third generation seems a little diluted. This may be due in part to familiarity, but it’s also due to a noticeable change in intention. Some of the familiarity might have been diminished by the inclusion of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn between the last two generations, since, like Motherwell, they are still active and their work does not peter out as elegantly as his does here. After Motherwell, the whole tone of the exhibition changes; there’s a drop in pressure as you walk through its last section. You became aware of a certain distance between the artists and their work, visible even in their drawings, a distance based on both nonchalance and premeditation. A number of artists work within a more constricted definition of drawing; there is little color, and gesture, though present and often emphasized, is not imparted with the same emotional force as before. Drawing has become a form of comment as much as catalogue various drawing techniques and shades of black over the distance of 12 drawings and to see that both he and Twombly expand and contract their strokes from drawing to drawing, while Rauschenberg rarely does, although his drawings, rather poorly selected, range helter-skelter in terms of size and material. Kelly is well represented with collages of various sizes and four line drawings. Oldenburg, whose drawings be come more indulgently facile each year, has only one worthwhile work, a trashy collage of a van, from 1962. Lichtenstein is as nonchalantly “professional” as Warhol is not. The exhibition ends with Frank Stella, whose drawings are rather precise diagrams for his paintings.

These same artists generally look more impressive at the Modern, where several of them, along with Sol LeWitt and Joseph Beuys, assume the position of the first generation. And here, too, they are setting the stage for an interpretation of drawing that is more involved with pure, increasingly geometric (and colorless) line than with gesture. In her catalogue essay, Bernice Rose· establishes a long, often interesting pedigree for line—clear back to the Renaissance—as the “heart of art,” the single element that is intrinsically abstract, that doesn’t occur in nature. She argues for drawing’s majority with a not unlikely combination of Greenbergian and literalist criticism; that is, she establishes line as the essential component of drawing (like flatness to painting) and then makes it independent, sending it in the paper and into “actual space.”

The exhibition vacillates continually between its two identities as a survey of drawings and an investigation of “line in art.” It starts with its advanced foot forward: a huge, elaborate wall drawing by LeWitt, White chalk on a black surface, is featured in the museum’s lobby. It’s bracketed by various objects-as-drawings: James Lee Byars’ fold-out book with a single black line on it, Manzoni’s gorgeous chrome cylinder containing, the label reports, an ink line 1000 meters long on paper, and Robert Smithson’s three pieces of slate incised with circles. Next a small gallery presents various kinds of narrative drawing. Carl Andre’s word poems and some John Cage scores (from the ’50s and recently revised as drawing) establish precedent for Hanne Darboven’s lettering and numbering and for Art and Language’s enormous Chart on graph paper which appears to run through some higher mathematical equation (not so socially penetrating). Another work on the wall, Traveling Limits of Reach by Robert Morris, is a record in black ink of the artist’s feet and outstretched hands as he moved along the entire wall of the long corridor leading into the main galleries of the exhibition. It also leads smack into Jasper Johns’s Diver (1963), probably the only masterpiece in the exhibition, which with its use of hand- and footprints, renders the Morris embarrassingly feeble.

At this juncture, the exhibition seems to begin again, on its other foot. It proceeds through hefty selections of drawings by Johns, Twombly, Beuys and Rauschenberg. But soon the exhibition goes into its own kind of spiral, more like a nosedive, skittering all over the place and yet never far into untried territory. The work of some artists is split up and, although the prominent ones receive much space, with seven to fifteen each, the majority are represented by two to four works and several by only one. (The last gallery of the exhibition reveals the particularly gratuitous practice of including single works by some artists as footnotes to others. Thus a Poons is an addenda to Darboven, Sandback to Judd, Fahlstrom to Smithson.) After an impressive group of Lichtenstein collages, the exhibition exposes a soft underbelly of academic drawing: fourteen Oldenburgs, drawings (two each) by Hamilton, Hockney and Christo and a suite of seven tool drawings by Jim Dine . More than ever, the exhibition looks like a survey and the addition here of Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Al Leslie and Richard Artschwager might have been considered.

Next comes a section of drawings by abstract painters: Kelly and Stella again, whose best drawing is done in their paintings; Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, who don’t get much space, but whose drawings have a density (or weightlessness) equal to their paintings, like Johns and Twombly. (Here, why not Myron Stout or Richard Diebenkorn, for similar reasons?) After this, the exhibition returns to its more radical tack and in rapid succession we encounter the remaining five works executed in situ: Michael Heizer’s broad, nonchalant gestures are sandblasted into a plate of glass which is set into a window looking out on 54th Street. Nearby is a delicate wire drawing by Richard Tuttle. Two irregular rust-colored shapes dry-frescoed onto the wall by Mel Bochner use a single internal line to reveal how they each result from overlapping pentagons. Richard Serra’s looming black trapezoid of oilstik on Belgian linen stapled to the wall, like Bochner’s piece, might qualify as painting. Dorothea Rockburne’s work, like Heizer’s, retains the immediacy and simplicity of traditional drawing, despite its occurrence on the wall. These two works reiterate, although much less negatively, a point brought up by the big Morris piece: doing it big doesn’t necessarily transcend drawing’s limits, or its limitations. (At this point, installations by Sandback, Barry Le Va, or Richard Long might have filled out our understanding of how various artists use line in space.) “Drawing Now” will tour to several European museums, and the choices of European artists usually looks like token recognition of this fact. Of the nine Europeans included , only Beuys and Darboven receive serious treatment; Tinguely and Bridget Riley should have been represented by better drawings; Panamarenko, Palermo and Manzoni look like afterthoughts. The show is obviously not touring California; the entire West Coast and the intervening territories seems not to “draw now.” Besides, Diebenkorn, John Altoon and Roy DeForest, at the very least, are established enough to merit inclusion and might, like the other names I’ve mentioned, have made this exhibition less predictable. It’s objectionable that all the American artists in this show are from New York and even worse that 25 of the total of 45 are represented by only three New York galleries (Castelli, Sonnabend and Weber).

After the fast, furious exchange at the Guggenheim, between drawing and painting and from artist to artist, there is a sense of mute isolation at the Modern; nothing seems to be leading anywhere. This is not surprising, since, in both the exhibition and the essay, Rose lavishes most of her energy and space on the older artists, and the richest parts of the show and the catalogue are mostly concerned with Drawing Then, not Now. (And even so, after Johns, Twombly, Beuys, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, the selections could have been much stronger, for them too.) The exhibition is dominated by Johns’s presence, but only the more systemic side of his influence is seriously investigated.

The issue of drawing as tone and surface is largely neglected. This might have been somewhat remedied by merely increasing the space devoted to Close, Hesse, and particularly Marden. Although the installations are generally interesting (Morris excepted), Rose doesn’t really give equal time to the younger generation, many of whom aren’t even mentioned, much less discussed, in the essay. If, as is finally implied, the modernist torch has been passed to Rockburne, Bochner, Serra, Darboven and Tuttle, they should have been more extensively represented in order to prove this point. In some cases this might actually have made the show more diverse, and the march toward linearity less resolute. And LeWitt, whose influence has been extensive, should have been represented by more work. As it stands, these artists often look more reduced than they actually are. In the essay each lowering of the level of perceptibility is welcomed. Rockburne’s and LeWitt’s work is described toward the end as “low in sensuous content and visual excitement,” a statement thankfully contradicted by LeWitt’s newest wall drawing.

The show moves from only moderate diversity toward narrowness, instead of the other way around; its very structure is reductivist, just as the thinking, MoMA-style, is a bit too linear. It seems a little late to think that art moves or is moving toward reduction, or that drawing is autonomous. Considering the various kinds of complication currently visible in the work of Johns, Stella, Judd, Flavin, LeWitt and Marden, it seems that they are actually departing from reductive modes. And, over the past 30 years, we have witnessed the progressive integration of painting and drawing, then painting and sculpture and finally sculpture and drawing. It seems academic to instigate a “separate but equal” policy when so much of the best art being done right now involves aspects of all three, and drawing, rather than being autonomous, is so pervasive. Finally, it is self-defeating of the Modern to admit a narrowly limited younger generation of artists, to represent them rather incompletely, and then to expect them to look like budding masters. The look of next-step inevitability is too synthetic and too neat. The Modern should have risked, particularly in a drawing exhibition, the inclusion of lesser-known artists. It seems too early for these artists to shoulder the burden of modernism so exclusively and too late to think that such exclusivity is credible.

Roberta Smith contributes frequently to Artforum and other journals.