PRINT April 1988


AT THE LOUVRE, STANDING in front of one of Watteau’s working drawings, Deux études de corps nus (Two studies of nude bodies, ca. 1715–16), I notice that over a reclining male nude the artist has lightly sketched, sideways on the page, a standing female nude. I’m looking at a picture of opposite sexes joined at the crotch, their flesh responding to gravity from different directions, and I think, This seems modern.

I’ve never cared for Watteau’s paintings; they share a place in my heart with wedding cake. In his drawings, however, cloying 18th-century mannerisms are secondary to knowledge of anatomy, habits of light, and expressiveness of gesture. Flesh in the drawings is palpable. Like few other artists, Watteau utilized the texture of paper to suggest the porosity of skin. Nothing in the drawings has turned into the marzipan imitation of life rendered in his oils.

Watteau’s graphic works are delicate; a breath, it seems, could erase every trace. Their vulnerability conveys the transitional moment that was his period, the period of Louis XIV’s old age and death, of the decline of what John Berger, in Permanent Red, called the “solemn, monumental, impersonal classicism of Poussin, Le Brun, Racine.” The artists of Watteau’s generation, Berger remarks, “substituted casual Dalliance and Elegance” for the “imperial Power and Dignity” of the previous generation. Watteau’s evocation of blushing skin in satin is more than a description of 18th-century voluptuousness; it is a sign of mortal flesh, and of the fragile institutions that are erected to preserve that flesh.

My fascination with Watteau’s drawings in the Louvre, however, is based on something other than a presentation of a period and a comment on mortality. I am attracted to something in them that seems very modern—their form, and, more generally, the form of the working drawing itself.

The working working drawing is often an accumulation of separate events noted on the same page. The objects and scenes described do not always share a single light source or a single scale, and space may not recede in a familiar way. In Watteau’s Tête d’homme, trois études de mains et deux croquis d’un chat (Man’s head, three studies of hands, and two sketches of a cat, ca. 1715), for example, a disembodied pair of left hands, one of them projecting from the shoulder of a man lit from the front, seem to be conducting chamber music for a pair of too-small cats, maybe a duplication of the same cat, illuminated from the side. In short, the study discards compositional conventions in favor of an invented space that recalls more than one of the Modern avant-gardes.

My preference for the working drawing is not limited to Watteau. I often find myself more attracted to the notation than to the “masterpiece.” I used to attribute my preference to an idiosyncratic love of line on paper. However, while studying Watteau, I realized that my taste had been formed by my 20th-century esthetic context.

Since Man Ray photographed the dust collecting on Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, 1915–23, time has become an increasingly important dimension in art—a subject, in a sense, of all the 20th-century work calling attention to process, completion (or the lack of it), decay, and movement in space. Yet the notation of passing time was an integral part of the working drawing long before the Modern period. As Watteau studies a woman’s head, he moves across the page, making several renderings, turning her face, searching for the preferred profile. Unlike a finished pre-Modern work, in which many subjects share a frozen instant, the working drawing is many instants that share a single subject. This register of time suggests the Cubist proposition that perception is not only vision, but also memory.

In an attempt to deliver timeless truth once and for all, much of 20th-century painting relentlessly purged the lie of the third dimension on a two-dimensional field. Line, space, and color themselves became the subject of art. In effect if not in conception, the visual style that resulted has its precedent in the working drawing. In a finished traditional work, individual marks are carefully layered to build a seamless surface, but in the working drawing line is put down quickly and is unencumbered, sitting plainly on the paper surface. Here it can be enjoyed for its own edge and turn, as well as for its descriptive function.

Like Lucio Fontana, who opened two-dimensional space with a sharp knife, the working drawing addresses space in a literal way. The conventions of space-making—perspective, overlapping, shading—may all be present on the paper, but often they are neutralized by inconsistencies. These incongruities allow one to read the page as a lexicon of tricks rather than a consistent representation of depth. Space appears as a concept, a visual device to be mastered by the artist, rather than as an illusionistic setting.

The working drawing remains a generous format. Relieved of exhibition dread, the artist is free to invent, make mistakes, and wander. This process corresponds to the process of thought itself—periods of sustained observation on a single topic are buffeted by whimsy, emotion, accident, stray ideas, and daily life. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are wonderful examples of thinking made visual. The great doodler presents synergistic pages of mathematics, anatomy, weapons, architecture, and a pretty face. The working drawing is essentially a scratch pad for those who have become eloquent in a basic skill. The informality of the form is an invitation to invention. As viewers, we are privy to the image of creativity itself.

Most often, drawing is less illusionistic than painting—its colors more limited, its techniques harder to disguise. It tends to present itself as an artifice more than as a window onto the world; it is more clearly an abstraction of life. Representation of nature, then, is not the central issue here. The working drawing is about process. It is a tool to identify and to investigate areas of interest. It shares with the 20th century a preference for the motion of getting somewhere rather than for the stasis of being there. It is a momentary settling of possibilities rather than a timeless solution called the masterpiece.

Working drawings avoid absolutes and are open to changes in circumstance. This is the core of their contemporary appeal. Line, light, space, and subject are allowed to shift abruptly to accommodate a new idea. Impulse orders the working drawing, the same impulse that in the 20th century snickered at convention and called itself the avant-garde.

Mike Glier is an artist who lives in Hoosick, New York.

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