Los Angeles

“20th Century Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art”

Museum of Modern Art, Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park

The regular gallery goer in the L.A. area can develop a set of symptoms that give the muzzy sensation that all art is manufactured mint fresh weekly in time for Monday’s Market. So much that is new is being exhibited and so little of the old models are to be seen that one can easily believe that the obsolescence-makers are at work on art. There is a subsequent atrophy of the past tense that the antidotes at the local museum dispensaries are not strong enough or massive enough in dosage to offset. Occasional imported miracles must suffice and often they are so specialized or deep-dyed in the quaintness of history that they can do little in their month’s stay.

The exhibit “Twentieth Century Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art” recently at Barnsdall was an exhibit of substance and one that seemed very tonic for the stay at homes. Dealing as it did with the recent past (most of the work was pre-war) it had the adult voice of authority that living ancestors can project, which, if not history, is at least a coherent pattern. The returns are almost complete on the pioneer moderns and it is possible to view them objectively even if they are not yet ready for embalming. Their passion can now be seen as mellow vitality because it is not our passion, their Promethean discoveries have become the basic fare for our art schools.

In a catalog introduction for the 1947 Museum of Modern Art “Modern Drawings” exhibit is the statement “The word modern is a matter of time, not of style. In a consideration of history it is the present tense, that is all.” This is a modesty of intention that the MMA is not likely to be caught at again, what with their present concern for providing historical perspective in advance of a movement. But this modesty seems to have guided the collection of the bulk of the drawings. Items were collected because they were what was being done and because they were good examples.

The breadth of selection obviously shows the diversity of the modern statement but more impressive is the cohesive line that binds the very personal researches into a pattern. These men can now appear as researchers in the mold of the quattrocento Florentines, each contributing his private zeal to the job of questioning, forming, and redefining art. Yesterday’s guerrillas begin to look like garrison troops.

A sense of Adventure seems to be everywhere, the line is that there is no line. Egon Schiele’s “Nude with Violet Stockings” is convincing draftsmanship. And it shows the desire to go beyond mere draftsmanship. There is an elegance in the spidery line that gives way to the shock of the disparate black mass of hair and the violet wash on the stockings. This use of a foil to push the drawing beyond study into new situations is as inventive in its way as any of Klee’s private constructs. But Klee moves in his own ways: His “Quarry at Ostermundigen” (1909) presents a linear delight and proof of Klee’s capacity for innovation even in front of nature. Another bonus factor is an opportunity to see aspects of a man outside of his cliche image. There is a Malevich “Suprematist Element: Circle” that is reverent and poetic in the almost mystical way the circle is built up in pencil. It adds a dimension to the man who has come down to us as a brilliant theoretician but hardly as an ingratiating figure. As a counter to this, a Nadleman “Head” from 1906 shows a very serious, classical study that belies the waggish reputation built on his later work.

The ways in which drawings can be put to service are clearly shown. The Picasso “Portrait of Max Jacob” although much reproduced, is an impressive tour de force but it is an exercise when compared with the rugged “Portrait of Hugo Erforth” in green crayon by Kokoshka. The direct release offered by drawing makes it a natural and full medium for the Expressionist message. It is less a tool to be picked up and manipulated than an extension of the man and his feelings. But a tool to a man like Gris can perform delicate operations and his dissection of objects is clinically perfect and one can only agree with him that it must be that way.

The ’30s which seem to be a minuscule Golden Age—a time of capitalizing on earlier researches—are represented by some major works which present drawings as a complete and independent statement. Gorky’s “Objects” is a painting without paint, ink is exploited by the line and incredibly complex textural greys in such a way that the white paper gains a piercing brightness. Leger’s dual “Hands and Foot, Composition” has wit and a plastic subtlety that seems superior to most of his encounters with the world machine; the spartan rigidity that seems to imprison his experience is less in evidence. Masson, in his Surrealist extravaganza “Prisoner of the Mirror: Transfiguring Your Death” fills his space with visual puns delineated in a savage engraver’s line. Matisse exerts his effortless magic; he conquers the paper simply and disarmingly and yet it is all there. As a comment on the medium the entire exhibition is a testimonial to the fact that drawing has loosened its definition (as if it needed proving) and that some men draw naturally but independently of their major field while others can find the structure of drawing the main focus for their expression.

Tchelitchew’s “Head VI” from 1950 has the spirit of the laboratory consistent with most of the earlier drawings in the show. It stands far above a theatrical piece representing his work of the ’20s by having a clarity of purpose that keeps his suavity to the point at hand. Of the very recent things the Alechinsky’s purposeful bravura shows how the mid-20th century gesture can find a voice in drawing—not only as a parallel or minor activity but as a fully realized invitation to the dance. On the other hand, Larry Rivers’ “Portrait of Edwin Denby While III” shows an artist standing in the tight shoes of a man who has an instinctive urge to draw respectfully from nature (and do it well) but who is foredoomed to submerge the image in paint and patches of style. In many ways the Rivers is an object lesson, pointing to reasons why the ’50s and ’60s are not as fertile for drawing as a meaningful part of the painter’s expression.

Ingres’ recipe, “Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting,” does not obtain even with a much more modest percentage claimed. Much of the function of drawing that tied it so closely to the Cubist lab work as a necessary predefinition is pointless as a rehearsal for the explosive act. The wholeness of expression it represented for the German Expressionist is insufficient for the contemporary expressionist with his multiverse of color and paint, fused by the automatic and crystallized by the instantaneous. So a very significant part of the contemporary expression is cut loose from drawing or, looked at another way, has absorbed the act of drawing into the act of painting. It can even be suspected that the harbingered style of the common object has little need of drawing: a study for Terry and the Pirates or a can of soup would be superfluous baggage for an already rickety caboose.

A good collection is a concrete fact. It has substance and weight, it holds still and provides a steady point of focus. It allows the viewer to ask any number of questions and although it doesn’t supply the answers it is very patient. A collection such as this would be an immense asset to an area that is coming of age artistically. As a permanent fixture it could confront us as frequently as we dared risk it and would keep us honest. It might even be kept open on Monday nights.

Douglas McClellan