New York

“New Work on Paper 2”

“New Work on Paper 2” is the second in the Museum of Modern Art’s series of exhibitions designed to investigate emerging trends in recent drawings. As a whole the series is an exemplary endeavor, permitting, through its small number of artists, a precision of focus impossible in large surveys and allowing, in the same manner, an experimental or exploratory thrust alien to the blockbuster show, which has tended to dominate the Modern’s programs. In general it fails, through the desire (evident in the expansion of the “drawing” denomination to include all works on paper) to show that drawing can encompass just about anything. Three things seem to be afoot in this particular exhibition. One is to show the extension of drawing on the level of scale and materials “. . . from the small sheet of paper into series, into large sheets of paper, onto canvas, into environmental scale and into three dimensions,” as the press release reads. Another is to show, within this enterprise, the fusion of nationalities (three Italians—Francesco Clemente, Mario Merz, and Giuseppe Penone: one German—A.R. Penck; and one American—Jonathan Borofsky) and generations (i.e., Merz and Penone among the kids). And yet a third is to indicate a general extension onto the plane of subjectivity, in which a new focus on drawing as a process of expression or psychic play can be seen to eclipse the previous attention to structure.

The show triumphs on tone, which is upbeat, free, and wide-ranging. but fails on specifics of choice. While each artist was supposedly selected for the particularity of drawing to his practice (I say “his” because, with singular oversight, all the artists are male), the conception seems to involve a fatal flaw. Although, in this period marked by attention to figuration, innumerable artists “draw,” delineating forms in a fairly linear, descriptive manner, few concern themselves with the actual production of drawings as an independent artistic endeavor. This seems to be the case with Merz, known for his igloolike, tentlike, or other sculptural installations, whose inclusion on the grounds of “drawing in space” or delicately traced decoration seems inappropriate. What these works bring to bear on the perception of drawing escapes notice. There is also disappointing work by interesting artists—as in the case of Clemente—which argues the need for better curatorial judgement. And I find curator Bernice Rose’s failure to find a single woman to fit the drawing bill (not the case with the previous exhibition, curated by John Elderfield) a shocking aspect of the show.

Basically, Penck and Borofsky steal the scene, exhibiting impressive works that both indicate the salience of drawing to their oeuvres and the kind of nervous, subjective frisson that appears to motivate the show. The former is represented by some 40 drawings, arranged into three series and spanning the decade from 1972 to the present. From pencil strokes to studies in oil stick, watercolor, and acrylic, the drawings exhibit a wide range of emotion: pictographic signs, long, linear swoops, agitated scrawls, and dense shadings of black and gray, crammed into obsessively impacted structures, indicate the hand used as direct link to the psyche, registering all its nervous tremors and blips. Penck’s images are somewhat conventionally related to their framed paper support and in them Penck appears less tied to his logico-transformative program than in his paintings, manipulating paper and implement in a free, exploratory manner. The 14-part series “K for Karen,” 1979, shows him in a more classically figurative vein, depicting human forms with full, modeled contours and occasionally placing them in naturalistic studio settings. Borofsky, the token American in the show, also has a full range: his installation includes a mind-boggling assortment of different forms and modalities of drawing, from the Plexiglas-encased stacked sheets of countings (embracing the 13 years from 1969 to 1982 and running from 1 to 2, 784, 831) to the variously sized jottings, sketchings, and ramblings pushpinned along the walls, to the signature rabbit-eared ghoul and running man applied to, and looming from, the ceiling, to his newest drawings for videotape. The installation testifies to Borofsky’s quantitative urge, to his psychic horror vacui, to his psychological range, extending from paranoia to elation, and to the latitude of his drawing technique. Everything—from newspaper clippings to graph paper to envelopes to plastic tape—becomes material for Borofsky’s rumblings, doodles, ruminations, lists, et al. Appearing like nothing so much as the chaotic mind expanded to room size, this might be his best showing yet.

If Borofsky’s contribution, specially designed for this installation, succeeds, Penone’s is a dismal failure. A seeming attempt to visualize touch (or to plumb the interrelations of touch and sight), it consists of rubbing charcoal directly over white-painted walls in textural patterns imitating the stubby surfaces of a small, cast-bronze sculpture. As with the sculpture the muffled black strokes, extending over one short and two long walls, culminate in an antic curve, and, as with the sculpture, they present visually unremarkable forms. The installation shows Penone’s interest in both matter and the perception of matter as they have customarily informed his sculpture, but doesn’t do much for drawing. Similarly, Merz chose to exhibit one of his typical nomadic, space-enclosing structures, here composed of bamboo poles sunk into cubes of clay and festooned with swathes of charcoal and spray-painted paper. The figures covering this, and one additional wall-hung structure, are unrecognizable—bonily articulated animals which either stride lithely, in the manner of felines, or swim like crocodiles. While the conjunction of natural (the bamboo poles) and artificial or cultural (the drawings, which also play around with primitivism and regressive modes) well illustrates Merz’s own individual aims, it (again) doesn’t push drawing very far, unless you want to belabor, for the nth time, the origins of the drawing impulse in Lascaux. And poor Clemente, whose work I truly “adore” (to use the language of Edit deAk, as maligned by Jeff Perone), is represented by one of his least interesting works. The loneliness of the frog, or bruno taut in istanbul, 1937, laughing is a 57-footlong drawing in pastel, earth, tempera, crayon, dry pigment, and ink. Separate color sections, stretching through the brown and tawny-yellow range, are each articulated by independent forms—here some pomegranates, there a long, back-turned nude, further on some flowers and foliage, the frog. The drawing appears designed to conquer through its significant austerities, and does show Clemente’s consummate draftsmanship in its details, but basically, it’s a long yawn. While I assume that the drawing was selected to accentuate those extensions of scale (point 1 in the initial list) and to stress the return to primitivism and allusion by way of Pompeiian frescoes and Indian wall paintings and street drawings. another Clemente drawing might have been more apt. More editing needed here, as in the rest of the show . . .

Kate Linker