New York

“Drawing Now”

MoMA QNS - Museum of Modern Art

Drawing has a genealogy, suggests MoMA guest curator Laura Hoptman: Variously appreciated and dismissed in different periods, the medium has played a changing role for artists and audiences to go along with the changing contexts of art production. For example, she asserts that Florentine connoisseurs prized the Renaissance masters’ primi pensieri, while “presentation drawings” were highly valued in the eighteenth century. Fast-forwarding a couple centuries, she tells us we’ve witnessed another significant shift in just the past few decades. When Conceptualism and Minimalism came to the fore, drawing became valued for its relative ephemerality, almost always associated with the artist’s gesture—with “making” or, to use a loaded term, with “process,” regardless of whether the artist’s action scarred the land or stroked the paper. Then in the ’90s, a new breed of draftsman appeared on the scene: Artists conceived and executed drawings that stood alone as finished, autonomous works of art. While “drawing” was once called a verb by Richard Serra, Hoptman notes—using the artist’s celebrated 1977 remark as a straw man in one essay accompanying the show—today it is better thought of as a noun. And to illustrate her case, in “Drawing Now: Eight Propositions,” she has grouped good-looking work by twenty-six contemporary artists under eight rubrics, declaring a kind of taxonomy for our moment.

Scholars may find these historical generalizations somewhat odd, but even more curious was the exhibition’s historicism. For all their announced empirical relationship to today, the various propositions appeared to take their cues from art history, even charting an unspoken, chapter-by-chapter chronological course through the galleries. The show opened with massive, mottled renderings of Alpine woods by Ugo Rondinone; in a low-lying vitrine were Russell Crotty’s equally immense landscapes. The proposition here, “Science and Art, Nature and Artifice,” evoked some of the earliest significant instances of scientific drawing—done from nature by, say, Leonardo da Vinci. In the next room, the rococo patterns of Laura Owens and Chris Ofili appeared under “Ornament.” (Think Watteau as the match for their decorative forays.) Viewers then passed through sections titled “Architectural Drafting” and “Visionary Architecture,” where Julie Mehretu and Paul Noble appeared (shades of Piranesi?). One could discover the fantasies of William Blake reborn in Matthew Ritchie’s long horizontal sheets in the “Cosmogenies” section. Fast sketches by Elizabeth Peyton and Graham Little’s brilliantly cold drawings made after advertisements in “Fashion and Likeness” bring to mind a nineteenth-century artist like Baudelaire’s favorite, Constantin Guys. A final room included Shahzia Sikander and Kara Walker in “Vernacular Illustration,” and Barry McGee and Takashi Murakami in “Comics and Animation,” with this duo’s interests breaking the high-low barrier—punctuating the show, in effect, with postmodernist pastiche.

“Drawing Now,” in other words, was dressed in the heavy cloak of “Then.” Individual pieces, however executed, were placed under a thematic lock, made the property of single ideas. And yet nothing put so much stress on Hoptman’s taxonomy as the pieces on view. Ritchie, for example, seemed strangely neutered when considered without reference to comic-book culture. The decorative quality of Chris Ofili’s work was equaled by that of Sikander’s, yet one was categorized as ornament and the other as vernacular culture, eliminating any chance for poetic correspondence that might have arisen through their juxtaposition. Only on a return visit to the gallery, in fact, did I realize that the pieces in “Vernacular Illustration” and “Comics and Animation” were under separate categories, so strong was the nearly claustrophobic intimacy among works (the best of which may have been a stunning grid of watercolors by Kai Althoff). Conversely, the beautifully demented libido of John Currin’s takes on the old masters seemed at odds with the otherwise chic display of work under the wide-ranging theme of “Fashion and Likeness” (a title that would have Baudelaire rolling over in his grave). The categories were not mutually exclusive and did not articulate a clear rationale for their being. The fact that category names differ from catalogue to wall text only adds to the confusion, suggesting that Hoptman herself is still coming to terms with her terms.

Which leads to another troubling aspect of “Drawing Now”: How much of this work is uniquely drawing? The question is annoying (it ought to be beside the point at this juncture), but in light of Hoptman’s opening gambit for drawing as a medium as opposed to a technique, it must be asked. So many works were collages, paintings on paper, or photographs that “drawing” seemed dispersed among media, continually veering into metaphor and begging for the kind of curatorial interrogation that painting has received lately in shows around the world. In her essay, Hoptman actually alludes, finally, to this expansive dynamic in painting and other media, saying that drawing similarly should not “be characterized by old criteria having to do with form, finish, and manner of execution.” Yet, given the premise of drawing as a noun (and its supposed “finished” quality that arose during the ’90s), and in the absence of any specific new criteria, the assertion seems part fig leaf, part fog machine.

Propositions in Conceptual art were open-ended queries, avenues of rigorous exploration without fixed destinations. These are precisely the kinds of propositions curatorial practice demands today. Yet the term seems counterintuitive for Hoptman to adopt (or better, co-opt) as the basis of a taxonomy, which traditionally seeks to classify and define. Indeed, taxonomies take concepts from the elusive realm of verbs and place them amid the tangible world of nouns. This paradox is particularly resonant in the exhibition catalogue, where Hoptman refers to the “emancipation of drawing” that this show heralds. The phrase makes real the adage that the language of rebellion today is the rhetoric of sales tomorrow. In fact, marketing per se appears in the preface and conclusion of the “Drawing Now” catalogue, in reference to the buying habits of eighteenth-century collectors and to drawing as a “finished product.” The new “freedom” she calls for, in other words, might be that freedom of entering the marketplace as an acknowledged commodity with an assigned market value, of having a more comfortable place in the museum because the institution’s historical demand for good, sellable, framable, medium-specific work is satisfied. And so pieces by an artist like Althoff, receiving in this show his most prominent display in the United States to date, end up being presented merely as pretty, collectible watercolors from Germany, with their relationship to video or any other narrative outside painting left dangling in Althoff’s pictures—finished, as it were, before the artist has even gotten started.

Tim Griffin is associate editor of Artforum.