New York

“Georges Seurat: The Drawings”

I DO NOT QUITE KNOW what to make of the Museum of Modern Art’s renewed insistence, ever since it reopened, on revisiting the nineteenth century. Holding onto a security blanket as it dives further into the confusing medley of contemporary art? Preparing for the kind of bold move that Bill Rubin used to advocate in private, when he suggested that the museum’s jurisdiction begin with the advent of modernism and end with that of “postmodernism,” whatever that is? Justifying a posteriori the museum’s definitive recanting, in the early 1950s, of Alfred Barr’s initial precept that works necessarily be transferred to other institutions as they reached a certain age? If so, two drawings that did not escape such a fate recently made a pretty good case during a brief return visit to their former home to appear in the formidable exhibition “Georges Seurat: The Drawings.”

Whatever the motivations for MoMA’s recent forays into the nineteenth century, the museum has treated us well. From the grand inaugural Cézanne and Pissarro show of 2005 to the delicate Odilon Redon exhibition that soon followed, to the extraordinary show focused on Manet’s Execution of Maximilian in the fall of 2006, and, finally, to this gathering of Seurat’s drawings, the museum’s public has received the best possible crash course in the origins of modernism (and it will continue this fall with van Gogh). Nothing could be more welcome at (what is still) the beginning of the twenty-first century, and nothing could yield more puzzling surprises, for the curriculum ends up being not only about the origins of modernism but also in some ways about its entire development.

Visiting the Seurat show, one fell constantly prey to the demon of anachronism. One could not help reading these stupendous works as the anticipation of much of what was to come thirty, fifty, and even a hundred years later. In her excellent preface to the exhibition catalogue, curator Jodi Hauptman sees in the parted hair of the sitter in Embroidery (The Artist’s Mother), 1882–83, a kinship with Brancusi, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg isn’t even the right metaphor: It was rather a flood of associations that assailed you upon letting go of all scruples of historical correctness. In the geometric faceting of Seurat’s small drawings in graphite from 1880–81, one could recognize a certain kind of Cubism (say, that of Jacques Villon); and even Picasso’s Houses on the Hill (the 1909 Horta masterpiece ludicrously deaccessioned by MoMA) was summoned by Seurat’s large Stone Breaker, Le Raincy, 1879–81, one of the first drawings in which he used his beloved Conté crayon (albeit still mixed with graphite). In many sheets, the writhing lines that form the “ground” from which the figures almost unwillingly emerge (see, notably, Nurse and Child, 1881–82) inevitably brought to mind similar squirmy marks in some late wall drawings by Sol LeWitt. In other works, the stark orthogonality of a row of tree trunks evoked Mondrian. The lugubrious emptiness of the nineteenth-century Paris suburbs that Seurat captured in so many drawings recalled de Chirico (he even managed to give a similar grim look to Place de la Concorde, that most urban of sites!). The grainy, dense, bottomless blackness often obtained from the Conté crayon—in areas even darker than Redon’s famous blacks—summoned Richard Serra. The game of recognition could go on forever.

But, for all its fun, the game is seriously flawed: Seurat’s greatness cannot simply be that he was a “precursor” of the various artists I mentioned (and of others one could name just as well). There is never, in fact, any real precursor of any sort. The concept is utterly useless, and what artist would ever set his or her sights on being a forerunner—of whom? of what? Yet more than useless, the concept is toxic: To consider someone a precursor, noted the brilliant epistemologist and historian of science Alexandre Koyré, “is the best way to preclude the possibility of understanding his [or her] work.” And, I would add, the possibility of doing it justice.

It has often been remarked that the two essential formal characteristics of early modernist painting were the emergence of the material support and of the mark. What is less often said is how much these two developments owe to the practice of drawing. The reasons for this oversight are obvious: In the wake of the raging dispute between the partisans of Ingres (for whom drawing was “the probity of art”) and those of Delacroix (for whom, according to Baudelaire, line did not exist in nature, being nothing other than “the intimate fusion of two colors”), color was placed on the revolutionary side of the ledger, and drawing was charged with being its academic oppressor. Color had been the underdog, the dispensable supplement, ever since the academic theorizations of the seventeenth century, and modernism, in great part, consisted in turning the tables. But clichés are solid, and for years an expression like “Impressionist drawing” was considered an oxymoron. Even Matisse, who did more than any other artist in the first half of the twentieth century to abolish the binary (and necessarily hierarchical) opposition between color and drawing, clung to the standard view.

Seurat, as this exhibition attested in so many different ways, proves this cliché wrong. Of course, it would be absurd to deny the paramount role that the “liberation of color” (in Matisse’s words) played in the birth of modern art—especially in the case of Seurat, whose divisionism paved the way to abstraction for Mondrian, Kandinsky, Delaunay, and many others. But even a quick glance at the chronology reveals that Seurat’s “divided touch,” his pointillism, was first elaborated in drawing for several years before it was launched in painting with Sunday Morning on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–86. “It is drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path,” noted his friend the painter Aman-Jean, whose drawn portrait by Seurat, the first work the artist ever showed, glowed in the MoMA exhibition. And even if a bit exaggerated, the remark of another friend, the critic Gustave Kahn, tells us how methodically Seurat set out to “thoroughly understand” drawing: “He had resolved to deny himself the luxury of color for three years. He managed to stick to this pledge and piled up drawings.”

Take, for example, Embroidery (The Artist’s Mother), or any drawing dating from 1882–83, a year or two before Seurat undertook his pointillist grand masterwork. Already in these works, line is conspicuously absent, as Seurat experimented instead with a pixelated distribution of light and dark units made by rubbing the Conté crayon over the gridded texture of the Michallet paper. The link between this approach and the pattern of little dots that would cover La Grande Jatte could not be more obvious. Seurat aimed for an irradiation of the figure, as if light were shining through from the support itself, as if light were produced in and by our eyes in the act of perceiving and synthesizing the discrete pixels. Even Seurat’s closest friends agreed that he came much nearer to achieving this effect in his drawings than in his paintings, for the simple reason that his idea of an “optical mixture” was based on a misunderstanding of color theory and could not, in fact, be realized in painting.

Although Seurat tried to achieve something in painting that he had already found a means to accomplish in drawing, it would be wrong to consider his works on paper, even those that are obviously studies for his major paintings, as simply “preparatory.” In fact, the inclusion of several canvases in the show revealed as much: They seemed somehow disconnected from the glorious sheets blackened by the Conté crayon, and, from what I could tell, they were mostly ignored by visitors. This is not to say that Seurat failed in his endeavor, but that he understood that the means of a painter and those of a draftsman, even if deployed in the service of similar ends, are fundamentally different.

But there was a grail that Seurat sought—and, indeed, attained—in both media. I believe the expression coined by Richard Shiff in the catalogue (a clever translation of yet another remark by Kahn) is perfectly to the point: Seurat wanted to “fathom the surface.” In his paintings, this fathoming occurs via the superimposition of various layers of colored sowings, each mark responding not only to its neighbors but also to those often several strata below, some of which are conjured back up to the surface by sheer chromatic resonance (an approach later emulated by Mondrian in the spatial weave of his very last works, particularly the “New York City” series, and also by Pollock in his classic drip pictures). In some ways this could be seen as a radicalization and even inversion of the age-old function of the underlayer, because unlike the traditional piling up of glazes, this cumulative geology was not about camouflaging labor. Quite the contrary, it was about disclosing that a pictorial surface must be constructed in order to vibrate and be alive.

But how Seurat arrived at “fathoming” in his drawing would be far subtler and, at the same time, far more daring—and with far greater consequences. He neither inverted nor ignored an established tradition: He single-handedly deconstructed one. I have noted above that the emergence of the support and of the mark, considered cardinal features of modernism, could be claimed to be importations from the practice of drawing into that of painting, since what characterizes drawing, with few exceptions, is the visibility of the mark and the page. But what Seurat did in his drawing, as brilliantly summarized by Hauptman, is unite support and mark (or pigment): “Very early on, Seurat brought together two materials: Michallet paper and conté crayon. Medium is typically defined as a specific pigment or mark-making tool, like oil paint, pastel, or graphite. For Seurat, however, medium is pigment and support, conté and Michallet paper altogether. The importance of the support in this equation goes well beyond simply acknowledging it as medium.” With his frottages, which emphasize the indexical nature of the mark and make use of the support’s asperities as it reveals them, Seurat abolished the projective nature of drawing, celebrated as disegno since the Renaissance. What each of his Conté/Michallet sheets tells us, again and again, is that no image could exist before being embodied in this paper and in this blackness, which give it birth. The support is not a neutral vehicle imparted with a mark conceived in advance, since the mark would be nothing (or nothing like what we see) without the particular support that defines it. The absence (or relative absence) of line is a direct consequence of Seurat’s incredible desire to create a non-Aristotelian mode of depiction in which objects would not be imprinted (as shape) on inert material substance, but would emerge through the fusion of substance, process, and idea. This is no small achievement, and though not a single draftsman has been able to take over directly from this point, painters some seventy years later would carry the torch: Think of Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Robert Rauschenberg in some of his early Combines. So perhaps we can’t prevent ourselves from tracking down Seurat’s potential progeny after all. But here it is not form in the morphological sense that is at stake; it is form in the structural one. Seurat, we could say, invented process art.

Yve-Alain Bois is a professor at the Institute For Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, and a contributing editor of Artforum.