New York

Bear’s Heart, untitled ledger drawing, ca. 1875–78, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 8 5⁄8 × 11 1⁄4".

Bear’s Heart, untitled ledger drawing, ca. 1875–78, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 8 5⁄8 × 11 1⁄4".

“The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists”

Growing consciousness of mass incarceration in the United States—the product of a bipartisan consensus that has seen the prison population, disproportionately represented by black, brown, and poor people, explode by 700 percent in the past fifty years—has motivated a surge of recent exhibitions devoted to art made by those serving time. While of a piece with this development, “The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists,” the Drawing Center’s first show under the direction of Laura Hoptman, is also unique in the way it uses the condition of imprisonment (broadly defined here to encompass “any situation in which an individual is denied their freedom”) to intervene in art history. Internationalist and transhistorical in approach, the exhibition—which brought together the work of more than eighty artists, all the way from the French Revolution to now—imaginatively reshuffled how art and its makers are categorized and valued, circumventing tedious distinctions between insiders and “outliers.”

Viewers encountered a smattering of famous names, such as the Communard Gustave Courbet, jailed for six months in 1871 for abetting the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a Napoleonic monument in the center of Paris, and Ruth Asawa, the modernist sculptor who learned to draw from Disney animators imprisoned alongside her in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Also represented were Martín Ramírez, adored by the Chicago Imagists for his throbbing linear ostinatos, and Adolf Wölfli, whose churning, mythopoetic abstractions became a lodestar of Dubuffet’s art brut. Both were committed to psychiatric institutions after their respective arrests, and are now lauded as self-taught masters. Much of the work here, however, had rarely been shown in the art world. Take the howling, bare-bones figuration of the Polish-Jewish artist Halina Olomucki, who survived the Third Reich’s Warsaw ghetto and then the Majdanek extermination camp; or the ledger drawings of the Southern Cheyenne artist and warrior Bear’s Heart, whose chugging versicolor train documents his transfer from the Great Plains to Fort Marion in Saint Augustine, Florida, where he and seventy-two other prisoners of the 1874–75 Red River War endured forced labor and assimilation. Studies of lunar phenomena sent from a White Sea gulag by the Soviet meteorologist Alexey Wangenheim (accused by a colleague of falsifying weather reports) to his daughter, and an effulgent 2016 supermoon painted by Ahmed Rabbani (who has been detained at Guantánamo since 2004, uncharged, though he maintains his innocence), articulated connections between unfree persons across space and time, instilling “The Pencil Is a Key” with a generous humanism unburdened by sentimentality.

If there was one mawkish note, it might have been the exhibition’s title, ill-suited to a moment when fustian rhetoric about art’s redemptive power rings hollow. But for the Buffalo-born artist Valentino Dixon, who served twenty-seven years in New York’s Attica Correction Facility for a murder he didn’t commit, the pencil really was a key. Dixon had never set foot on a golf course, but his colored-pencil renderings of arcadian links in crisp, high-key greens were published in Golf Digest in 2012, attracting national attention to his case. Dixon walked free in 2018 and is now suing the Buffalo Police Department for misconduct.

This story and dozens of others appeared on labels accompanying the images on view; according to cocurator Courtenay Finn, the intent was to employ biography to “[resist] the abstraction of language around our carceral state.” The abstraction of victimhood was also contested, in works ranging from the anti-apartheid leader Fatima Meer’s keenly observed portrayals of daily life in Johannesburg’s Women’s Jail, to the symbolist fabulations of Marcus Behmer, who joined the Berlin-based Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first homosexual emancipation organization, in 1937 and was later jailed by the Nazis for living openly as a gay man; to the political pop of Sérgio Sister, a captive of Brazil’s military regime and a cofounder the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Their work does more than affirm the humanity of incarcerated people (affording them a dignity that should of course extend to all prisoners, whether they make art or not); it shows that another world is possible.