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Nota Bene: David Smith

by Robert Storr

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts' 2000 Grants Booklet


The following essay by Robert Storr considers the viability of drawing today. It was written in response to the Foundation's Benefit Exhibition of Drawings and Photographs at Matthew Marks Gallery in December 2000.

They say nobody knows how to draw any more. They say nobody needs to draw anymore. The first set of "sayers" are a grumpy bunch; the second starry-eyed. If you were to believe them then drawing is dead.

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary such apocalyptic sentiment are surprisingly common these days. Conservatives who take Ingres's dictum that "the probity of art is drawing" at its most literal--that is, would-be connoisseurs who cannot imagine that the foundations of art are any different now than they were when Ingres put pencil to paper--seem almost to relish the dire consequences they predict. For them anyone painting or sculpting--or doing anything visual at all--must "begin at the beginning" and that means drawing from nature, drawing from the model, and, at the extreme of antiquated pedagogy, drawing from casts. If you can do that, the logic, goes then you have earned the right to go on. After all, they reason, the great modernists--Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian--all passed the test. On these terms experimental art requires a license issued by the academy, and to meet the demand academies of the old-fashioned type are springing up here and there or being recommissioned.

The "progressive" school of thought--which is just as schooly as the conservative variety--would banish newsprint and soft charcoal from the world and supply everyone with a keyboard, a mouse and a screen. Beyond that they offer programs to ease the difficulty of tracing digital lines across cyberspace, and are only too willing to provide pre-drawn shapes along with pre-mixed tones and colors to pour into them Sherman-Williams-style. A new technological age is upon us, they announce with all the enthusiasm of born-again hi-fi fanatics--and undoubtedly they are right. So the fractals fall into place and the printers twitch and hum, and drawing goes effortlessly, effervescently virtual. By the way, if you need a nude--scan it.

And why not? For generations artists have used opaque projectors to enlarge images, side-stepping the older techniques for squaring them up and transposing them. As the eyes of drawing aficionados changed--grid abstraction having helped to refocus them--these once routine exercises have acquired a fascination all their own. There are few sheets more beautiful to look at than Arshile Gorky's ruled study for the two versions of his painting of himself as a boy standing next to his mother--an image based on a photograph--and, as this and other studies prove, Gorky could draw like an angel in the classical manner. So could Willem de Kooning. But it was he who encouraged Franz Kline to get a projector to blow up his small gestural drawings, and late in life de Kooning took advantage of the same mechanical device to block in the forms he proceeded to freely reconfigure. Meanwhile artists of more recent generations demonstrate in a thousands ways, the subtleties of line and shade which indirect contour drawing--sometimes aided by a projector, sometimes by tracing--can make available.

In this context a computer is no different. A painter of my acquaintance, a friend of John Graham, who introduced both Gorky and de Kooning to Picasso's Ingresque manner, now plots his gestural abstractions on a Mac, before picking up his brushes. Although this intermediary step breaks with the tradition of spontaneous invention associated with Abstract Expressionism--a "tradition" cooked up by critics who conveniently ignored the ways in which Gorky, de Kooning and even Pollock rehearsed the marks they made--it fits nicely into the tradition of American pragmatism. Inasmuch as "Action Painting" depended on anticipating the pictorial consequences of motion, what this Mac-backed painter does is more or less the same thing as what a dancer--Merce Cunningham, for example--accomplishes by running possible choreographic maneuvers through a electronic program to see where they might lead.

Meanwhile traditional drawing is not dead, except perhaps in the academies neo- and old-style, where narrow ideas about how art is supposed to look are taught with otherwise useful lessons in how to observe with the unassisted eye, and how to get what one sees down with the unassisted hand. Although it was widely thought that modern art in the postwar era had dispensed with life-drawing, a number of abstract painters associated with the New York School--Philip Guston and Jack Tworkov among them--got together on an informal basis in the 1960s to work from the model. And after a long day at the forge or in the metal shop, the Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith would draw nudes in the quiet of his studio. Even cast drawing is not necessarily scorned by artists of that generation or those that followed it. Alex Katz, for one, has acknowledged in an interview that it was a perfectly normal part of his early education, and the uncanny stacticness of his tableaux might well be a delayed benefit of that experience. Although he is often spoken of primarily as a video, performance and new media artist, Bruce Nauman has said in conversation of how much he learned by studying drawing with Wayne Thiebaud, like Katz a vigorously traditional draftsman.

So the rumors of drawing's death (through neglect) or obsolescence (through technology) are premature. Moreover, the evidence is all around us these days that drawing is the medium-of-choice for many artists, and a means frequently and freely put to use by countless others. Better still, drawing has ceased to be regarded as an essentially subordinate form, nor, increasingly, are good drawings less valued than paintings and sculpture. On this score, the drawing collections of museums are there to remind us that sketches are often livelier than the works they presage.

At its best drawing is thought made visible, tactile. As such it is the most direct way to get to know an artist, and the most reliable--hence the basic truth of Ingres's remark. The aesthetic intimacy drawings offer is an invitation to penetrate the rigid fa├žade critical shorthand and overexposure through reproduction inevitably threatens to erect around canonical works and their creators. The willingness of established artists to show their drawings is an indication of how eager they are to break out of this shell from the inside. By contrast, the drawings of younger, perhaps altogether unknown artists are like the words spoken in a first meeting. If those words are well chosen and leave open the possibility for further exchange while at the same time foregoing the temptation to show off then one wants to see more. To that extent there is a latent eroticism to looking at drawings which transcends the sensuality of tracery across the skin of a piece of paper, a patch of fabric, a sheet of plastic or a metal plate. When it is a matter of going through a sheaf of works by an older artist, the compact between maker and viewer is akin to a final affirmation of trust between people who have long felt a mutual but wary attraction. When the encounter is with a younger artist, it excites the imagination like unexpected flirtation.

The 2000 benefit for the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, had all that and more. I hasten to add that it also had photography. Unfortunately, there is not space here to cover the entire exhibition. I have taken the liberty of limiting myself to one half, not out of any prejudice against photography, but rather out of the conviction that drawing has garnered comparatively less attention in the last decade and a half when much of the most interesting work to be seen is, in essence, drawing, with all the formal, technical and material variety the term now encompasses. Responding to the Foundation's invitation, then, were many of the artists responsible for drawing's current vitality and abundance.

Looking high and low as I crawled the walls at the Matthew Marks Gallery, I found examples of work by artists I know well and by others altogether new to me. That is the pleasure of omnibus shows of this kind. Each movement of the scanning eye seizes upon something different, and the tilt of one's body or the steps taken forward or back chart the contest between fresh but dissimilar experiences. Given the quality of the work on exhibit and the generational and stylistic range it represented, avid viewers kept bobbing and weaving around one room and on into the next.

Among the veterans who took part were William Anastasi, Richard Artschwager, Jennifer Bartlett, Mel Bochner, Trisha Brown, Francesco Clemente, Louise Fishman, Hermine Ford, Grace Hartigan, Michael Hurson, Ellsworth Kelly, Barry Le Va, Alfred Leslie, Margrit Lewczuk, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Nancy Mitchnik, Malcolm Morley, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Claes Oldenburg, Philip Pearlstein, Ellen Phelan, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Bridget Riley, Dorothea Rockburne, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, Alan Turner, Susan Weil, Trevor Winkfield, and Terry Winters. Among the newcomers or relative newcomers counted, Rita Ackermann, Matthew Antezzo, Michael Bevilacqua, Nayland Blake, Cecily Brown, Richmond Burton, Jane Creech, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein in collaboration, Stephen Ellis, Tony Feher, Liam Gillick, Jane Hammond, Jacqueline Humphries, Karen Kilimnick, Martin Kline, Siobhan Liddell, Matthew McCaslin, Tom Otterness, Tony Oursler, Roxy Paine, Paul Pfeiffer, Elliott Puckette, Sam Reveles, Matthew Ritchie, Alexander Ross, Lisa Ruyter, Kay Schimert, James Siena, Patrick Strzelec, Meg Webster, Steve Wolfe, Lisa Yuskavage and Michele Zalopany.

This seriously abbreviated list of the participants says nothing about the drawings themselves. Rather than compound the problem by concentrating on just a handful of examples, I will back up and describe the drawing I see first every morning and last every evening--a battle map by Kim Jones that hangs over the dinner table. I bought it from the 1993 Foundation benefit. Before coming upon it in the gallery I had seen Jones perform as Mud Man on the streets of SoHo, but I had never before run across a drawing by him or even been aware that he made them. That discovery was the first link in a chain of events that led to my including a similar work by him in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art alongside a large map painting by Jasper Johns, who, in the meantime had shown me more examples of Jones's work on paper. Like of others of its type, my drawing itself is a maze of lines and erasures, suggesting what might have happened if Giacometti had picked up a pencil and tried to narrate the battle of Stalingrad. It has the inexhaustible satisfactions of a complete vision completely accounted for by specific marks, exemplifying what the simplest drawings can do, and what only drawing can do.

Thus I owe a personal as well as professional debt to these exhibitions, and it is out of that sense of obligation, but also out of the enjoyment they have given me that I am writing this brief essay and salute. Before concluding, however, there is one more thing that needs to be said, and said emphatically. All the works in the show, drawings, photographs and prints, were donated by artists to sell for the benefit of other artists, possibly artists unfamiliar to them, possibly artists working in different disciplines from theirs or pushing off from fundamentally different aesthetic points of departure. At a moment when public entities increasingly turn their backs on support for individuals practicing their art, private patrons and foundations have come forward to fill the gap. As generous as they are and have been, there is still a desperate need, not only to provide artists the resources they require and buy time for them to work, but to acknowledge the intrinsic value of what they do. Artists understand this best of all, and the recognition they extend to their peers is correspondingly the most meaningful kind any other artist can receive. That is why the generosity of those who have contributed to this and previous benefits for the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, counts for so much. In fat times and in lean, in times when everybody "loves" art, in in those when you begin to wonder who really loves art, artists themselves must create and maintain their own life lines. This exhibition demonstrated that they continue to do so. And they do so in the certain knowledge best articulated by David Smith, that "art is a luxury artists pay for."

Robert Storr is an artist, critic, and curator who currently serves as the Dean of the Yale University School of Art. Formerly he was a curator and then senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (1990-2002,) and the first Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU (2002-2006). Mr. Storr has also taught at Harvard University, among others. In 2007 he was Director of the Venice Biennale.

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