Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection

Museum of Modern Art, April 22, 2009 – January 4, 2010

It was when I hit the Sherry Levines that the sinking feeling started. If the impetus behind Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection is “assessing drawing now,” as the exhibition catalogue asserts, it disregards evidence of a parallel “then” alongside the “now,” with Levine’s 1985 works marking the wormhole between the two.

André Thomkins, "Untitled" (1965). Lackskin (enamel) on paper. 6' 5 1/4" × 9' 2 1/2". The Museum of Modern Art. The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift. Courtesy Estate of André Thomkins and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich and London. © 2009 Estate of André Thomkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/PROLITTERIS, Switzerland.

For the record, this show of more than 350 works by 177 artists is the first survey of the 2,500 drawings given by the Rothschild Foundation in 2005 to the Museum of Modern Art. With very few exceptions, everything on display is post-AbEx, which presumably indicates the scope of the collection. And so, given the museum’s hand in assembling the gift (Gary Garrells, then chief curator of drawings, worked closely with the foundation’s Harvey S. Shipley Miller), this exhibition can justifiably be interpreted as the Modern’s definitive statement on the discipline of drawing as it lives in the memory and practice of the post-baby boom generations.

The show opens with a bang. As you escape MoMA’s corporate atrium through the glass doors of the contemporary galleries, you are greeted by André Thomkins’ large red, white, and blue abstraction from 1965. Thomkins, a Swiss artist who lived from 1930 until 1985, created the work the same way antique decorative endpapers were made, by laying a sheet of paper over oil paint (in this case, enamel) floating on the surface of a tub of water. The result is expressionistic and aleatory, but without the drips usually associated with accidental painting techniques. Squiggly, slashing, layered and organic, it’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before. The first room also includes such hard-to-top works as David Hammons’ lushly mysterious pigment-on-paper “Body Print” (1975), two versions of Jasper Johns’ “From Juan Gris” (2000) in ink on transparentized paper, and the curiously affecting untitled pen drawings on burnt-edged scraps (1985/1990) by Miroslaw Balka.

Step into the wide expanse of the second gallery, with Fred Sandback’s ethereal “16 Variations of 2 Horizontal Lines” (1973), Brice Marden’s sketchbook “Suicide Notes” (1972-1973), Robert Mangold’s “Four Distorted Rectangles with Line Division (Green, Blue, Sand, Ocher)” (1979), notations by John Cage, and loosely smeared Gerhard Richters hanging beside densely pure Blinky Palermos, and you enter an Apollonian dimension of visible thought. For these artists, a drawing surface is a mobile laboratory where hardcore formalism and calculated what-ifs collide with happenstance and whimsy. Even as the works shift toward the figurative in the next room, featuring late-expressionist, mid-1960s entries by Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke; a playful, pentagonal pasted-paper work by Bruce Nauman (1994); Ree Morton’s brightly colored text-and-image pieces from 1974; and Paul Thek’s funky polymer-paint-on-paper depictions of potatoes and prunes, also from the mid-70s, there is a sense that the medium’s interaction with its support—i.e., the figure/ground relationship—is critical to the generative idea.

From there, despite the intermittent appearance of intriguing works (Jack Smith’s crazed unbound book “Evil of the Brassiere World” (1969); Marisa Merz’s utterly spooky “Untitled” (c. 1996), in which the pencil lines and gold spray paint defining a sexually indeterminate head, shoulders, and hand seem to float simultaneously in front of and behind the other), there is a palpable slackening of conviction, a retreat from the demands made by form on content. Anish Kapoor’s gouache abstractions look as incidental as the charcoal pictures William Kentridge drew for his film Zeno Writing (2002)—lacking rigor in themselves, they are dependent on another discipline (Kapoor’s sculpture, Kentridge’s animation) to inform their meaning, the same way that illustrations, with rare exceptions, depend on a novel.

This limitation, while not particularly bothersome in itself, is key to the conceptual confusion manifested in Sherry Levine’s “After Giorgio Morandi” (1985). The still life objects rendered in this gouache, ink, and pencil impersonation of the 20th-century Italian master’s style exhibit none of the transcendence implicit in Morandi’s touch, but remain crudely self-contained within their physical boundaries. Through this deadening lens, the image becomes nothing more than a pictorial reference (which buttresses Levine’s art-as-commodity weltschauung) in the service of the artist’s agenda; it does not have a life of its own. Whether or not this is a purposeful reduction of Morandi or a result of technical ineptitude is an open question. But what is certain is that Levine’s counterfeit does not engage the emotions and intellect as a real Morandi would, sparking memories and associations from lived experience; rather, it simply harnesses Morandi’s trademark to her sense of irony.

This Reagan-era attitude, which grew out of a half-digested critique of American cultural hegemony, should be as dead as Dillinger by now, especially in light of the torrents of creative energy spilling from every part of the globe. And yet, while its particulars may be passé, it has laid the foundation for an aesthetic perspective—one that dominates the rest of the show, especially the newer works (the aforementioned “now”)—in which a concept is illustrated by the art rather than embedded within its formal structures. The resulting work thereby becomes more of an example of an idea than a metaphysical entity in itself. This kind of art has its place, but it certainly does not possess the power of a drawing like Pearl Blauvelt’s “Fireworks, 4th July,” made nearly sixty years ago with colored and graphite pencils on a thin sheet of lined notebook paper. Like Morandi, but with a very different vision, the artist approaches her humble forms as the material exploration of an image, a working-through before our eyes. Without this integrity of purpose, the enterprise of drawing (as the most intimate of art forms) threatens to fall into a Babel of hermetic stylings, excluding all but the theoretically initiated from its gated domain.

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Thomas Micchelli

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