Drawing, a Cure for the January Blahs

Drawing is really the best of all art mediums. Its history is long and encompassing, truly global, virtually unbounded. It facilitates many other art forms, among them painting, sculpture and architecture. But the mark-making basic to drawing is the starting point of so much else: the development of written language, numbers, musical scores. And, contrasting with this macrocosmic scale, there is the microcosmic: the stripped-down vulnerability of individual drawings, which are often not much larger than the faces that lean in to absorb them. This is about as naked as art gets.

Just as drawings bring us close to an artist’s thoughts, feelings and touch with an intimacy that sometimes seems metabolic, they provoke spontaneous responses that can show us new sides of ourselves. On the practical side, drawings are relatively inexpensive to make, transport, exhibit and buy, which benefits artists, as well as curators, art dealers, starting-out collectors. And if you are merely interested, drawings are the great teachers; they educate the eye and make us more conscious of seeing. They present visual power, relatively unbuffered by materials or size. In my darker moments (OK, most of the time), I think that collectors who don’t buy drawings are actually not worthy of the name. As they say on Twitter, I’ll just leave this here.

This is a rich moment for drawing in New York. The Drawing Center in SoHo is in the third and final segment of its “Ways of Seeing: Three Takes on the Jack Shear Drawing Collection,” a trio of unusual and probing consecutive shows. Each has been selected from a large, remarkably diverse cache of drawings by a different person,: the artist Arlene Shechet, the writer and curator Jarrett Earnest, and the collector himself, Jack Shear. The results reflected different aesthetic and curatorial visions.

Also Jan. 21 will bring the opening of the 16th iteration of Master Drawings New York, a kind of dispersed art fair of a week’s duration (until Jan. 29) that occurs at various addresses mostly on the Upper East Side from the 60s to 82nd Street. A group of 20 galleries, some hosting private or out-of-town dealers, will mount shows of primarily European drawings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Shows to look out for include “The Drawings of Jean-François Millet” at Jill Newhouse Gallery (4 East 81st Street): a selection of 19 works by the French Realist much admired by van Gogh. Meanwhile, the venerable Agnews, from London, will take over the Colnaghi space at 38 East 70th Street for “Dürer and His Time.” This show will include the recently attributed Dürer drawing of an unusually relaxed Madonna and Child that has excited old masters circles.

The lone exception to these historical shows will be Cade Tompkins Projects, an art dealer in Providence, R.I., and New York City that will display “Presently Drawn,” a show of works on paper by 8 contemporary artists in the lobby of the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue (entrance at 2 East 61st Street).

And with “Ways of Seeing,” the Drawing Center has mounted a 15-week drawing fest that seems extravagant even for an institution wholly devoted to the medium. The shows added up to a kind of drawing tutorial fueled by the pleasure of the works themselves.

Its title comes from John Berger’s famous book (and BBC TV series), “Ways of Seeing” published a half century ago. It was chosen by Claire Gilman, the Drawing Center’s chief curator, who oversaw this complex undertaking. In her essay in the first volume of the show’s catalog, she discusses Berger’s conviction that an artwork’s meaning is in constant flux, always changing in relation to what is seen around it, not to mention the viewer’s own emotional weather.

All works are from the still-expanding collection — around 1,000 works and counting — that Shear, the photographer, curator and collector began accumulating five years ago, after the death of his husband, the prominent American abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly. It seems voracious in its variety, with quality as the connecting link as it ranges across numerous generations, styles and more than three centuries.

Shear himself organized “Take One,” the first installation, last fall, which seemed to be all fireworks. So many great drawings — and because repeats were allowed, happily, those mentioned here are all in the final iteration, Jarrett Earnest’s “Take Three.” There’s Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s meticulous filigree plotting of one of his most famous paintings, “Roger Freeing Angelica,” a drawing that took my breath away. So many surprises, even from familiar sources: a 1965 transfer drawing by Robert Rauschenberg whose combination of found images and scribbling has an exceptional, sparkling clarity.

So many startling juxtapositions, amplified by hanging some drawings with their frames touching. For example, the exquisite rendering and detail of Ingres’s “Portrait of Alexis René Le Go” went up against the same in Tom of Finland’s untitled homoerotic depiction of two cruising sailors and their pickup, from 1980.

The Shear segment of “Ways of Seeing” presented a hard act to follow. and in November the sculptor Arlene Shechet opted for an enchanting installation for “Take Two.” She painted the lower half of the galleries’ walls with bands of pale brown and gray, hung the drawings at different heights and added benches of her own design whose alternately rounded and right-angled edges seemed to comment on the nature of line.

Shechet took care that her selections were linked, one piece to the next, by form or subject, creating an almost continuous chain. At some risk, many of her drawings that had been in Shear’s presentation, although it was often fascinating to see them change in different company, bearing out Berger’s thesis. For example, Shear defused the sexual tensions of Lee Lozano’s 1964 graphite drawing — a large screw about to penetrate a screw eye — by flanking it with the coolness of a Minimalist drawing by Blinky Palermo and a hypnotic night sky by Vija Celmins. Shechet emphasized the heat, placing the Lozano between one of Robert Morris’s drawing of magnetic fields and a Salvador Dalí drawing of Surrealist creatures coupling.

In another example, Shechet contrasted one of Stanley Whitney’s exuberant grids of sizzling scribbled color with the containment of a study for an early stripe painting by Frank Stella and a Malevich Suprematist composition, whose drifting geometric fragments could be fallout from an explosion (perhaps of the Whitney).

In “Take Three,” Earnest has underscored Whitney’s explosiveness by placing it between drawings that also abound in line and possible movement: one by Arshile Gorky, the other by Julie Mehretu.

However, Earnest’s presentation in the large front gallery is a picture of restraint, compared with its more ebullient predecessors. Here, the drawings are all black and white, centered at eye level and equally spaced — an amazing sight on such long walls. This regimentation contrasts with the images themselves, in which the softness of beautiful bodies and faces tend to dominate, even as it invites you to concentrate more on each drawing than the links between them.

Still there are striking juxtapositions: a ravishing delicately fluttering late de Kooning drawing hangs next to Jeff Koons’s impatient ballpoint pen sketch for an early vacuum cleaner piece. A Tom of Finland drawing of two lusting Adonises hangs next to a similarly perfect Annunciation with its own erotic undercurrent by Simeon Solomon, a little-known Pre-Raphaelite.

In an essay that will appear in the catalog’s second volume, Earnest explains why the wall color in the large gallery changes from dark to pale gray (twice), paralleling changes in the drawings themselves. I don’t get this yet, but I hope to on return visits. I also plan to revel in the back gallery where color blooms in works by Henri Michaux, Anne Ryan, Gladys Nilsson and Stanley Whitney on walls of yellow and mauve.

This ambitious undertaking has been a marvelous adventure in the acts of drawing, looking and curating, at once beautifully ordered and random. It would be great if the Drawing Center could spread the medium before us with such imagination and largess every few years.


Ways of Seeing: Three Takes on the Jack Shear Drawing Collection

Through Feb. 20, The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, SoHo, drawingcenter.org.

Master Drawings New York 2022

Jan. 21-29; various locations, for a list of in-person exhibitions: masterdrawingsnewyork.com.