"Drawing Now: Eight Propositions" at MoMA QNS
17 October 2002 – 6 January 2003
Although the title of this exhibition suggests an interest in pinpointing drawing’s essence, the sheer diversity of its eight sections – from “drafting an architecture” to “comics and other subcultures” – belies any monolithic, singular definition; the 26 fairly well-known artists included do not deliver the ontology of the medium the way that good modernists would. In this sense, "Drawing Now" is akin to concurrent shows like "Painting as Paradox" at Artists Space, also in New York, and "Painting on the Move" at the Kunstmuseum, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, and Kunsthalle in Basel: it, too, expands the parameters of an established medium while deploying that medium to temper the profligate eclecticism of recent art.
Curator Laura Hoptman, now at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, conceived of the exhibition during her 1995 – 2001 tenure at the MoMA’s Department of Drawings. The bane of much advanced criticism immediately preceding this period, the MoMA afforded a valid if convenient straw man for attacks on the modernist canon (which it unwavering affirmed) and the linear model of art history developed by founding director Alfred Barr (to which it unfalteringly adhered). Alluding to this fraught past, "Drawing Now"’s press release cites an alternate history: the museum’s periodic surveys of contemporary artistic trends, such as Bernice Rose’s 1976 drawing exhibition, from which Hoptman indeed borrows her title.
Even as the MoMA reconsiders its past, so it updates itself for the future, an agenda that "Drawing Now" both heeds and exceeds. Housed in the museum’s hangar-like temporary space in Queens – the laconically titled MoMA QNS – the exhibition is a part of an institution that since 1999 has also included PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Yet while the MoMA’s reorientation towards contemporary practices often seems schizophrenic (its Midtown building, currently under construction, can only be described as ur-modernist), the knit of tradition and experimentation acquires lucidity and purpose under Hoptman’s curatorial guidance.
Consider Paul Noble or Ugo Rondinone’s prominently displayed all-over works, which complicate Walter Benjamin’s famous observation that “a drawing completely covering its background would cease to be a drawing,” invoking instead the “transparent window” of painting, which requires just such a covering. An enlarged field sketch comprised of staccato strokes of black ink, the latter’s No. 135 Fourthofjunenineteenninetynine, 1999, straddles the two media. Blank spaces indeed appear, but the consistently textured surface recalls less the contour of the graphic line than the seamless continuity of the retinal screen.
Similarly, Toba Khedoori conjures the traditional hierarchy between figure and ground only to confound it. Here and at a concurrent exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, vast sheets of unframed paper, coated with wax, envelop ascetic graphite renderings centered on them. Just as the wax transforms empty space into dense volume, so inversely are the faintly-drawn architectural elements devoid of heft. Isolated and dislocated, the window in Untitled (Window), 1999 appears as if from a dream. Khedoori, in sum, foregrounds background – a project that Richard Wright’s Untitled, 2002, a field of dashed lines drawn directly onto the gallery wall, shares.
Russell Crotty, in the “science, nature, and artifice” section, not only refers to nineteenth-century naturalists’ drawings, but also to Matisse, who applied the draughtsman’s technique of achieving different effects by modulating line-weight to color: “one square centimeter of any blue is not as blue as one square meter of that blue.” Crotty’s Five Nocturnes, 1996, demonstrates this equation of quantity and quality; the sky looms over silhouettes of observatories, acquiring a prominence commensurate with its size. Likewise, David Thorpe’s collages of cliffs and clouds, composed of layers of intricately filigreed paper, update Matisse’s conflation of line and color, infusing as they do the former’s precision with the latter’s luminescence.
In the introduction to the accompanying book, Hoptman contests Richard Serra’s 1977 assertion that “drawing is a verb,” arguing instead that contemporary artists consider drawing less a process than an autonomous, finished product. Yet if not itself a process, "Drawing Now" brilliantly demonstrates and showcases the immense rewards of treating drawing as a medium that need be tested and retested – continually “proposed.” Neither declaring the medium’s essence (in classic MoMA style) nor denying its exigencies (as in postmodernist eclecticism), the exhibition maintains a tension between the fixity of a noun and the fluidity of a verb: drawing as gerundive.