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Ten years ago, the Morgan Library & Museum decided it was time to bring its collection up to speed on the art of drawing in the 20th and 21st centuries — a daunting task in itself, and even more improbable in the face of a superheated, late-capitalist art market: at the feast of the trophy-eaters, would the museum be forced to content itself with scraps?
The Morgan has 104 answers to that question, and they’re currently on view in Embracing Modernism: Ten Years of Drawings Acquisitions, an altogether superb exhibition featuring a choice selection of what the museum has collected so far. And there’s not a scrap in sight.
The show offers a dizzying historical and stylistic span across its 100-plus objects, nearly all of which fit into a remarkably uncrowded single room (there are several works, including an impressive 1973 collage of brown paper bags by Robert Rauschenberg, on display in the antechamber); the scale flits from tiny to extra-large, with long-dead Modernists mixing it up with artists barely into their 40s, and the materials range from minimal (Sol Lewitt’s folded sheet of Strathmore paper from 1971) to maximal (Richard Pousette-Dart’s “Passacaglia,” 1941–42, which incorporates, according to the wall label, “Pen and brush and ink, watercolor, gouache, oil paint, crayon, and graphite pencil, with scratching and selectively applied glaze on paperboard prepared with white ground”).
The Morgan has taken the unusual step of constructing a small enclosure in the middle of the gallery, with walls that extend like wings to the right and left, further dividing the space. The extra display areas serve as a scaffold for the drawings’ quasi-categorical relationships — quasi-categorical because there are places where it is difficult to tell where one theme ends and another begins, which is all to the good.
The exhibition is organized under the following headings: “The Desire of the Line”; “Gesture and Trace”; “High and Low”; “From Melancholia to Schizophrenia”; and “Things Stare Us in the Face.” The last, a selection of still-life drawings by such diverse artists as Rosemarie Trockel, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Richard Artschwager and Christo, is housed in the temporary enclosure, making it the most cut-and-dried of the five categories. Here and elsewhere, the curatorial choices are consistently fresh, enlivening and often unexpected.
The thematic headings may appear to send mixed messages, scrambling form and content, but instead they underscore the primitive urge toward mark-making at the foundation of all imagery — representational and non-objective alike — whether the medium is pastel (Joan Mitchell’s untitled abstraction from 1992) or car exhaust (Gavin Turk’s performative “Rosette” (2013), a sooty circle made by holding a sheet of paper over a tailpipe).
Piet Mondrian leads off “The Desire of the Line,” not with a grid but a landscape (“Dunes near Domburg,” ca. 1910–11), which is followed by, among others, a stylized, post-Cubist portrait from 1919 by Pablo Picasso; a geometric abstraction of horizontal lines by Agnes Martin (“Untitled,” ca. 1960); a study dating from 1909-10 by Henri Matisse for his monumental painting “Music” (1910); and Joseph Albers’ “Color Study for White Line Square” (ca. 1966) in oil, gouache, graphite pencil, and varnish on blotting paper.
The most alluring aspect of the show is its ability to roam seamlessly across time: the five drawings mentioned above span half a century but their linear DNA and curatorial “rightness” hold them together in a fractiously familial relationship. But what to make of the Brice Marden on the opposite wall, which is not one of his calligraphic works — which would be a natural for “The Desire of the Line” — but a dense, Minimalist square in graphite pencil and beeswax (“Untitled,” 1966), a counterpart to the oil-and-wax monochromes he was making at the same time.
Unlike Albers’ contemporaneous color study, which, as the title indicates, features at least one line amid fields of red and orange, Marden’s drawing yields nothing but a stubborn blackness. But here it would seem that, in “The Desire of the Line,” the operative word is “desire”: line is presented not as a formal element but as the end product of the artist’s compulsion to make one stroke after another, obsessively, until they resolve into an impermeable surface.
Curiouser still, in the most floridly weird juxtaposition in the show, is Marden’s neighbor to the left: Andrew Wyeth, the crusty doyen of America’s mid-20th-century derrière-garde, who is flanked on the opposite side by the equally improbable combination of a black felt-tip mandala drawing by Bruce Conner(“Untitled,” 1965) and a composition of glyphs by Leon Polk Smith (“Untitled,” 1945). Coming upon Wyeth’s pencil drawing, “Watch Cap Study” (1974), nestled among these abstractions comes as a disconcerting shock.
In its present company, the study, which depicts, from the back, a man wearing the eponymous cap (and which is admittedly stripped of much of the cringing nostalgia that suffuses the majority of the artist’s work), seems less an exercise in retro-realism than a nearly geometric, textural mass — a perceptual change that doesn’t quite drag the drawing into modernity but makes it much more interesting to consider in context.
And throughout the exhibition, contexts continually shift. Planted under “From Melancholia to Schizophrenia,” a kooky Cubist drawing in black chalk by Juan Gris, “Man with Opera Hat” (1912), reads not as a multi-view perspectival investigation but as a psychological signal of Europe’s coming crackup, a close cousin to the boldly Expressionist charcoal, “Half-Length Portrait of a Woman” (1913/14) by Erich Heckel, directly to its right.
Similarly, a nearby group of grotesque nudes in graphite pencil and crayon by Marisol Escobar (“Untitled,” 1957) exits the confines of Pop, where she is often pigeonholed, for a more expansive Cubist-Expressionist mode. Elsewhere, under the heading “High and Low,” a Keith Haring sumi ink drawing of a faceless anthro-octopoid snatching up hapless victims (“Untitled,” 1980) hangs beside George Grosz’s costume designs of giant bird-people for Methusalem, an Expressionist theater piece by Yvan Goll produced in 1922, and Amy Cutler’s wickedly violent gouache, “Four Little Pigs” (2000) — a placement that helps shake up received notions of Haring’s global brand.
And then there are the in-between works, the ones that straddle categories or stand outside of them, such as Chilean artist Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s graphite pencil drawing on paper that’s been dipped in wax, “Desnudos en la hierba (Naked in the Grass)” (2008), which hangs smack in the middle of a wall, wedged between the categories “The Desire of the Line” and “Gesture and Trace.” Does it belong to one or the other or both?
Vásquez de la Horra’s drawing of two female nudes lying on their stomachs amid tall reeds (although the title sounds like a takeoff on “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” Édouard Manet’s masterpiece from 1862-1963, the work doesn’t come across as such) evinces an emotional investment in curving lines, which are repeated so often in the rendering of the grass that they become a gestural statement as well.
The placement of this and other drawings, such as Susan Rothenberg’s large, untitled charcoal of a bicycle rider from 1985, on the sectional cusps (in Rothenberg’s case, between “The Desire of the Line” and “From Melancholia to Schizophrenia”) highlights the usefulness of categorization as a portal into a work as much as its uselessness in conveying any real complexity. To the exhibition’s credit, there are no borders, only elisions and transitions.
What the show’s curator, Isabelle Dervaux, has gathered together is an array of objects adhering to a rigorous aesthetic that nevertheless allows the works’ individuality to ring out. Each piece represents a fully evolved organism, as it were, that communicates with its neighbors without necessarily speaking the same language.
In what, in retrospect, sounds almost like a dare, the Morgan has brought under its roof a collection of depth and clarity within a single decade (the overwhelming majority of the acquisitions, it should be noted, are gifts; only a handful of the works on view are outright purchases). What is most exciting about Embracing Modernism is that its roster of historically significant names, though impressive, is less important than the continuum of expression that those names share with the new, the under-known and the forgotten. Here, the star is not Picasso or Matisse, Rauschenberg or Warhol; it’s the freewheeling sense of possibility that defines drawing now.
Embracing Modernism: Ten Years of Drawings Acquisitions continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 24.