Art

At MoMA, Drawing as the Politics of Living

“I Am Still Alive” installation shot (all photos by author)

Sometimes an exhibition reminds you of why exhibitions exist, those surprising moments when usually dull curatorial exercises become transcendent experiences, reinvigorating overlooked corners of art history. I Am Still Alive at the Museum of Modern Art is one of those exhibitions, defiant and vivacious as anything I’ve seen in New York in the past few years. The show focuses entirely on drawing, demonstrating contemporary drawing’s engagement with the politics of living and everyday life. This is art as struggle and art as achievement, nowhere more reaffirmed than in On Kawara’s telegrams sent to the artist’s dealers and friends simply stating: “I am still alive.” To make art and to fight through problems and conflicts, social or personal, through the medium of art is to be alive.

The art in I Am Still Alive is more united by its spirit than its format; the exact definition of “drawing” is, as ever, a complicated thing. There’s no one strict interpretation to go by; rather, the works on view in I Am Still Alive run the gamut from drawing-as-sculpture to illusionistic drawings on paper to mailed telegrams and transcribed letters. Conceptually, the work is determinedly political. The curatorial text at the beginning, next to the show title’s powerful emblem (seen below) writes that the exhibition examines “how artists have registered urgent, violent and far-reaching political affairs and profound human emotions through gestures that may at first appear slight.” This is a powerful statement that’s also an abnormally great description of the show itself. These artistic acts may look slight, putting a pencil to paper, stacking candy in a corner, but their implications and heft are huge. This slightness becomes poetry and poetry becomes provocation.

See the photo essay below for my highlights of this medium-sized exhibition that punches way out of its weight class. If only every MoMA exhibition could be so breathlessly engaged with both art and real life, so attuned to the times, lives and personalities of its artists. A visit is highly recommended, but see the sneak peek.

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I Am Still Alive’s title graphic, which I thought was super snappy and cool. The designer wasn’t labeled, but that’s a work of art in itself. The crossed-out letters spell out the subtitle: “Politics and everyday life in contemporary drawing.” At right, an On Kawara date painting.

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Lee Lozano’s “Dialogue Piece (Started April 21, 1969)” (1969). The statement on paper is reactionary and aggressive as all the artist’s works are: “Call, write or speak to people you might otherwise not to…”

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Installation shot of Danh Vo’s “26.05.2009, 8:43” and “Death Sentence”, both 2009. The Danish born Vietnamese artist appropriated the chandelier from the former ballroom of the Hotel Majestic, Paris, where the Paris Peace Accord between the US and the Vietcong was signed, and deconstructed it.

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Danh Vo’s “Death Sentence”, a series of excerpts from English and French sources addressing death and commemoration, transcribed in flowing cursive handwriting by Vo’s father, who can read neither language.

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Detail of Danh Vo’s deconstructed chandelier, “26.05.2009, 8:43” (2009). This work, with its intricate post-nationalism and questioning of identity and experience, was the star of the show for me. It delicately balanced on analytical knowledge and the sheer emotional tide of political history.

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Installation shot of I Am Still Alive in MoMA’s drawing and print galleries, with On Kawara’s telegrams in the case at front.

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A detail of one of On Kawara’s telegrams stating simply, “i am still alive.” These were also very powerful: simple, yet intensely felt. Would the same be true of a Twitter version? Probably not.

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Paul Chan’s “The body of Oh Marys (truetype font)” (2009) and “The body of Oh Untitled (truetype font)” (2009). These somewhat overly complex works saw Chan translating a typeface into historical sexual exclamations, single letters becoming a cacophony of erotic words.

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At left, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ evocative “Untitled (USA Today)” (1990), a portrait of the US in cellophane-wrapped candy, free for the taking. Does it signify superficiality, hope, or maybe a certain flashy brand? All of the above.

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At left, Sam Durant’s “We Are the People (Index)” (2003), a drawing copied from a photograph of Black Power protesters. Somewhat cynical, the work shows a psychological and temporal distance from the conflicts of the time shown in the drawing.

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Fiona Banner’s “Nude Standing” (2006) attacks the idea of the classical nude figure drawing with an avalanche of text, a breathless, erotic, tumbling of skin, flesh and veins scrawled out in rough handwriting.

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Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Wall Display” (1988-89) was a rough cry of frustration, drawing and creating out of anything at hand. The piece showed an immediacy now characteristic of the artist, but this one didn’t feel as successful as his more aggressive works.

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Frances Stark’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1993) is a blown-up copy of an annotated version of T.S. Eliot’s famed poem. A fitting end to the show, the reader’s scratched remarks next to the poetry show drawing as a kind of critical analysis of experience, the human mind ever processing what’s happening around it.

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I Am Still Alive is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, through September 19 2011.

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