François Boucher “Three Heads of Roman Soldiers” (ca. 1749–early 1760’s), black chalk heightened with white on buff paper, 9 x 12 inches (photo courtesy David Tunick Prints & Drawings, Inc.)

Last weekend, Master Drawings New York opened in a bevy of galleries on the Upper East Side, many of them infused by that unique crossbreed of quietly impressive wealth and recherché academicism. Master Drawings, which has taken place over the past week, essentially invites a group of art dealers who have spread their net a bit wider to exhibit rare drawings, watercolors, and oil sketches from the 14th to 20th centuries. The event is in its 11th year and includes pop-up presentations by dealers from London, Paris, Florence, Vienna, and the US. It’s not exactly like your conventional art fair — the works are shown under about 24 roofs instead of one, though the goal is ultimately still to sell.

Gustav Klimt “Seated Nude Facing Right Her Face Covered” (c. 1908/09), pencil on paper, 559 x 372mm, study for “Death And Life” (photo courtesy Shepherd / W & K Galleries)

This gathering is not the sort of place I usually find myself. At each venue, I had to be buzzed in (though once inside I was welcomed with enthusiasm at all of them). I didn’t imagine myself a big fan of what the fair designates as “fine drawings” or “master works.” More, the PR team, in the missives it has sent out, uses words like “score” (as in the number), and refers to “rarities … not seen on the market for decades.” But I look at the works and am surprised by some of them and find ones that are just too excruciatingly beautiful to not write about. So, I have gathered a few that I think are worth sharing.

The first ones that impressed themselves on me are two drawings shown at Shepherd W & K Galleries. Normally I think of Gustav Klimt as the painter of sumptuous, decorative filigree and his colleague Egon Schiele as the artist of the brilliantly economical line. Here, however, they seem to switch roles. I glimpse a Klimt drawing where he does something astonishing with the curve of a model’s hip and shoulder with just a pencil line, and then I see a Schiele that’s all muddy, expressionistic watercolor, the figure emerging from a mass of washy pigment.

At the same gallery, there is also Erwin Lang, a Viennese visual artist and contemporary of Schiele. His work has a starkly graphic and mythic quality that is entrancing.

Egon Schiele “Standing Woman Covering Face with Both Hands” (1911), gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper, 17.6 x 12.4 inches (photo courtesy Shepherd / W & K Galleries)

Erwin Lang “Scene from the Cycle: Dante’s Vita Nova” (1912/13), woodcut on cream Japan paper, no watermark, sheet size: 18 1/2 x 12 ¾ inches; image size: 10 1/4 x 9 3/8 inches (photo courtesy Shepherd / W & K Galleries)

At Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art gallery, I find sketches I had not previously seen by Leonora Carrington, who had a fascinatingly complex life, which included being a Surrealist painter and sculptor, having a romantic relationship and artistic collaboration with Max Ernst, and helping to found the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico. The work I see is playful and strange in the way that the best of Surrealism is strange: skirting the borders of madness.

Leonora Carrington “Crow Soup” (1997), pencil, ink and gouache on Arches paper, 22 × 29¾ inches (photo courtesy Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art)

Leonora Carrington “Untitled (Figure with Possum)” (1973), watercolor and pen and ink on paper, 16 1/8 × 13 5/8 inches (photo courtesy Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art)

Leonora Carrington “Oso hormiguero (Anteater with Shaman)” (1973), pencil on paper, 13½ × 16¾ inches (photo courtesy Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art)

Next I wander into the temporary space occupied by Découvert Fine Art, which is based in Rockport, Massachusetts. Most of the drawings do not interest me, except for one by Giovanni Battista Foggini who was the court sculptor for Cosimo III in Florence. According to the gallery, Foggini’s major works can be found in the Capella Corsini and the Chiesa del Carmine on Florence. I love the expression on the man’s face in this ink drawing. Usually I see that kind of doting devotion only in images with women and children, so am pleasantly surprised by this.

Giovanni Battist Foggini, “St. Joseph with the Baby Jesus” (ND), pen and brown ink and wash, 5.59 x 4.17 inches (photo courtesy Decouvert Fine Art)

At Mireille Mosler Ltd., which specializes in Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings, there are two stunning chalk drawings, both in terms of the work itself and the framing. One is by Jan Bogaerts and depicts a night scene that is gauzy and ephemeral. The other, by Willem van Konijnenburg is almost the opposite: strong, brutalist in its style, foreshortened to the point where it’s almost a frieze. And both are captivating.

Jan Bogaerts “De Witte Burcht” (1904), chalk and pastel, 335 by 480 mm (photo courtesy Mireille Mosler, Ltd.)

Willem van Konijnenburg “War Dance” (1919), black and colored chalk, 1220 by 870 mm (photo courtesy Mireille Mosler, Ltd.)

The last gallery I visit is David Tunick Prints & Drawings where there is a detailed study of faces that is so skilled with its contouring that the content almost ceases to matter to me. And I see a drawing by Picasso from his famous “Blue Period,” which is the part of his oeuvre I most appreciate; the melancholy feels real. And lastly, is another Klimt drawing, this one convincing me more of his brilliant draftsmanship, bringing a woman to life with that carefully exacting line that seems at times to go astray, but on close inspection never does.

Pablo Picasso “Le Repas Frugal” (1904), etching (probably after steelfacing) on Van Gelder paper, image: 18 1/4 x 14 3/4 inches, sheet: 19 7/8 x 16 3/8 inches (photo courtesy David Tunick Prints & Drawings, Inc.)

Gustav Klimt “Portrait of a Woman in Blue, Seated, Facing Left” (ca. 1913–1918), blue pencil on cream wove paper, 21 7/8 x 14 5/8 in. (photo courtesy David Tunick Prints & Drawings, Inc.)

Master Drawings New York continues at selected galleries on the Upper East Side of Manhattan through January 28.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...