Attributed to Daniele da Volterra, “Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti” (circa 1544) oil on wood, 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in., collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Clarence Dillon in 1977 (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art unless otherwise noted)

Uplifted is how I left Michelangelo’s drawing show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition of the largest collection of his draftsmanship ever assembled. The lift is provided by the haunting quality of his occasionally fierce, gravity-free imagery rendered with the lightest of seductive touches. Some of the most enriching drawings employ recto/verso leakage and smoky sfumato (close figure/ground relationships), and these are also the least finished. They are the subtlest, the most achingly beautiful, and the most meaningful to me of the show because they are infused with the finesse of sensually embodied flows of virtuality that speak both to our exalted emotions and everyday electronics.

Dexterously sketched male body fragments float and curl like smoke on scuffed sheets of sallow paper, allowing me to perceive Michelangelo Buonarroti working out visual problems as I daydream. Their poignant incompleteness offers the opulent opportunity for ambiguous gazing. Emotionally, these sensitive phantasmagorical drawings are riveting because they are fierce and fragile, powerful and precisely delicate. Strength and tenderness, like figure and ground, are here tied together, neither one complete without the other.

Michelangelo, “Studies for The Night in the Medici Chapel” (circa 1525) chalk, 11 in. × 13 1/2 in. in the collection of Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence

“Study for the Risen Christ” (1514) opened up in me a sense of covert possibility for the human body that I felt at one and the same time to be both dangerous and indispensable. Dangerous because it dances with the disintegration of death, and indispensable because its rendering of human flesh as phantasmagorical obscurity is increasingly desirable in a world where bodies have become overly tracked, controlled, moralized, quantified, and identified in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact way. The drawing suggested to me a sheer, under the skin, dynamism of ontological entanglement that folds jubilant being into non-being. As such, its somewhat disordered churn affirms the state of androgynous mutability that is my standard of excellence for Michelangelo.

Michelangelo, “Studies for Sistine Ceiling” (circa 1508-12), collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Likewise, “Head and torso of a man (recto); Figure studies and architectural profile (verso)” (circa 1540) and “Studies for The Night in the Medici Chapel” (circa 1525) engages and excites me with their hazy ambiguity. Even more so does “Sketches for Fresco” (circa 1510–11) with its open, swirling composition that implies two-way fluent virtual potentialities. “Studies for Sistine Ceiling” (circa 1508–12) is an alternative, phantasmagorical way to express agitation between form and the ground which surrounds it. They all point me towards the perilous turbulences and chancy exhilarations that pass through me in dreams. There is something overcast, heartbroken, and yet eloquent in their entanglements that pulls my conventional perceptions apart. They hold out the possibility of newly understanding human physicality by suggesting a creative conflagration between becoming perceptible and becoming imperceptible.

Michelangelo is at his quixotic best when his drawings imply formidable forces of a kind of Nietzschean affirmative nihilism where new relational affects and intensities are assembled. Perfectly finished, polished drawings, like “Tityus” (circa 1530–32), “Il Sogno” (The Dream, circa 1530’s) and “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (circa 1530–33) are admirable but dull by comparison, for me. They, like his masterpiece sculpture “Pietà” (1499), suffer from what I consider Michelangelo’s prestige problem. Their accomplished resolution, their dazzling technical virtuosity, their clichéd fixity as finished objects, tied to their overwhelming acclaim, make it difficult for me to implicitly enter the pieces and join them — and thus them join me. By contrast, the virtuoso incompleteness of the fragments in “Studies for Sistine Ceiling” opens the artwork up to virtual, imaginative, and mnemonic spaces. The central toe, on which the composition pirouettes, harks back to Michelangelo’s Virgin Mary’s missing nose.

On May 21, 1972 Laszlo Toth attacked the “Pietà” sculpture with a hammer shouting “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!” He fragmented Mary’s elbow, chipped off an eyelid, and severed her nose. An adroit onlooker scooped up the nose and has secretly kept it ever since (what a prized masterpiece).

Michelangelo, “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)” (circa 1510–11) red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study (recto); soft black chalk, or less probably charcoal (verso), 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm) collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Joseph Pulitzer Bequest in 1924

The well-known “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (circa 1510–11) and lesser-known “Study of torso of Dusk in Medici Chapel” (circa 1520–1530) both contain similar pleasures of euphoric fade-outs. They contain the power of invisible efficacy. The disintegrating lower legs of “Reclining Male Nude” (circa 1520–1530) are particularly suggestive of the flickering forces of instability, while the prancing “Male Nude in Profile Leaping to the Right” (circa 1504–08) suggests ecstatic Dionysian merriment in ancient polytheistic Greece. It is easy to imagine the missing surrounding gala involving the uncasking and drinking of new wine, the planting of seeds, and the evocation of ghosts. The after-effect of lingering with these two drawings is a sense of reserved release.

The topsy-turvy “Incidental Sketches” by Michelangelo and his pupils displays the generative force of deviation. The conceivably onanistic “Study of reclining nude in the Medici Chapel with measurements” (circa 1520–1530), like the “Study of torso of Dusk in Medici Chapel,” is a muscular and phantasmagorical plunge into where being and non-being reverse into each other. Through ontological upheaval it offers new regimes of attraction/repulsion to pursue.

Michelangelo, “Study of Torso of Dusk in Medici Chapel” (circa 1520-1530) black chalk, annotated at left in pen and brown ink, 6 15/16 × 10 5/8 in., collection of The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

With “Sketches of Christ Child and Virgin” (circa 1495–1500) Michelangelo has me look even deeper into vertiginous possibilities and improbabilities, and the effort seemed to strengthen my powers of imagination. Phantoms and chaotic disorder appeared to surround and plague the sad, beer-bellied baby. The more I dove into a central background, the more it collapsed, and the closer to graphical quicksand I came.

Far from academic, these 131 dreamy drawings on display seemed urgent to me as a way to counter the debilitating effects of our age of simplification. They beautifully create ambivalent disintegrations and imaginary formations that connect to current philosophical issues of immanence and transcendence and the merging of figure into environment and environment into figure. Avoiding over-determination, these sketches by Michelangelo encourage deferral and an associational gazing that connected me to the metaphorical metaphysics of finesse. Here form fails to reify, but rather falls into far-fetched farragoes of entangled being and non-being. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...

4 replies on “Michelangelo Traces the States of Being and Non-being”

  1. This text is not about Michelangelo, but about the author. There are 22 references to how the author feels, what he likes (and does not like), what these drawing mean for him, etc.. More than half the sentences are about him rather than the drawings themselves. I wish the author had said more about Michelangelo and less about himself.

    1. Can’t it be about both – as we both were there? On Michelangelo alone, read the press release.

  2. Joseph,

    This is excellent. I very much appreciate your subtle, multi-dimensional thinking about M’s drawings.
    I have been following your work, visually and in writing, for quite a while, and hope you will let me know of future developments. Regards, John Mendelsohn

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