Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2008 with permission of the author, Peter Plagens, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, directly through either this phone number or web address:
Drawings: The Fort Worth Art Center Museum
By Peter Plagens
The current state of drawing in America, which this exhibition attempts to appraise: is complex and possibly indecipherable. First, because drawing is difficult to define, legalistically and because drawing requires relatively simple tools and modest working conditions, there are thousands of American draughtsmen, amateurs and professional, commercial and intellectual, reactionary and vanguard, making millions of drawings. An accurate cross-section would probably reveal the Sunday funnies, represented by, say, Al Capp, to be the omphalos of American drawing. Here, the target has been more or less narrowed to the "fine" or "high" art (ars gratis artis) which is significant in terms of the major present and near-future developments of American drawing and, by extension, American art. Such a limitation does not, however, eliminate the cultural conditions which would throw an underground academy (a pedestrian illustration) in our midst: American art, even at its best, operates under a heavy dose of draughtsmanship and this draughtsmanship historically a combination of imported European beaux-arts and the fertile soil of the American outlook: "The prejudice in favor of a 'mastered' academic draughtsmanship is somewhat indigenous to the American sensibility. It is part of the Protestant work-ethic: if it's really good, it's got to be difficult and, if its difficult-looking, its got to be good." This predisposition has endured all the way from Benjamin West to a "mainstream" artist like Andrew Wyeth (most likely considered by upper middle-class laymen, the consumate American draughtsman) moreover, it encompasses the vanguard:
Probably the greatest American art movement, Abstract Expressionism, was by and large a re-revolution in drawing the apotheosis of Cubist spatial ideas through Surrealist automatism, and its practitioners draughtsmen. Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-born penultimate abstract expressionist, typifies the drawing premise of our first home-grown vanguard style: "De Kooning's art is traditional and available. He is very much an 'old master.' His work is full of the feel of 'real art,' of 'art that looks like art.' This is because he picked up and carried on Picasso's Cubism and it is because de Kooning is by nature an old-fashioned figure-ground draughtsman, more so than any important artist since Manet.
As for the American outlook, we have always had a pragmatic bent; on the frontier -- Kentucky or on the moon -- useful results are what count. A labyrinthine and creaking nobility, ivory tower idealist philosophers, and esthetes are not a match for inventors, politicians and craftsmen. Artists are craftsmen to the degree they "master" a predetermined and clearly defined skill; the important thing about craftsmanship in American art leading up to our modernist painting is that the practice of the defined skill is thought to come first, that is before the illusive "art quality" manifests itself, rather than afterward, as windowdressing to brilliant esthetic ideas:
We have in this country experienced about fifty years of consciously vanguard art, that is art which believes that quality resides in something other than the mere recital of venerated techniques, and which posits originality as at least a demi-esthetic virtue. Painting and sculpture as exhibition material, have gone beyond what was only hinted at before World War Two to the point where sculpture, with the aid of our first-rate and available technology, has looked upon the face of God and is levitating itself into pure energy, light and space, while painting threatens to disappear altogether. Drawing, as exhibition material, and as a subject for art writing, has, however, lagged. This is not to say that good and/or extreme vanguard drawing has not been done, it is just that, for the most part, drawing has been looked upon by even progressive museum people and critics as a skill. One paints, but one knows how to draw. "Painterliness" and "sculptural" are properties (brushy, loose treatment in a picture and a carved or molded quality in an object), but "draughtsmanship" is, in all its semantic pomposity, all-inclusive, essential to every good drawing. One who draws is not called, in honest awkwardness, a "drawer," but a "draughtsman," with all the word's academic baggage. And the artists who populate the established American drawing exhibitions cluster stylistically around Leonard Baskin, with occasional forays into early Larry Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg, clinging all the while to high horizons on the Golden Section, thick -- and -- thin thistle-like lines, and murky tones of angst grown hothouse in college printmaking departments. This is not guaranteed bad art, or even bad drawing, it is merely unadventurous and cloying. (There have been recent American drawing exhibitions to the contrary, and the present exhibition is certainly indebted to them.) Perhaps the mark-time on the part of these artists is attributable to a feeling that, since drawing is materially simple and unglamorous, it requires the aura of tradition. Painting can possess grand scale, new kinds of paint with increased convenience and effect, and a built-in feeling of permanence; sculpture has even more far-reaching methods than painting in addition to the status of being physically real. Thus painters and sculptors have, while going out on esthetic limbs, the reassurance of the greater presences of their media. The draughts man can, if the esthetic fails, fall back on very little.
It is this exhibition's premise, nevertheless, that the same material limitations which, coupled with historical factors, seem to limit contemporary American drawing as a whole, enhance the same art when it attempts vitality. This "physical ordinariness" has two assets: (1) the drawing has, self-evidently, no desire to compete with the world-at-large on the world's terms and (2) the drawing then becomes a relatively pure conveyor of information. The drawing asks, rather quietly, to be met on its ground, a one-to-one contemplative relation in which billboards, jack-hammers, laser beams, Happenings, and Techniscope 65 are, by mutual agreement, ruled out. This reduces the static in the mind of the viewer. By extension, the drawing has immediacy: it says what it has to say without benefit (or hinderance) of a technical spectacular. (True, part of what a large painting says is "largeness" and "mass" is some of the message of a big sculpture, but a small drawing says "smellness," by axiom, more economically.) Lastly, physical ordinariness in its limiting ability can be positive; since drawing is not prone in incessant mechanical novelty, it is less often lead down the garden path (as was, in my opinion. painting, with the "shaped canvas"). "Experiment is not art, discovery and invention are that and no more; newness is irrelevant to art, in which there is change rather than progress. Drawing is the most existential art form, in its continuing self-definition (What is drawing? It's what draughtsmen do; What's a draughtsman? Someone who makes drawings.) Seeing good, risky drawings is a profound thrill.
The drawings in this exhibition exist not only against a continuing realization of what drawing is, but they are products, more or less, of the modernist art in general. Without attempting a precis of the past century's art, I would like to point out what I take to be two main currents carrying to the present, what I choose to call the constructivist and surrealist mentalities:
The surrealist is forever making a rational judgement in favor of the irrational: chance and intuition. The dogmatic issues (form v. content; color v, tonalities, separate media v, mixes, and realism v. abstraction) mean relatively little to him, although the implication is that he will opt for content, tonalities, mixes and some kind of illusionism. Associations meaning a great deal, the world-at-large is invited into his art; but the objects in the world are, upon entry, "charged," as they were for the medieval artist: "... every aspect of the physical world demanded the full regard of the artist for each and object and every part of each object existed as expression of divine will." In a way, we have a new medievalism, rebounding towards magic ("expression of divine will") as an escape hatch from a pervasive, death-dealing "rationalism."
The constructivist mentality tries to make a better metaphysic out of rationalism; it proceeds by steps, celebrating and discarding images by constantly testing them against both the world and esthetic idealism. George Rickey, the kinetic/constructivist sculptor, has delineated the mainstays of the constructivist image:
I do not mean to suggest that the generic and overlapping labels of surrealist and constructivist enclose everything in current drawing, let alone the whole of modernist art. Nor do I suggest that every drawing in the exhibition is indicative of either label, only that the exhibition, in summary, states that there is a vital esthetic power in physically ordinary, non-academic current American drawing and that part of this lies in the idea that "any notion which is visual in nature in fact, possibly any notion at all [Italics mine] conceived in the mind may be given concrete form through drawing. Concerning this premise there are, however, a few specifics which, short of hedging on any of the shows' faults, ought to be mentioned. In the selection, a lively drawing which does not seem to fit the premise raises the question of whether or not the premise ought not to be deducted from all available good drawings. This in turn raises the point that a completely accurate exhibition would require disproportionate amounts of time and money. The show, then, has to be, in the end, a "felt" entity, meant simply to be seen rather than inventoried.
There is desire, especially in New York, to eliminate the "esthetic object" as we know it; which can be regarded partly as an extension of the constructivist procedure, obeying Mr. Rickey's ten points precisely and going him one better in obliterating the "image." Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria, Doug Huebler, Joseph Kossuth and Eva Hesse deal in ideas (or concepts if you like) which, save to be pointed out at all, need no material form. Hueblers points, lines and locations are theoretical, coming into being for us only as (in another realm) a movie starlet's decolletage, a polite hint at something absolutely fantastic. Huebler is a combination Parmahansa Yogananda and Scientologist, traversing the universe with his mind and giving us drawings as faint postcards from exotic vacations. Kossuth and de Maria consent to be more ordinary, playing simply with word-surface-image games. DeWain Valentine and Doug Wheeler, on the West Coast, slip closer to "art," the drawings being "conceptual" in the sense that they are blueprints for works which will need, in the long run, detailed working out, (If Wheeler's drawing happens to be "beautiful," it is only a by-product of his over-all method: precise and, to use a beat-up word, elegant.) Valentine and Wheeler represent a kind of borderline on the most extremely immaterial (unphysical) position which edges back into what we are accustomed to as "art": static objects which have, according to perceivable rules or sensibilities, been "balanced out." I mentioned this area of the new drawing first because it is, to me, the most potentially dangerous.
Interviewed on the televising of the Apollo 11 moonshot, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. mentioned H. G. Wells prediction about the human race eventually coming to two distinct species, the flower-child like Aloi, loving but more or less stupid, and capable of only the barest subsistence, and the Morlocks, who lived below ground and ran the giant machinery which kept everything going: the "engineer-types" and the "poet-types." Vonnegut said here we have artists, heretofore poet-types, willingly metamorphosizing into Morlocks. Defending the transition runs something like this: artists have for too long been content with a helpless flower-child existence, at best a sub-species of manual craftsmen and pedestrian romantics, taking (and giving) crumbs of the "real world," instead of doing their twentieth century homework and gaining entrance to the "real world." Moreover, the tail will eventually wag the dog. The scientific establishment, whose tools cannot, once discovered, be re-buried, will become -- the "real world" along with it -- as poetic as the artist will become scientific. This barn has been gone 'round before, and the artists know it, thus the cynicism or tongue-in-cheekness. The Bauhaus had the same dream. These artists are wary, casting their projects on such a scale as to predicate an irreversible commitment from the establishment should the projects ever be completed at scale, or seeing to their constant immateriality, retaining the poetry of non-marketability. E. P. Butler's little drawing, "Information Transfer," puts it nicely out of reach of anything but pure unparticularized, untrammeled thought: the information that this information transfers is that this is an information transfer.
The term "Minimal Art" is an anathema to most artists working anywhere near the style, just as "Gothic," "Baroque," "Fauve" and "Cubist" were uncomfortable to their practitioners. Those who believe that "less is more" do not like to have their work labeled "Less Art;" I accept that view and admit "Minimal" only because, rightly or wrongly, the term has become accepted in consensus. Additionally, it is used here to enclose a dozen or more independent spirits (Dan Flavin, Robert Fried, Jerry Ballaine, Bob Mongold, Bob Ryman, Sol LeWitt, Bob Morris, Don Judd, Brice Marden and a few others) in the hope of pointing out a degree of physicality one step more intense than that of "conceptual" art. No one, in these drawings, is working strictly with minimality, with the exception of Sol. LeWitt.
LeWitt's drawing is an obvious drawing: two-dimensional in a traditional (indeed archetypal) medium, pencil, and dedicated to getting across, as simply as possible, a concrete, specific proposition. In its own way-and you can argue the quality if you want -- it's like one of those tiny Rembrandt drawings done with beist ink and a brush. LeWitt, however, deals with art issues directly, not by implication: (9) true two-dimensionality (drawn on the wall, no paper, no frame), (2) draughtsmanship (the drawing was executed by others through plans drawn by LeWitt), and permanence of the object d'art (the drawing must either remain forever or be cleaned off; it is either priceless or valueless, no in-between).
The "Minimal" drawings (Flavin, as usual, is difficult; his touching little drawing is a momento and a gift, and it is simply a rendering, but it doesn't seem to fit anyplace else) are constructivist and most of them are notes, plans or preliminaries for three-dimensional work. Most of them, toughminded and to the point, are physically very ordinary (with the exception of Jerry Ballaine) and could, if the exhibition had been further limited, form the crux of its point about current drawing: that good drawing and "draughtsmanship" is bigger than dead birds and aquatint effects, that it can have, once removed from the tyranny of neo-Beaux-Arts-ism and preciousness, a solidity and dignity about itself which is, I think, especially American.
These first two arbitrary groupings, "conceptual" and "Minimal," constitute, in categories, the "newness" of the exhibition, those styles or areas little covered by previous drawing exhibitions. Since the emphasis is on "un-draughtsmanship" (a circuitous newness), the implication is that, in those kinds of drawings more familiar to us because their prototypes are at least ten years old, there still exists within the individual works a uniqueness. Howard Smagula frequently uses the precedents of Rauschenberg and Johns and the general history of German Dada; yet his drawing has its own authority, running an intricately structured perceptual line between form and content, between (concrete) poetry and drawing. Sam Francis is a vertible old Master now, the image possessing a common denominator known to most of us; but his drawing is different, different to his existing body of work and different in terms of drawing (specifically, whether it is a painting or a drawing; he calls it a drawing and I take his word. Ed Keinholz -- on the other hand, refers to his "trade" watercolors as paintings, even though they are more like certificates and regretfully, his word is definitive). The late John Altoon and Robert Rauschenberg represent, together, a kind of late fifties-derived "master drawing," that is, an esthetic which is as fine as anything traditional drawing has to offer in the way of handling, balancing, complexity of thought and sheer style, but is also a kind of landmark from which much of the new drawing has sprung. Rauschenberg, whose art is wider-ranging and more physically ambitious, has been the greater influence; it is irrefutable that the drawings of Eugenia Butler and Douglas Huebler owe a tremendous amount to the clearing and planting of Rauschenberg, who "acting in that gap between art and life" led to an attention, not only to art (superformalism) and life (resurgence of content) but to the gap as well. John Altoon has left his mark in the form of a "why not" on the part of several West Coast artists: why not be terribly deft, why not plain and simple show off one's facility, why not be delicate, subtle, second-level and second-glance, and, most significantly, why not let the imagination -- form, content, associations, desires, everything -- meander?
If a third major influence exists it would be Stella, who, in his painting about the process of structuring a painting, has given a boost to the whole "systems" outlook, which leads back into "conceptual" art and the demise of the object d'art. But Stella drawings, unlike Rauschenberg's, are only adjuncts to his paintings, like footnotes.
Probably the most difficult connection to make in terms of anti-draughtsmanship (un-draughtsmanship), concerns the group of drawings which are blantantly trompe l'oeil in premise. What is unique, in terms of drawing (as opposed to simple choice of subject matter), about drawings which are exercises in copying or approximation? (Included here are Vija Celmins' unitary views of the ocean, Ed Ruscha's illusions of ribbon-writing, Ken Price's cups, Gerald Gooch's repetitive human beings and on the borderline, William Wiley's interiors.) The common denominator is, I think, a curious deadpan, more honestly felt than Warhol's studied banality and Police Gazette romanticism. There may or may not be associative meanings (certainly there are associations) in Celmins' painstakingly rendered waves, Price's colored crayon objects and Ruscha's gunpowder words, but there is a unique formal quality, a love of craft (simply, what's fun to draw) coupled with a knowingness about mass media and the art world which synthesizes into a detached realism, a realism so fine that what is not real becomes the lynch-pin. The drawing's significance lies on its reversing itself; it is aware of this and thus avoids simple illusionism. (Another analogy to the moonshot. While the rocket was on earth, it represented technology as the apex of human endeavor, our highest point, since, built on the knowledge of all the philosophers and all of the scientists, it was going to unchain us. Once the LEM landed on the lunar surface, technology became the base of the pyramid and any art would have to be built on the landings of thousands of Robinson-Crusoe-rockets. Somewhere in that quarter million miles, there was a flip-flop. Likewise, these drawings, in process, posit accurate, photo-like representation as the apex; once completed, however, it is the stray line, the glistening of the graphite surface which reaches us as the art-quality. Somewhere between the artist and us, there has been a reversal, and the awareness of this probability is what separates these drawings from less self effacing realisms.
There is, strictly speaking, little Pop art in the exhibition. Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, charter member Pop artists, have lived through it and out of it, both particular brands of Pop leading in different directions. Lichtenstein has gone from what looked like a one-joke cul-de-ac into, in range and intensity, one of the best formalist ouevres around. Oldenburg is a strange amalgam of facility (in the orthodox sense; he draws like a 17th century master) and surrealist mentality; he is not as limited, as "cute," as straight Pop would imply.
Joe Goode, Mel Ramos, Walter Gabrielson and Robert Arneson owe something to the style, but are, respectively, too neutral, traditional, ideational, and painterly to conform. Only Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb and Ron Cobb, messengers from the "underground," could be called "Pop" from the safety of the fact that their art is intended primarily for popular media and popular consumption, rather than for galleries, museums and connoisseurs.
Finally, there is a primarily surrealist art -- in that it is supra-rational, hideously extended, associative beyond braking, and imagistically aggressive to the point of discomfort, at least visually. I am speaking of Michael Peters, Peter Saul, John Hunter and David Folkman.
About the author
Peter Plagens is a painter who's shown with the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York since 1974, and was also the staff art critic for Newsweek (1989-2003), where he is now Contributing Editor. He has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Arts Journalism Program. His paintings were the subject of a current retrospective first shown at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; it traveled to Columbia College of Art in Chicago and The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. Plagens is the author of two books of art criticism -- Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-70 and Moonlight Blues: An Artist's Art Criticism -- as well as a novel, Time for Robo. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Laurie Fendrich.
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2008, with permission of the author, Peter Plagens, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The permissions waere granted to TFAO on Augusst 6, 2008. Mr. Plagens' essay pertains to Drawings, which was on view at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum in 1969.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Peter Plagens, author; Rick Floyd, Registrar of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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