Wednesday, 30 June 2010

In Praise of Art Well Drawn

I know how antediluvian—even deluded—of me it must sound, but my first reaction to both the recent Philadelphia Museum of Art anthology of local artists and the Art at the Armory collaborative was ennui: relieved by my recollection of seeing the Ian Woodner collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
This New York industrialist’s selection of five centuries of European drawings is luminous in its many peaks, moderately satisfying even in its valleys. When I emerged into the little K-Art/Mart that now forms the end point of every big show, the lady running the emporium asked me how I like the show.
“Well,” I began, “if it were an international soccer match, the Germans would have won, the Italians runners-up, and the Dutch and the Flemish would have scored higher had they entered as one team.” “Oh I don’t mean which works pleased you, individually, “she replied tartly. “I mean how well was it hung?” Picking up the free brochure on the show, I quipped, “Well, Benvenuto Cellini’s ‘Satyr’ is sure well-hung.” It was not appreciated, at all, at all.
I know it’s Philistine to want artists to draw well. There are so many more ways to touch us since verisimilitude went into limbo after the rise of photography. And I love most of those innovations because, when executed by an artist of genius (even of talent), they jump-start my emotions. When I grouse about the ennui I felt at PMA/AATA, it’s because when innovative techniques all but displace fine drawing, you get logy just trying to psyche yourself up for an immensely new experience—over a hundred times at PMA, and (gasp!) a cool 400 times at AATA.
We are already discovering compassion fatigue in our troubled social relations. I think I am suffering an analogous comprehension fatigue when I confront too much far-out stuff all at once.
As much as putti generally puts me off, when Filippino Lippi lines, in pen and brown ink on buff paper, “Dancing Putto Holding a Drapery,” my eyes flip at the saucy charm with which he has captured this proto-helicopter about to take off.
And before Raphael’s “The Heads and Shoulders of Eight Apostles,” in red chalk over stylus underdrawing, I am in awe of the singularities he achieves in their frieze—level procession—praying raptly, attentively observing, thinking deeply, turning to a fellow who has just uttered a witticism, and so on to the end of the row. Wow.
But my favorites in Woodner’s collection are two animal portraits by Hans Hoffmann (1530-1591). “Red Squirrel,” brush and watercolor and bodycolor on vellum, veritably bristles with the concentrated chomping of the animal, his ears slung back in tension. And “Hare Beneath a Tree,” point of brush and gouache, heightened with white, on vellum laid down on panel.
How is it, after seeing miles and piles of PTV footage on animals cavorting this way and that, that these hand-drawn figures are more “life-like”? They say that drawing is making a comeback in art education. Others also contend that Computer-Assisted Design makes such training obsolete.
What CADs. A gifted pen, a lyric pencil, an electrifying burin—will such talents ever be obsolete? Will any CADed architect of the 21st Century be able to vie with Louis Sullivan’s ornamentalism? I doubt it. I hope not.
Mr. Woodner was at the press opening. I had to blink at my press releases to be sure they said this tall vigorous man was already in his 80s. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in architecture, a pleasant surprise which made me wonder why there were no architectural drawings in his exhibition. The answer seems tied into his graduate work at Harvard, where he was awarded a European traveling fellowship.
His study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts gave him the opportunity and the leisure to travel and start collecting. He never stopped. And a career as a successful developer gave him the income to pick pieces of the high standard displayed at the Met.
This is surely one of the great strengths of the American art scene—the efflorescence here, there and everywhere of autonomous collectors. Let’s just hope that the Tax Deform Act of 1986, which disallows inflation-increased values being applied to a wealthy individual’s income taxes, will not throw these treasures into the auction house instead of in a public museum to be savored over the generations.
Heh, not every “drawing” show elicits my enthusiasm. I hurried down to Washington to see the Rembrandt landscape drawings. You may remember the wire service stories that ran in paper after paper across the country, with the sketch of a bridge that the great Rembrandt had executed as quick as a flash.
I am as bowled over as the next viewer by Rembrandt’s great portraits in oil. But, alas, these landscapes by the titan left me yawning. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that I missed the message. But it was like watching Joe Montana putt. I remember the passes, and the putting palls.
Not that that visit was a waste. There were two other shows on in the cavernous doublebarreled National Gallery of Art. One was a miscellany of the work of John Marin, presumably to capitalize on the donations of many works by the artist’s son.
Even a so-so Marin show is full of glories. And this one was especially memorable for the outstanding catalog, written by Ruth Fine, formerly of the Alverthorpe Gallery and Beaver College, which makes a great read and a substantial gloss on the first American modernist to achieve both a popular and a scholarly critical reputation.
Finally, there was a glasnost-inspired show on “Matisse in Morocco.” Turns out two prescient collectors were among his earliest supporters. Their eyes weren’t infallible, but their hearts were way ahead of the pack. It was amusing to discover that Matisse was plagued by incessant rain the first month of his sojourn in North Africa after exotica and bright light.
I don’t mean to seem perverse, but the most interesting works for me in the show were the postcards (especially one sketch of himself, dressed to the nines, sketching arabesques in plein air) that he sent back to his friends in France. I guess the Matisse I most like is divided into two parts: the first fine, careless Fauvist raptures, and the post-arthritis paper collages (the Jazz series, the vestments for Mass, and the Rosary Chapel).
Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard at Large, July 25, 1990

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