"Drawing Now: Eight Propositions" is the sort of contemporary art show the Museum of Modern Art pioneered. Besides being big, bold and provocative, it's filled with work by artists you expect to get to know better as they grow older. To mount a group exhibition like this one, a number of factors need to exist: a new wave of artists to herald, strong institutional support and a talented curator with a good eye who can write persuasive catalogue text. Laura Hoptman, who was an assistant curator in MoMA's drawing department from 1995 to 2001, rose to the occasion and then some when she selected this edition of "Drawing Now." Aware of precedent, she developed a program that tipped one hat at Dorothy Miller's legendary "Americans" shows and another at Bernice Rose's acclaimed drawing exhibitions. She herself has emerged as a curator to watch as she bounds around the world visiting studios in preparation for the next Carnegie International, to be held in Pittsburgh in 2004.
Phyllis Tuchman: Does "Drawing Now: Eight Propositions" herald a seismic change in the art world?
Laura Hoptman: Yes and no. It's a question of using the proper tense. The art world has changed over the past ten years, and this exhibition represents a slice of what has been happening since the early 1990s. That slice happens to be figurative and illustrative and it is inflected by vernacular drawing techniques and imagery. Once an exhibition like this appears in an institution, things have already changed. Whatever happened, happened already. This show considers aspects of our present and recent past. I'm not suggesting this is the future. No doubt, lots of younger artists are or will be pursuing other directions.
PT: Should we conclude from your varied choices that there is no dominant style today?
LH: Absolutely. I could have done a number of shows based on other principles. This is a microscopic look at artists with very particular, and for me, interesting contemporary views. I didn't address, for example, the issue of photography and drawing. There are tons of people who rely on photography when drawing. There are also artists who are keeping process orientation alive. And conceptual drawings occupy another subgenre.
What I hope comes across in this show is that there has been a resurgence of drawing. This is a result of many factors, but the support of curators and collectors has been crucial. When Anne Philbin was at the Drawing Center in New York, she was an instrumental figure. The department of drawing at MoMA and its affliliate group, Friends of Drawing (which spawned the Friends group at MOCA) has played an important role, too.
At one point, "Drawing Now: Eight Propositions" was cancelled. It was championed at MoMA by Gary Garrels, the Chief Curator of the Drawing Department and a dedicated coterie of art lovers. We did it, in the end, with a much-reduced budget and lots of private support.
PT: Why did you appropriate part of your title from a show Bernice Rose curated at MoMA in 1976?
LH: Her exhibition was a model in its organization and its purpose. It gathered a group of important contemporary voices to put forth an argument for the importance of drawing as a primary medium of expression. I hope that "Eight Propositions" does the same thing, though as much as it is an homage, it is also an antidote to the earlier show. A well known abstractionist, a painter who participated in the first "Drawing Now," said to me recently, "I couldn't relate to anything in your show; and then I realized I wasn't supposed to." I was so pleased that he got it. This show is about people guided by things completely at odds with the example of the great drawing artists of the seventies.
"Drawing Now: Eight Propositions" concerns New York in the 1990s, for better or worse. It deals with trends that are finished works rather than sketches; and they are narrative, illustrative and for the most part, figurative. Because of this, some of the artists in the show have been criticized as conservative figures. But the arriere garde can be subversive too. Some critics get worked up when they see retro art, but theirs, I'm afraid is an old fashioned, teleological view of art history that is based on the notion that over the centuries art has been progressing towards some Utopian ideal of perfection. That's just not pertinent anymore. We are all too pluralistic.
PT: To select the artists for this show, did you make studio visits or go to international exhibitions and art fairs?
LH: I made studio visits to each artist and have kept in touch with them over the several years it took to prepare the show. Some of them, like Currin and Peyton, I've worked with before. Others, like Manders, Rondinone and Mehretu, I've written about. There were artists on my list who didn't make it into the show because I basically stopped traveling for a while after September 11, 2001. It is a regret.
PT: Which came first, the artists or the categories?
LH: The artists. I was looking at artists and then, at the history of technical and commercial drawing and art illustration. I chose not to cover some areas because I couldn't find artists I believed in to justify the propositions. There are, for example, lots of artists whose work is inspired by medical illustration but that was a category I chose not to include. The same goes for those artists who are influenced by pornographic drawing.
This exhibition does double, even triple duty. Besides being an exhibition about one aspect of contemporary drawing, it's also a show about the state of the contemporary art world. I reference Berenice Rose's drawing show, but I also tried to be guided by Dorothy Miller's contemporary surveys of the 1950s and '60s. I wasn't just filling categories. I wanted the artists to be significant.
PT: Did you consciously reject abstractionists?
LH: That wasn't the point. That just happened, and in retrospect it shouldn't be surprising because I was doing an exhibition about illustration. I was equally conscious of not including conceptual and process-oriented artists, although there are many artists working in these genres. Figuration has proved to be important over the last ten years, and this is show highlights this language as it expresses itself in the medium of drawing.
LAURA HOPTMAN is curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art. PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.