Great art is a two-way street -- it articulates feelings that you know you have but can't describe. It has depth and forces you to think and talk back. You can't glance at it and walk away, the way I did at the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It's helpful to think of art as another form of poetry, which W. H. Auden describes as "the precise statement of mixed feelings."
Richter's work, by the way, displays a certain sense of humor that nevertheless doesn't make up for its nihilism. Richter may find it a life-affirming gesture simply to continue to paint. It wasn't nearly satisfying enough for my eyes.
Down in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art's first exhibition of 20th-century drawings put me in a much better mood. "A Century of Drawing: Works on Paper from Degas to LeWitt" is the first survey of the gallery's rich holdings and incorporates well-known masterpieces and promised gifts.
This show is not a survey but an excursion through the collection. The works in the first half are heavily European while the Americans predominate in the last half. The 139 sheets are arranged roughly by decade, giving some historical context to the wide-ranging styles and materials on display.
Portraits abound. The 1901-02 Pablo Picasso Self-Portrait with the artist looking impossibly young but fervent is juxtaposed with the artist's early charcoal of Two Fashionable Women. In that subtly nuanced piece, the "enfant terrible" of 20th-century art limns the pair as more intimidating than chic.
Such forceful subjects would not have bothered the crusty Henri Matisse, at least not the man in his 1937 Self-Portrait. A sensational self-portrait by Joseph Stella, done in metalpoint with watercolor over wax-resist, presents the artist's profile with a dappled blue surround. He probably would have pinched one of Picasso's fashionable ladies.
Joining these drawings is a recent gift, a 1912 Self-Portrait by Egon Schiele, executed shortly after the artist spent 24 humiliating days in jail on charges of seduction and immortality. His distorted, quizzical features, wild hair, and hurt but clear-eyed stare offer a prickly array of conflicting emotions, exactly the kind of art Auden would have appreciated.
A sweet bouquet of pansies in intensely-shaded pastel from around 1905 from Odilon Redon seems worlds away from American Charles Demuth's Zinnias and a Blue Dish with Lemons, a watercolor done in 1924. But, of course, Demuth had to be different, with a shattering World War intervening in the years between the drawings.
From the WWI years comes Lovis Corinth's Herman Struck in Uniform (1914). The broad strokes of gouache describe but cannot contain the figure, with his bandaged head, on the page. The browns and reds seem to bleed into the white paper.
Important organic abstract works range from the early erotica-tinged charcoal from 1916 by Georgia O'Keeffe, I-Special, to a lyrical Arshile Gorky, Virginia Landscape (1944), in graphite with free-floating vertical slashes of colored crayon. The Gorky is a 1990s gift. Ellsworth Kelly's pencil drawing Beanstalk (1999), almost 12 feet tall and less than two wide, trickles down the wall. Its spare elegance makes it another particularly welcome gift.
There is a slew of great Jackson Pollock drawings. One especially beautiful sheet from 1951, seen by many as the artist's most important year as a draughtsman, is an airy collection of brown and black ink blobs, swiggles, dashes and loops that soak into Japanese paper. It's one of several promised gifts of Pollock's work.
Hard-edge geometries dominate in Aria de Bach, a papier collé with charcoal and white chalk by Georges Braque from 1913. It suggests a cheery interior, while a new untitled addition to the collection by Barnett Newman in brush and ink from 1946 features an elemental void as basic as the sun and as vast as outer space.
In a clever purchase from 2000, the NGA snagged Claes Oldenburg's Fork Cutting Cake No. 1: Colossal Monument for Piccaddily Circus, London (1966), one of this artist's most luscious drawings.
Equally colorful and eye-catching is the abstract of pigmented paper pulp Freefall (1992) by Helen Frankenthaler. Multiple layers of paper pulp and dyes, mainly blues with green, purple, yellow and white, manipulated by the artist, make up this work that, measuring almost six feet by four feet, is both majestic and serene.
"A Century of Drawing," organized by Andrew Robinson, Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings, and Judith Brodie, associate curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, is filled with inspired and inspiring works. You're sure to find a drawing, or more likely, many that will please you.
The exhibition is on view through Apr. 7, 2002. A hardcover catalogue by the exhibition curators is available for $55.
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Another "first" in the drawings world is the new exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art in Manhattan, the first show there to focus purely on drawings. "French Master Drawings from the Collection of Muriel Butkin" consists of about 60 pieces of mostly 18th- and 19th-century works from this famous collection of over 450 sheets. Muriel Butkin lives in Cleveland and is giving her entire collection of French drawings, which span the late 17th to 20th centuries, to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Lucky Cleveland!
"I collect drawings, not names," said Butkin, and right she was to approach her collecting in this way. It allowed her to scoop up a lovely charcoal portrait of an unidentified man from around 1870. No attribution has been made for this drawing, but then you don't need one to enjoy it.
Several "academies," or life drawings, can be found in the show, none better than François Boucher's rendering from around 1745-50 of an old man with wings. Another well-represented type of drawing is the "têtes d'expression"; the show includes a wall of four, each different and each masterful in its own way.
Antoine Coypel's red, black, and white chalk of an effeminate young man's head (ca. 1716), for example, is a miracle of interwoven tints. Not far away is an 1856 sheet of several heads of a suffering woman by Edgar Degas. The graphite is impressed so heavily into the paper in one of the heads; it appears the artist wanted to grind suffering permanently into its fibers. It's a searing drawing.
A haunting wind-blown tree by Camille Corot from around 1870, a compositionally complex Oriental drawing in ink by Alexander Bida, and an over-the-top gouache Liberty (ca. 1865-75) with an heroic female figure breaking chains above the enslaved by Gustav Doré are other highlights of this far-reaching show. Don't expect to see any Impressionist works, but at least one example of almost every other kind of art from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Carter E. Foster, associate curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, organized the show for his museum, where it debuted. Dahesh associate curator Roger Diederen installed the show in its New York venue, where it remains on view through May 18, 2002. A soft-cover catalogue is available for $45.
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"Pierre Matisse and his Artists," a tribute to one of the legendary dealers of modern art in the United States, is billed as the Morgan Library's "first exhibition devoted exclusively to 20th-century painting and sculpture." While the Library's shows are usually composed of drawings, literary and musical manuscripts and memorabilia, this stunning selection of paintings and sculpture handled by the pioneering New York art dealer Pierre Matisse actually does contain a wonderful selection of drawings.
Just the two sheets by his famous father, Henri Matisse -- The Plumed Hat, all plumy curves of graphite from 1916, and the powerfully brushed black ink Dahlias and Pomegranates from 1947 -- would have made me want to visit.
Pierre Matisse (1900-1989) was initially intent on becoming an artist like his dad. Instead he became an art dealer, establishing his gallery in 1931 when modern art was rarely visible in New York galleries. He championed de Chirico, Derain, Picasso, Rouault, Miró, Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti, Tanguy, Dubuffet, Matta and, of course, his father. Works by all these artists are among the more than 60 in the current exhibition. In addition to several other Europeans, he also showed some Americans -- Alexander Calder, Loren MacIver, Sam Francis and Theodore Roszak.
The Morgan Library recently received a gift of the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives, and a show of letters, photographs and catalogues is in an adjacent gallery to the exhibition. They reveal the warmth that flowed between Matisse and his stable of artists. That side of Matisse was often obscured by his reserved public self and serious approach to art. His low-key salesmanship was always remarked upon. He never seemed to want to part with the works that he loved.
You can get a feel for his personality in an illuminating small oil portrait by his father painted in 1909 when Pierre was only nine years old. In his sun hat and striped jersey, the child looks out directly at the viewer from large, curious eyes in a carefully composed face with a small, set mouth. The boy is physically present and engaged, but his thoughts are closed off.
The adult Pierre Matisse showed Joan Miró more than any other artist. Among several other oils and two outstanding drawings from his Constellations series, the brilliantly colored and highly patterned oil Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (1920) comes from early in his career.
Celebrating Matisse's close relationship with Giacometti are four sculptures, Man (Apollo) (1929), Tall Figure (1947), The Chariot (1950) and his stunning Head of a Man on a Rod (1947), plus a clutch of drawings. It's worth remembering that Giacometti said: "What I believe is that whether it be a question of sculpture or of painting, it is in fact only drawing that counts." He proves it with works like his Head of Diego, Three Times (1962) in ballpoint pen.
A Dogon mask from Mali and a roof terminal from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia remind us that Pierre Matisse was among the first to exhibit tribal art. Alas, he couldn't sell any pieces for many years.
The show is organized by Morgan assistant curator Jennifer Tonkovich with William M. Griswold, formerly Engelhard curator of drawings and prints at the Morgan. The two wrote the catalogue, which contains reminiscences about Pierre Matisse and his gallery. The exhibition is on view through May 19, 2002.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.