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|Fess and Guess
by N. F. Karlins
|"Drawn from Artists' Collections," Apr. 24-June 12, 1999, at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
The Drawing Center's ingenious exhibition "Drawn from Artists' Collections" is the biggest tease of the season. As the title suggests, it showcases drawings from the private stashes of 18 contemporary artists, inviting viewers to parse out what was taken, used and resurrected in the artists' own works (or what might be in the future). For example, appreciating Brice Marden's two album leaves of poetry by Wang Duo from the early 17th century (and his energetic calligraphic Franz Kline work) does bring to mind what T.S.Eliot said about poets -- "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
The show mixes works by Picasso, Matisse and de Kooning with a couple of Old Masters and a wonderful selection of drawings obviously swapped by the artists among themselves. This jostling assembly also features concentrations of works by single artists or similar works from several lenders, forming mini-shows within the exhibition itself.
It makes sense that Alex Katz owns a drawing of the shaded face of a young girl by Balthus as well as Fairfield Porter's more delicate ink View from the Porch. Sol LeWitt's outstanding holdings embrace works of geometry, like Marco Tirelli's untitled charcoal of a white cross hovering in a field, and works that emphasize the artistic process, like Jonathan Borofsky's number grid and Chuck Close's Phil with Flowers. Close, in his 1980 work, cleverly employed thumbprints of ink to expose the watermarked flowers in the paper while limning the face of Philip Glass.
Ed Ruscha's possessing Jim Shaw's quirky Untitled (Distorted Faces) with its exquisite tonal variations seems logical, as does Helen Frankenthaler owning Robert Motherwell's Pyrénéen Collage. But what sense to make of Frankenthaler owning a wonderful sheet of pencil sketches of the rumps of horses by Géricault? Or of the presence in Ellen Phelan and Joel Shapiro's collection of an anthropomorphic and sneering drawing of a horse's head done by Lucian Freud?
Some of the drawings seem utterly contrary to the work of their artist-owners. Howard Hodgkin's muscular brushwork seems worlds away from the Indian miniatures that he assiduously collects. A watercolor of an elephant's head with neck-bells from early 18th-century Rajasthan, is one of eight Mughal or Kotah elephant portraits on display from his extensive Indian holdings.
Other concentrations include Helen Marden's colorful and sexy Tantric Buddhist drawings and the late Roger Brown's 15 exotic landscapes by the self-taught artist Joseph E. Yoakum, a mentor and fellow-conspirator of Chicago's "Hairy Who."
The most intriguing of the mini-shows contains the least known work -- Georg Baselitz's 14 untitled crayon or pencil drawings by Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911). A Swedish artist who was the son of a mathematician, Hill went to Paris, where he was influenced by Corot and Courbet and had his work rejected by the Salon. While in his late 20s, he showed signs of schizophrenia. He went back to his home in Sweden to be nursed by a sister and continued to work when he could. This is a rare opportunity to see his haunting multiple figure studies in ink and his bold, pared down landscapes in crayon.
Other highlights include an equally unusual self-portrait by an anonymous artist in the collection of Jasper Johns, a knockout Basquiat owned by Julian Schnabel, and a spooky Ensor, a pygmy bark painting and a hypnotic William Burroughs, all belonging to Terry Winters. Phew! Curators Ann Philbin and Jack Shear have pulled together one exhilarating show!
The exhibition is also scheduled to appear at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, July 13-Sept. 26, 1999.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.