I was sitting with the veteran painter Neil Jenney on a bench at the Museum of Modern Art, admiring the crowd and the work at the much anticipated opening for the Rothschild drawing collection Tuesday night. Before I move on, let me mention that a classic 1969 Jenney painting, Saw and Sawed, is up for auction at Sotheby's next month, so get out your checkbooks!
Chuck Close cruised by. "I was in a show at Oberlin College 42 years ago called 'Three Americans'," Jenney reminisced, "with Chuck and a painter called Ron Cooper." This encapsulated the challenge of the Rothschild oeuvre; to wit, which is Close, which is Jenney, which is Cooper? For the collection that Harvey Shipley Miller accumulated in the middle of the last decade includes people in this selection, works in the collection not on exhibit and the whole universe of people not in the collection, which is infinite (Ed Paschke, Joan Brown, Romare Bearden, Will Cotton, and my seatmate Neil Jenney, to name a few off the top of my head).
Jenney continued, "One thing these curators have never got around to examining is realistic painting of the 1960s, you know, not "bad painting" or Pop or Photorealism, but just Realism." This remark put my mind to the figure and to color, so here is some of the good stuff in the New Modern Mall of Drawing. Raymond Pettibon's The Bright Flatness is a rippling, deep blue scribble of a surfer on a wave. A bright curl from him! Andrea Zittel's studies of a woman carrying a dinner tray into the desert are as ecstatic as a Navajo blanket. Mike Kelley's gray guys draped in umbilical cords are witty and saucy.
Franz West is the great revelation of this show, 1980s collages thick with color and psychology, especially In the Milk White Bath with a clinging couple and a self-portrait with the Madonna. Carol Bove's translucent blue drawing Jane B. on transparent paper is a focal point of transcendent beauty. Rosemarie Trockel's drawing of Jackie Kennedy with devil horns is delightfully sinister.
A series of Kara Walker gouaches of people being hunted, screwed, fondled and dragged by a big hand up into heaven has a looseygooseyness you wouldn't necessarily associate with her. Nicole Eisenman's Raging Brook Farm from 2004 is a blue-green lesbian arcadia, with much suckling of babies and fertile attention to crops and water. A 1988 Karen Kilimnik, Whispering Lady Painting, has the raw sketchiness and reference to beauty products like L'Oreal that introduced her to the world.
Best in show, after Carol Bove, is Kerry James Marshall's wry yet enthusiastic valentine of a charcoal black couple, reeking of joy and lust, surrounded by floating pink hearts. "Drawing is not about the money," Neil Jenney concluded, and maybe that lack of self-consciousness sparkles in this show that has a bunch of duds, but also a wall full of Ray Johnsons, tastefully arranged like Mah Jong tiles. Apparently, the whole collection will be slowly unveiled in different venues around the world over the next few years, so be prepared to choose your own earthly delights.
"Compass in Hand: Selections from the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection," Apr. 22-July 27, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).