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by N.F. Karlins
"Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockburne and the Old Masters," Oct. 12, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008, at the Morgan Library, 255 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.

The nature of experiments is that not every one is successful, but the Morgan Library and Museum’s "Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockborne, and the Old Masters" pays off spectacularly.

One of the great repositories of drawings from the 15th century to the 19th century, the Morgan invited four contemporary artists to choose six to eight works from its collection to be shown alongside a similar number of their own. The hope was that influences and relationships between old and new works would appear. And they did, in often surprising ways.

The most unexpected result was that Baselitz and Rockburne both selected works by 16th-century Italian Mannerists. Though contemporaries, the two artists are quite different, since Baselitz is a German Neo-Expressionist painter and Rockburne is a Canadian-born, New York-based artist who uses mathematical formulas to create folded paper drawings.

Baselitz, who is known for his figurative paintings and drawings in robust, crude swipes of paint, actually has a long interest in Mannerist painting. He had a six-month fellowship at Villa Romana in Florence in the mid-1960s after his first scandalous show of paintings featuring sexy, grotesque bodies in the early 1960s. Baselitz has said he was reacting against German abstract art in the 1950s.

In Baselitz’s catalogue statement he says he was "somewhat unhappy with the Gothic stiffness of the German school" and that he wanted "what was so foreign to me." He evidently found what he was looking for in Parmigianino. He now owns about 250 prints by Parmigianino himself and has selected only works by this artist for the Morgan’s exhibition.

The lure of the anti-Classical yet figurative is there, of course, but what I feel Baselitz had picked up on in the 1960s is the inherent violence in contrapposto of the bodies in Mannerist art, including Parmigianino’s. The twist of the torso, the arbitrary, unnaturalistic proportions of the body and the torque that’s felt throughout the figure are basic to Mannerist art.

All that distortion, already a Baselitz hallmark, also underscores the three-dimensionality of the body, exactly what he thought missing in German art. Three-dimensionality is there in his drawings of muscular, or in some early works like his The Whip Woman (1964), bloated bodies. He uses rather elaborate shading in his works, like Parmigianino, too.

Yet Baselitz says something else. "Parmigianino is grace, more than manner and style, he is sensuousness and grace." This, too, is true and can be seen in Baselitz’s work, which uses repeated curved and flowing lines to build up a skein that covers and shapes his figures. An early work like Kullervo, or Dog Boy from 1966-67 has a bulky male figure extending, pushing beyond the picture plane, yet the many curved lines give the drawing a delicacy that is also to be found in the young man’s face.

Georg Baselitz is known for his upside-down figures, which suggest violence, and his "fractured" series of paintings and drawings, which cut off part of an image and connect it with another related but non-continuous one. These are attempts to separate figure from ground supposedly. To me, they do not do this, but create a kind of end-on-end collage made of one person’s art. Yet even in these odd collages, the strokes of the pen or brush have a "sensuousness and grace" that can now be traced to the 16th century. How exciting!

Who knows? Perhaps looking at sheets of Parmagianino drawings with many sketches and studies on a single sheet, like several included in the exhibition, may have inspired Baselitz’s upside-down figures or his "factured" series.

Dorothea Rockburne is quite another case. Her minimalist constructions of folded paper created according to a preordained set of rules have yielded asymmetrical yet balanced compositions of great beauty. Her sparse means always surprise with the richness and flow of their composition.

The most revealing drawing that I saw among her selection of Mannerist works is Guido Reni’s Study of Forearms with Hands Crossed from 1613-14. In this context Reni’s black and red chalk drawing becomes not only a study of the body but also an abstract elongation of overlapping planes very similar to Rockburne’s own Conservation Class #5 from 1973.

Lately Rockburne has been exhibiting a series of cosmic watercolor drawings, several of which are in the show. They seem very different from the earlier work, yet the artist sees the Mannnerists’ influence again. Rockburne has written in her work diary in 2004 that while the Mannerists "chose to distort," "employing an accurate painting of emotions, they often reached beyond formal restrictions into a mystic dimension."

The pull of the mystical is there, but I don’t find these pieces as compelling as her earlier works. But I’ll be thinking about this connection, having seen how her earlier pieces relate to Mannerism.

Ellsworth Kelly, who spent his formative years in Paris, unsurprisingly has selected a number of French works. The spareness and sensuality of his plant contour drawings in pencil, like his Banana Leaf (1991) and Seaweed (1949), echo those same traits in Matisse’s great Self-Portrait (1945) in conté crayon.

Matisse, that tight-lipped pipe-smoker with eyes that stare right back at the viewer, is limned without a straight line. The softness of Matisse’s beard and tie also battle his austere image. The result is the kind of uneasy balance that comes from the greatest art.

This self-assured drawing was executed late in Matisse’s career. It’s totally self-assured, unlike so many of Matisse’s early drawings in conté crayon with their numerous erasures and pedimenti. It must serve as an inspiration to many young artists striving to learn to draw.

Most of the drawings that Kelly’s selected, however, are studies, ways to think about the act of drawing. Kelly’s Pine Branches II (1950), a tangle of lines, can be seen as the skeletal study of another Study, this one by Watteau of a young man.

I especially appreciated Kelly’s choice of Degas’ Standing Man in a Bowler Hat (ca. 1870), an early work that now seems to aspire to the purity of a contour drawing with its multiple attempts at drawing the man’s legs and the essence that is brushed around the upper figure to smooth it out.

In his work, the Italian Conceptualist Giuseppe Penone considers nature and its power in relation to man and his imagination. Penone suggests that one group of drawings he selected illustrates nature absorbing man, another attempts to describe nature in all her mystery, while in the last "the artist reveals the sensuality of nature."

The use of man’s imagination to delve into nature is certainly present in his own The Imprint of Drawing, Right Ring Finger (2001). By ever-widening repetitions of the whorls in his finger, Penone has generated a drawing both organic and specific to him that also conjures up tree rings, shells, spider webs and all manner of natural phenomena.

Penone’s selection of Piranesi’s Prison Interior of a Great hall and Piers and Arches Pierced by Grated Oculi from around 1740-50 certainly looks similarly organic, with its arches that seem more like fern fronds than brick. Both his and Piranesi’s work hover in some realm between nature’s forms and man’s.

For all these strange and welcome new ways of looking, we have to thank the Morgan Library & Museum’s Isabelle Dervaux, curator of modern and contemporary drawings. For an institution that expanded the range of its drawings into the 20th century only ten years ago, this is a singular achievement.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.