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TALKING PICTURES
by N.F. Karlins
 
"Glossolalia" is defined as "speaking in tongues" or spontaneously erupting in a language known only to the speaker. It’s also the name of the most stimulating drawing show of the season, now at the Museum of Modern Art.

Filled with odd, unclassifiable work, this multinational, multi-generational mash-up places the work of academically trained and self-taught artists side by side and revels in the connections between artists, whether mainstream or Outsider, none of whom can be easily slotted into a particular movement or style.

The repetitive mark-making creating a scruffy halo of lines around a head in an untitled drawing by the late German shaman-artist Joseph Beuys is echoed in the layered linear boxes obsessively penned and spelling "light bulbs" by Dan Miller, one of many talented mentally challenged artists nurtured in the studio of Creative Growth in California.

The Portuguese artist René Bertholo is represented by an untitled carbon transfer print from 1961. The surface of this print is busy with an accumulation of tiny objects, a strategy also used by the Swedish-born Öyvind Falhström in his hilarious political piece, Notes 4 (C. I. A. Brand Bananas) from 1970, which itself seems to ricochet off Jean-Michel Basquiat’s collection of images in his untitled drawing of 1985 made with cut-and-pasted paper and oilstick.

The influence of comic books seems everywhere. A piece from a comic book superstar, R. Crumb’s God Wants Me to Draw, is a good place to start. Both Richard Pettibone and Jim Shaw owe a lot to the comics, and are among a handful of over-exposed artists here.

More interesting and always strange is the visionary work of Henry Darger. His use of serial imagery for his epic struggle between the seven Vivian girls and the forces of evil is as influenced by the comics as by coloring books, newspapers, novels and other sources. His single large piece has his heroines passing through a dangerous farm, protected by four friendly monsters called "Blengins". His color combinations are unique and his shifts of scale leave me unbalanced but craving more.

Abstraction and the grid underpin all sorts of pieces, from the heavily impastoed, mathematically ordered work of Alfred Jenson to the light and airy, skinny typewriter pieces of Christopher Knowles. Still different in feeling is a grid of circular designs in deep, rich ethereal blues from the 1880s by Emile Josome Hodinos, a Frenchman who spend his entire career in mental institutions.

Pin-ups provide the source material for the Mexican artist Dr. Lakra, who embellishes magazine pages with paint and ink that spins them into another dimension, while Tom of Finland weighs in with a pencil drawing of a sexy hunk who turns toward the viewer with a supercilious yet come-hither stare. Despite all the connections and influences, these artists remain resolutely one-off.

Among my happy discoveries in the exhibition (and you are sure to find plenty of your own) is the sweet and sexy, faceted surreal pencil drawing from 1942 by Gray Foy titled Dimensions. It may be the best thing in the show. Foy, who lives in the famous Osborne Apartment House in New York, was the longtime companion of Leo Lerman, the Condé Nast writer and editor who died in 1994.

All the pieces have been pulled solely from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, which suggests how rich MoMA’s holdings are and how many pieces rarely get seen. The show hints at the trove of fascinating works by eccentrics that can no doubt be found in other collections as well. But this show is a great start. MoMA curators Connie Butler and Esther Adler have liberated viewers from the standard international art-market fare of punchy, over-sized, mostly Conceptual works churned out dispassionately by a small number of artists.

Every one of these works counts. Approach with an open mind.

"Glossolalia: Languages of Drawing," Mar. 26-July 7, 2008, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.


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



 



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