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MODERNISM & MATERIAL
by Walter Robinson
 
"Drawing in Space," Nov. 1, 2007-Jan. 18, 2008, at Richard Feigen & Co., 34 East 69th Street, New York, N.Y., 10065

Give yourself a gift in the dawn of 2008 and go see "Drawing in Space," an exhibition of approximately 60 works by artists ranging from Georges Braque, Joan Miró and El Lissitzky to Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Although presented at Feigen & Co.’s elegant townhouse gallery on East 69th Street, the show is organized by the veteran Swiss art dealer Jan Krugier. Long the exclusive agent for Marina Picasso’s collection of works by her grandfather, Krugier opened his gallery in Geneva in 1962 and a New York branch in 1987. A few years ago the New York gallery moved from the Fuller Building to 980 Madison, where it is open by appointment.

The notion of "Drawing in Space" has an elemental quality, and indeed, in the introduction to the exhibition’s jewel-like catalogue, Frances F.L. Beatty and Izabela Grocholski (of Feigen and Krugier, respectively) cite Gjon Mili’s famous time-lapse photograph of Picasso conjuring the image of a minotaur out of thin air using nothing but a small penlight. This picture, they say, captures the "creative moment" at the origin of every artwork, and is emblematic of the curatorial impetus of this show.

The fine line is a marker for elegance, too, and the exhibition has been installed with an exquisite eye to almost eerie correspondences between works. To cite just a single segue: A maquette-sized tangle of bronze and stainless steel ribbon (Frank Stella’s 1992 Vic-sur-Seille) is echoed by a lacy cloud of faint pencil lines (Alberto Giacometti’s 1950 Tree) that contrasts with a precise drawing of a monumental biomorphic reclining figure (Henry Moore’s untitled sketchbook drawing from 1974-76), which elaborates on a protean drawing of upright forms in a landscape by Picasso from 1928.

The exhibition includes almost 20 Picasso works, including several drawings of bathers and beach scenes from 1928, when the artist was bridling in a bourgeois marriage with Olga while keeping Marie-Thérèse as a secret and much younger mistress. These simple ink drawings, in which Picasso constructs figures from ovoid shapes -- pebbles, bits of driftwood, bones -- are of special interest in the wake of the third volume of John Richardson’s new biography of the artist.

While an abbreviated rendering of a bather with a button-like head and a body made from a jawbone may suggest Picasso’s growing antagonism towards his wife, as Richardson points out, the drawings also correspond with the artist’s plans for a monument to Apollinaire, who had died in 1919. Surrealist in appearance, these works find precedents in both Brancusi’s sculptures and the illustrations of Gray’s Anatomy, a copy of which had been given to Picasso by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in 1913.

One drawing in the exhibition, Le baiser (1928), shows one of Picasso’s bifurcated heads -- two profiles, joined in a kiss, one dark like Olga, the other light like blonde Marie-Thérèse -- "as if to incorporate his wife and mistress into a single physiognomy," as Richardson puts it. Picasso was well aware, too, that Brancusi’s early Le Baiser (1907-10) was the only modernist sculpture in Père Lachaise, the Montparnasse cemetery where Apollinaire was buried.

The exhibition also includes a sculpture from this period, when Picasso was working with his old collaborator Juan Gonzalez in the fabrication of open-lattice sculptures welded of metal rods. For the sculpture at Feigen dubbed Figurine (1931), the artist wrapped metal wire into a hominid-shaped tangle and set it on a base made of the wooden spool on which the wire had been wound.

During this time Picasso also made his portfolio of etchings illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a commission from the then-novice publisher Albert Skira. Ovid’s first legend is the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha who, as sole survivors of a great flood, were charged with recreating the human race. An oracle advised them to "cast behind you the bones of the Great Mother" -- the stones of the earth -- and Deucalion’s stones became men while Pyrrha’s became women.

But the exhibition provides far more than additional illustrations for A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. In fact, the works in the installation constitute a kind of thematic subtext to "Drawing in Space." The show is filled with collage and assemblage, and together these things provide an essay in the ways that artists are forever extending their materials, notably towards less-than-noble leftovers, detritus and other odds and ends.

Violations of decorum are essential to the avant-garde, whether it be largely stylistic, like Picasso’s use of bone images or Basquiat’s graffiti, or more plainly material, as in Jean Tinguely’s lively graphic elaboration of a cardboard postal envelope done in 1990 or Joaquín Torres-García’s Constructivist model for a monument from 1938.

Artworks gain a special kind of energy in this exchange of low with high. The Torres-García is especially striking -- a tall thin sculpture, without the ideograms that characterize much of his work, made of rough wood lathe painted red, white and black, and resembling a utopian tower.

Similarly, Joan Miró’s untitled collage from ca. 1934 is strangely energized by its rough contents, which include a neat sheet of dark sandpaper held in place by cobbler’s tacks, whose round black heads form a kind of geometric constellation across the work.

Most classical of all is the Cubist still life by Georges Braque, a collage from 1918 that includes an oboe of black paper [though art historian Lewis Kachur emails to say that it’s a tenora, a folk woodwind with a projecting reed], a faint violin outlined by a scrap of wood-grained paper, and, dominating the composition, a vase formed by a golden bit of corrugated cardboard. Braque’s famous balance, as opposed to Picasso’s destructive creativity, is evident, even here.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.



 



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