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drawing dialogues

24 may 2016

I haven't seen the "Drawing Dialogues" show at New York's Drawing Center, but I was fortunate to get the catalog of this exhibition of graphic works owned by the artist Sol LeWitt. LeWitt has become a favorite of mine since I recently saw the vast rooms devoted to his graphic work at Dia:Beacon and MASS MoCA. Come to find that in addition to the fascinating body of artistic concepts that he left behind, he also assembled one of the largest collections of work by his contemporaries of any 20th- and early 21st-century artist. LeWitt emphasized, and curators Claire Gilman and Béatrice Gross accentuate, the conceptual aspects of art, particularly drawing. "Ideas cannot be owned," LeWitt said in words that Gilman and Gross use as an epigraph to their book. "They belong to whomever understands them."

LeWitt went as far as any recent artist in insisting that his work was was idea as much as object: "a LeWitt drawing" is typically a prescription rather than a specific artifact. LeWitt shared credit with the draftspeople who executed those prescriptions – in an acknowledgment of the workshop origins of much large-scale, technologically heavy modern art, collaborative efforts which are often hidden behind the brand name of the individual master (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons). As a collector, LeWitt did "own" objects – though inevitably, he couldn't take them with him – and he gravitated to those objects that represented strong ideas about form and craft.

The first artist represented in Drawing Dialogues, is William Anastasi, for the aleatory reason that the book is arranged alphabetically. Images by Anastasi here include "subway drawings," "drop drawings," and "pocket drawings," where the initial words seem like miniature versions of LeWitt's elaborate recipes. To make a subway drawing, you open a sketchbook on your lap while the train is moving. To make a drop drawing, drop a pencil point down onto paper over and over; to make a pocket drawing – I'm less sure, but I think you just fold up some paper over a bit of graphite or charcoal and carry it in your pocket all day.

Now, why would you want that, it sounds kinda grubby. But the point, oddly enough for art, is not its appearance – though the subway drawings are exquisite and the drop drawings beautiful, and even the pocket drawing is kind of mesmerizing. Such drawing, using the extended perception that art offers, captures an experience we might otherwise have no way of perceiving: the movement of objects through spaces we rarely notice or care about.

Like LeWitt himself, the artists he collected tend to devise a procedure and then let a combination of initial conditions and algorithm dictate the art they produced. On Kawara, famous for doing a painting every day that consists of "merely" that day's date, also sent postcards to all kinds of people, and four that he sent to LeWitt are reproduced here. Wherever he happened to be, St. Louis or Topeka, Kawara sent LeWitt a typical picture postcard of that place each day, announcing that he got up at a certain time in the morning. No element of the postcards seems handwritten; the message, address, and return address resemble images made by a rubber stamp. But what kind of guy creates new rubber stamps every day featuring his motel address and the time he got out of bed? Not to mention the time spent picking out the postcards and stamps – and then entrusting the artwork to the good old US Post Office. Kawara's postcards make his date paintings seem normal. But art may depend on seeing a vision through no matter where it takes you.

LeWitt gained fame by devising large-scale structures of repeated cubes and pyramids. Later, he instructed draftspeople to do something in one square of a huge grid and repeat it, with modifications, till the entire grid was filled. Unsurprisingly, grid-based formulaic art drew his attention as a collector. Mel Bochner takes a picture postcard (the front this time) and scrawls integers across it in semitransparent marker, using a predictable, shifting pattern. Henry Pearson draws a 4x4 grid and fills in the 16 squares with an asymmetrical pattern of dull colors. Sylvia Plimack Mangold takes a sheet of paper, draws trompe-l'oeil rulers around its margins, and colors the rest in faux woodgrain. Lots of the objects in Drawing Dialogues are composed on graph paper, either as guideline or matrix to be filled in. Gilman and Gross quote Dan Graham:

Serial procedures produce non-hierarchical and non-centralized orders, so they impose no principle of dominance or subordination, no hierarchy of levels: the whole is neither greater nor lesser in importance to the reading than its division into sub-sets.
Such art is fractal. Nothing's foregrounded, nothing upstages anything else: you can look at the whole piece or choose any portion. The concepts seem to run counter to the main lines of representative, dramatic Western art; or perhaps they just identify a counter-trend that runs beneath heroic figures and dynamic action.

LeWitt liked to collect manuscripts of musical scores, whether because they can be calligraphic or because they too make use of staff lines as a grid for patterns that repeat with variation. But he collected images based on organic life, too (and music may be simply the organic working of the human brain). The curators include a photograph of a leafless walnut tree in an orchard, by Charles Gaines, an pattern of fractal branching that Gaines then tried to reproduce in increasingly stripped-down form by drawing (inevitably, using graph paper). LeWitt was fascinated by Eadweard Muybridge's photographic series, which captured animal motion as a set of still images. Maurizio Nannucci, many years after Muybridge, did a series of photographs of himself just sort of walking around Florence, an animal in motion on its way to becoming "a creative artist," and LeWitt collected those photos. He had Franz West collages and Daumier cartoons. I get the sense throughout Gilman & Gross's wonderful book that Sol LeWitt had no interest in displaying taste or constructing a canon of artists' brand names. He was just interested in art that seemed in return to take an interest in life and how humans can record and refract it as it passes through them.

Gilman, Claire, and Béatrice Gross. Drawing Dialogues: Selections from the Sol LeWitt collection. New York: The Drawing Center, 2016. [Drawing Papers #126]