PENCIL IT IN
Is Drawing Dead?
Drawing was our first art form but the march of technology has put it on the endangered species list.
It’s good—OK, it’s invigorating—to see that drawing is alive and kicking.
The formerly unknown notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat are at the Brooklyn Museum—go see them if you haven’t yet. The Morgan Library just hosted a mixed show of artists’ portraits, and the drawings for the classic Alice books are still up, both a few originals by Lewis Carroll himself and some which he commissioned from Sir John Tenniel and fastidiously oversaw to the extent of treating his accompanying text as caption material.
I find this invigorating because drawing and painting have both long been on the threatened species list. This is more famously so with painting, because paintings are (usually) bigger and more expensive. The first bearer of the bad news was Paul Delaroche, the French artist who, upon being shown the earliest photographs, daguerreotypes, in 1839 supposedly said: “From today painting is dead.” Hello, Impressionist guys!
The drumbeats of painting-is-dead started up again in the late 1960s with the rise of Minimalism. The beats can now be heard again, with a degree of plausibility because I have never seen such a miasma of derivative chic in good galleries as right now. But painting is still sitting somewhat pretty because it is supported by a cadre of folk who need somewhere—preferably portable—to park their funds, though. There is no such support system for drawing, as a drawing is unsuited for broadcasting your net worth. I should say I have a dog in this fight myself: namely some cartoon drawings in The Gruin Transfer, a show that opens on Wednesday at Salomon Arts.
Drawing was our first art form. Consider the caves, the figures carved on hillsides, the doodles on manuscripts in the Middle Ages – I have seen one I could have mistaken for the above-mentioned Basquiat—and graffiti through the ages. In one of the Nissen huts on Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in West Texas—and not in one of the art-filled huts—I saw a scribble that could have been by Philip Guston.
But drawing is also vulnerable for the same reason foreseen by Paul Delaroche, which is that the role of the Painter of Modern Life—Baudelaire’s phrase—was taken over in the early 20th century by the photographer, notably by the secular priesthood of Magnum, led by the sainted Henri Cartier-Bresson and the swashbuckling Robert Capa. At some posturing event in the era of the dictators, the great French caricaturist, Sem, aka Georges Goursat, slammed his portfolio shut, and said to David Low, his Brit colleague: “We are not needed here, Mr. Low. Here the photographer suffices.”
Photography is truly a democratic medium, though. No artist makes just one great painting or drawing but anybody can take one great photograph, and in an epoch of smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, yes, they do, they do, they do, they do. In media, photography can seem diffused, devitalized. So, it’s welcome back, drawing!
These are giddy times in image-making, what with VR, holograms, and whatever is next. Just follow developments in the video game industry and you’ll see that. Indeed David Hockney, most effortless of draftsmen, can seemingly make art with whatever new gadget or app comes on the market.
It doesn’t matter. The tech changes, drawing remains the same. Brain, hand, eye, chosen surface. So, no worries? Well, actually I do have one. It is with the increasingly fluency with which computer systems are able to mimic art, both in painting and drawing. So far it has all been pretty generic. So far. It’s said that somebody once told Willem de Kooning that a number of people were ripping off his work. “That’s okay,” De Kooning said, sunnily, “they cannot make the bad ones.” When computers can make the bad ones, that’s when the trouble will really start. In the meantime, see you all at the Gruin Transfer, where fellow exhibitors include Neke Carson, Omar Hernandez, and Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen.
The author’s drawings appear as part of “The Gruin Transfer,” opening September 9 at Salomon Arts, 83 Leonard Street, Tribeca, New York.