Published  07/04/2008

Contemporary Drawing: Recent Studies

Contemporary Drawing: Recent Studies

Drawing has played a pivotal role in the work of most artists since the beginning of time. Following the rejection of traditional teaching methods during the 1960s when abstract art dominated, a more private character for drawing was assumed. With renewed interest in figuration in the 1980s, drawing once again resurfaced as a respectable activity for artists and critics alike.

Over the past six years there has been a further interest in drawing which has embraced much more than figuration; three books published in Britain and America have contributed significantly to the literature on contemporary art. In 2002 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) showed 'Drawing Now: Eight Propositions', accompanied by the catalogue by Laura Hoptman. It surveyed the new work of the 1990s, which she claimed, broke significantly from the tenets of modernism. Hoptman's survey and catalogue had the sound precedent of Bernice Rose's 1976 MoMA show 'Drawing Now'which surveyed drawing from the 1960s to 1976,followed by 'Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing'in 1992 which examined the periodfrom 1976 to 1992.1

In 2005 Phaidon Press produced Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing, with an introduction by Emma Dexter and discussion of the work of 109 artists by 29 contributors from around the world. The most recent study - The Drawing Book: a survey of drawing: the primary means of expression - published in 2007, was edited by Tania Kovats. All three publications acknowledge corresponding views on contemporary drawing; for example, that drawing has been energised by the vast proliferation of imagery from mechanical and electronic means - photography, film, video and computer technology. Yet drawing is unique, in the very immediate way it conveys thought or impulse. It remains allusive because the majority of drawings are not shown, published or exhibited but stay in artists' studios or in plan chests in museums. A survey of drawing is always slightly intriguing for the mysteries of an artist's working method that might be revealed.

Hoptman brought together highly finished drawings - works of art in themselves - as well as many drawings that show affinities with illustration, fashion or comic strips; others are closer in style to industrial or commercial design drawings - architectural or scientific drawings, and others which focus on aspects of ornamentation. There is a vast range in scale, technique and medium, but they have in common the desire or impulse to explore language from all aspects of life and to communicate information, evoke scenarios that are real or imagined and to tell stories. Due to this inclusive policy, many works are barely drawings at all. Neo Rauch's oil on paper works are paintings, with an emphasis on draughtsmanship - the figures are coloured, modelled and painterly. David Thorpe's 'Evolution Now' (2000-01) and 'We are Majestic in the Wilderness' (1999), are both paper collages, but intrinsically painterly. The fin de siecle illustrative works by the German artist Kai Althoff are likewise painterly. Illustration and works on paper, as well as straight watercolours, have been included in Hoptman's survey of drawing. Rose clarified the distinction between painting and drawing in Allegories of Modernism when she wrote:

As drawing has moved toward its new status it has asserted both its linear autonomy and its conceptual control over other disciplines. Although increasingly an independent mode, it has become inextricably mixed with other mediums, with painting and painterly devices, with colour, and with paint itself. Distinctions between painting and drawing - and printing - have become blurred, and the support no longer invariably serves as a dividing line between disciplines. A new language of the visual arts has thus emerged in the last two decades based on an expanded field of operations for each of its disciplines, on new relationships among them, and on the use of technological means.2

If drawing is central to their work, then their inclusion is valid from the point of view of appraising the work of artists for whom drawing is central.

Another publication, Antony Gormley Drawing by Anna Moszynka is a good example of how contemporary artists have pushed the boundaries of drawing to include methods and materials that might traditionally have not been considered drawing. Gormley states:

It is important to me that the substances I use to draw with are not taken for granted, and lamp black, bone black, casein, linseed oil, milk, semen, blood, coffee, chicory, earth, shellac, varnish all come with their own qualities, extracted from the body of the earth, from the body of plants or from living bodies. In their reactivation, these are not innocent partners.3

Gormley's work is included in the most recent book, The Drawing Book (2007). In the section 'Investigating the status of drawing: in parallel: drawing and sculpture' the work of Gormley is examined alongside the work of Tania Kovats, who edited the book. Perhaps it is essential for a writer on drawing to also be a practitioner of drawing - in the case of Kovats the text and image are well harmonised. Certainly there is a satisfying experience to be had in The Drawing Book that eludes the reader of the other recent titles, and in terms of production, design and quality of reproduction this is the best of the three. Perhaps too, drawing has a clearer place in the working method and intellectual processes of a sculptor than a painter, for example, 'The process of drawing helps the sculptor to synthesise their ideas and feelings; they are in control and contact with the material, which they can modify, correct or discard in a moment. And it offers the freedom to experiment'.4

Gormley's own definition, written in 1979, is a useful one, and although there are areas in common with other artists, Gormley is particularly concise with language, written and visual:

What is drawing for me? It's a kind of magic, a kind of necessity. Drawing is an attempt to fix the world, not as it is, but as it exists inside me. So the drawings are mental diagrams. You can condense things in a space that is infinite … Drawing is not so much a mirror, or a window, as a lens which can be looked at in either direction, either back towards the retina of the mind, or forward towards space. You could perhaps not look so much at drawing as through it.5

Moszynka observes that:

In further stating that '… drawing is a halfway house between the materiality of sculpture and the mentality of the imagination', Gormley makes clear both his position as a sculptor/draughtsman and his passion for the process of creative thought. While his sculpture can make apparent that which is hidden, there remains a desire for the adventure of imagining. In contrast to the slow unfolding of the sculptural process, drawing offers a direct and immediate method of trawling the imagination, of unlocking the collective and personal unconscious, and unravelling experiences that are deeply and intuitively felt. It allows the hand to give free expression to that which is buried in the recesses of the mind. In this respect, Gormley's drawings are not didactic, illustrative or symbolic. They are highly personal, poetic, meditative responses, which bear witness to the experience of a single existence in the world. Hardly surprising then that they occupy such an important role in the artist's career.6

The definition of drawing has evolved and expanded since John Elderfield wrote The Modern Drawing in 1983. Chief curator of MoMA - which has led work in the field of drawing - Elderfield was clear in the necessity of clarifying and defining issues of definition and historical precedent. In his authoritative and lucid introduction he conceded thus:

Drawings have not, by and large, been subjected to as keen and rigorous art-historical scrutiny as they deserve. At times they have been treated solely as subsidiary works, and only their functions have been examined. At others, they have been treated as craft objects, and only their technical properties have been examined. Both of these approaches have produced much valuable material. But they constitute a documentation of drawing and not a criticism of it. With certain notable exceptions, the critical methodology for drawing, and especially for modern drawing, lags seriously behind that for painting (whose own criticism, I should add, while more rigorous than most sculpture criticism, is still far less than methodical than that of literature).7

Elderfield rightly stated that much remains to be done in the field of modern drawing, and that at best his book provided a 'sequence of interconnected thoughts, provoked by some of the greatest of all modern drawings, that might suggest something of the range of issues that need to be addressed'.8 In the past six years numerous authors have made significant contribution to the varied and diverse world of contemporary art and in particular to drawing.

It is possible to imagine a time '… when oil painting or video art did not exist …', but drawing has always existed. Barnett Newman claimed that the first man to make art did so with a stick in the earth, and that '… drawing was the most direct and unmediated method of catching the creative process as it happened'.9 The process was epitomised by the act of drawing in a more immediate way than any other expression of art. Richard Serra made the famous statement: 'There is no way to make a drawing - there is only drawing'. In the same interview he stated, 'Anything you can project as expressive in terms of drawing - ideas, metaphors, emotions, language structures - results from the act of drawing'. For Serra and many artists of his generation, 'Drawing is a verb'.10 Hoptman is keen to show the development of drawing from the position stated by Serra:

This celebration of drawing's perpetual state of becoming made for a rich flowering of work in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the materiality of the art object underwent a profound reassessment. Freed from the confines of the page, drawing seemed to be everywhere - in scarifications of the landscape, in site-specific installations, in performance. The actions that went into these works - actions like scratching, scattering, walking - manifested a kind of drawing, but even as artists engaged in these metaphoric and ephemeral acts of draftmanship, many of them also continued to use the more conventional medium of pencil and paper as a means of transcription. By diagramming their performances and recording their installations, artists made visible and concrete what could not be considered material. This idea of drawing as an analogue to activity became essential to the development of conceptual art, and it continues today among post-1980s conceptualists as the preferred method of translating artful actions into art objects.11

In Drawing in Australia: Contemporary Images and Ideas (1986), where I surveyed the work of 70 living artists, I realised that it was possible to explore the most fundamental impulse between mind and hand, spirit and language. I wrote then, with reference to Elderfield's definition of drawing:

If the basic definition of drawing is '… the record of a tool moving across a surface …', then perhaps the most interesting thing about drawing - as distinct from other forms in plastic arts - is the very directness of the transmission, be it impulse, feeling, perception or concept. Drawing reveals the subtlest movement, the most clinical analysis, the most precise drama. Modern drawing gives room for alternative reactions - functions assumed by different signs are at once explicit and suggestive. In this sense drawing is as much a record of the subtler elements in our culture as any written or verbal record.12

If figurative art was important in defining a shift in cultural perspective, then it was specifically perceptual drawing that would reveal the ideals and ambitions of the artist and in turn society. My intention then was to study drawing from external reality as opposed to art forms that were conceptual or abstract, or inspired by the subconscious or fantasy. Important aspects of autobiography, political conviction and commitment to broad-reaching issues were, by virtue of the immediacy of drawing and the choice of subject matter, clearly evident. Twenty-two years later the prospectus for drawing and all forms of visual art have shifted dramatically. The first decade of the 21st century is one characterised by even greater diversity than that which existed as a common thread running through a range of art forms in the 1980s.

Understanding the role of art in a cultural milieu that is being constantly redefined is increasingly the remit of every artist. In our global culture, communications have been challenged and have advanced at an extraordinary rate over the past century and particularly in electronic terms, over the past decade. Drawing is a language capable of overcoming cultural barriers, one that can exist globally with an immediacy of expression. Drawing addresses the human predicament on metaphysical and spiritual levels; it is also a direct means of expressing social and political issues at a time of acute political and terrorist threat.

New studies of drawing can legitimately include drawing by non-artists - professionals in an eclectic range of fields, who now themselves rely on mark-making in its most direct form in their work - choreographers, surgeons, architects, designers, film makers. This takes its cue from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 2004, in London, which was selected and organised by Allen Jones and David Hockney. It celebrated the art of drawing as part of the creative process and the results were both fascinating and varied. Drawing underpins the work of Hockney, who in his lecture - 'Drawing in the Age of the Camera' - claimed that drawing can capture the truth of a situation better than a photograph.13 Allen Jones stated, 'Along with talking and singing, drawing must be the oldest form of communication. Whereas talking and singing could be spontaneous reflexes, drawing demands premeditation and clarity of execution. Drawing, for me, is a scaffolding on which to hang colour. I like to feel that the sub-structure is fully resolved in its own terms before commencing a painting.'14

Hoptman's 2002 show focused on the work of 26 relatively young and emerging artists, from Europe, Asia and the Americas and therefore views previous traditions from a different perspective. She wrote then, '… the artists in this exhibition are creating a kind of drawing that refers as much to the language of life around us as it does to fine art - that can communicate information, narrate a story, create a scenario, or conjure a world or a system of belief. With all respect to Serra, for many artists working today drawing is not a verb but a noun.'15

The next major study of drawing, Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2005), was:

… a global, up-to-the-minute survey of drawing today … Drawing is for this book defined as a mark-making process used to produce a line-based composition; and as illustrated in the wide selection of artists featured, today's drawing ranges from monumental to micro, from conceptual to three-dimensional, from black-and-white to full colour. Vitamin D is the first comprehensive book to document the current art-historical moment when artists are redefining and pushing the boundaries of drawing in fresh directions.16

In terms of the production and style of the book, this is the least satisfying, yet if the scuffed pages in an art school library copy are anything to go by, it is a much sought after volume. In her introduction, Emma Dexter makes many important observations, particularly in an attempt to reconcile the various shifts and emphases that have taken place from the early 1990s until now. She addresses the status of drawing, pointing out that while historically drawing has been practised by all artists and is an essential part of an artistic training 'the current resurgence of drawing in recent years is perhaps the first moment in history when artists can opt for drawing as their principle medium, confident in the knowledge that their work will not suffer in status as a result. The tendencies to dismantle hierarchies that have been a by-product of avant-garde practice of the past 50 years, such as performance and conceptual art in the 1960s, and much more recently the ascendancy of video and photography within the international art market, have allowed drawing to follow in the slipstream to now find its moment in the sun'.17

Art fairs and biennales favoured video and photography through the Nineties, but towards the end of the decade there was a marked change in favour of drawing. A considerable number of artists in the limelight through the second half of the Nineties chose drawing as their primary activity. Of course, on the technical side, far better methods of transporting, framing and installing exhibitions of drawing, and then preserving fragile or awkward works have meant that galleries and museums are less reluctant than they used to be to handle works on paper, especially those on a greatly increased scale to plan chest pieces.

Dexter also believes that a reason for the popularity of drawing with artists is that it can provide a form of freedom that has not recently been possible. A diaristic form of art and one that can be done without a grand studio space, the drawing is in contrast to monumental works that preceded it:

Circa 1990, contemporary exhibitions were dominated by a form of monumentalism; one that ironically trumpeted its deconstruction of the monument yet aped the monument's hunger for space, power, and theatricality. This was experienced not only in individual works, but also in exhibition concept and design (in particular, 'Metropolis' at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, in 1991; 'Doubletake' at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1993; and the 1991 Carnegie International) that responded to the work with room-sized installations, confronting the visitor with a series of often overwhelming physically excessive experiences. Against this backdrop came the quietest revolution of drawing.18

There is a certain appropriateness in such a revolution, a recognition of the need to reflect and build. Physically, on paper or other surface, drawing can do just that. The process of harmonising the mayhem - a personal, unfettered expression - of modern life is one of many challenges that can be addressed through the immediacy of the drawn image. Individual artists will have slightly different definitions of what drawing means to them. In the three new studies on drawing, the articulate statements of artists and critics is both impressive and augurs well for a remarkable future in the visual arts. Drawing is just one way to survey the bigger picture of the art world and it is a good way to remove superfluous matter from an overwhelmingly commercialised arena. As Kate Macfarlane and Katharine Stout have stated in 'Drawing in Part' (The Drawing Book):

In searching for reasons for this renewed enthusiasm, the fact that drawing is fundamentally a pleasurable activity should not be disregarded. Many artists talk of drawing as something they do constantly as a way of working through and resolving ideas. It is to drawing that many artists turn when they are not sure how to proceed with a particular line of enquiry, or how to realise an ambitious proposal. As Avis Newman suggests, drawing offers the most direct access to the intimate workings of the artist's mind: 'I have always understood drawing to be, in essence, the materialisation of a continually mutable process, the movements, rhythms, and partially comprehended ruminations of the mind: the operations of thought. For this reason alone, drawing will always be at the heart of the visual arts'.19

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Rose B. 'Drawing Now', Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976.
'Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing', MoMA, New York, 1992.
2. Ibid: 10-11.
3. Gormley A. Foreword. In: Moszynska A. Antony Gormley Drawing. London: The British Museum Press, 2002: 1.
4. Gormley A. The Drawing Book: a survey of drawing: the primary means of expression. Kovats T (ed). London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007: 26.
5. Moszynska, op. cit: 5.
6. Ibid: p.5.
7. Elderfield J. The Modern Drawing - 100 Works on paper from the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1983: 11.
8. Ibid: 1-12.
9. Laura Hoptman. Drawing Now: Eight Proposition. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002: 11.
10. Ibid: 11.
11. Ibid: 11
12. McKenzie J. Drawing in Australia: Contemporary Images and Ideas. Melbourne: Macmillan Australia, 1986: 11-12.
13. Jones A. Reading Between the Lines. Royal Academy of Arts Magazine 2004; 83: 44.
14. Jones A. Reading Then and Now. Ibid: 53.
See review on this website: Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2004,
Studio International, 26 August 2004.
15. Hoptman, op .cit: 12.
16. Preface. In: Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. London: Phaidon Press, 2005: 1.
17. Dexter, ibid: 8.
18. Ibid: 8.
19. Macfarlane K, Stout K. Drawing in Part. In: The Drawing Book, op. cit: 40.

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