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"How Artists Draw"

An exhibit at the Menil shows familiar artists in a new way

The process of drawing is the focus of The Menil Collection's outstanding new exhibition "How Artists Draw: Toward the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center." Beautifully curated from the Menil's drawing collection by Bernice Rose, it includes a hit parade of modern artists but makes you look at their work in an entirely new way. Post-impressionist, cubist, abstract expressionist or minimalist, they all draw. It's like looking at work from a drawing class filled with radically different students. The works were selected from the Menil's 1,500-piece collection of modernist drawings and works on paper.

The timeline of the exhibition starts with Georges Seurat's 1883 Coin d'Usine (Corner of a Factory). In Coin d'Usine, Seurat creates a nest of marks and scribbles to construct a dark image of the blunt, windowless corner of a building and a tangle of shrubbery. Seurat works in conté crayon, which is made from clay mixed with pigment and graphite. It has a waxy feeling, not the smeary sensuality of charcoal or pastel. Seurat built the image up by accumulating tangles of black lines, making them denser and denser until they become almost completely black in places. It's a really wonderful little drawing. Seurat has created an evocative, poetic image from a grim scene of 19th-century industry.

Seurat's Coin d'Usine is a wonderful little drawing.
The Menil Collection, Houston
Seurat's Coin d'Usine is a wonderful little drawing.

Other works in the show are delicately obsessive. Vincent van Gogh's Arden with Weeping Trees, Arles (August 1888) is a notebook-size piece of paper covered with tiny ink marks. You see van Gogh hunched over this dinky piece of paper, creating an entire world within its confines. Using short, sharp marks, along with curves, swirls and dots of ink, he renders a wonderful little swatch of landscape with shrubs and a weeping willow. In trademark style, he clusters his marks into patterns to create the images, something that is pretty hard to pull off. His obsessive attention to the page extends even to the edges; van Gogh has taken each tiny mark to the very end of paper.

You see a very different personality and very different approach in Pablo Picasso's Sketch of André Salmon (1907). In this barebones charcoal line drawing, Salmon looks kind of chimp-like. Picasso works to break the head and torso down into exaggerated but simplified lines. You can see the traces of the artist's erased marks as he tries to pin his image down and goes back to reinforce it with new, more emphatic lines.

Fifteen years later, in Ferdinand Léger's small pencil drawing Figure de femme (Female Figure) (1922), the subject is broken down into precisely rendered volumetric forms. The woman looks like she's assembled from smooth, sleek metallic components. Her breast looks like a metal sphere, her arms are rendered in tubular sections, and her hair looks like an undulating sheet of metal. You can imagine Léger carefully blending his pencil to create the perfectly controlled modeling of his forms.

Flash-forward to Willem de Kooning's late-career drawing "Woman" Women Series (1979), and control is the last thing this artist is after. De Kooning uses a light, uncompressed charcoal to create his loose, expressive and nearly life-size sketch of a woman. Her limbs and clothes are floppy and fluid, flying every which way in the drawing. In her face there's a dark slash of lips with four strong lines delineating three front teeth. The faint traces of paint residue on the page accentuate the quick and casual feeling. They don't seem intentional; rather, it seems the paper was accidentally stained in the expressive flurry of de Kooning's studio.

Ellsworth Kelly's Magnolia (1983) is a workmanlike blend of control and casualness. It's a contour drawing of a magnolia branch and blossom on a 30-inch piece of paper. It's simple, elegant and thoughtfully done; Kelly's pencil renders the outlines of petals, buds and branch in the middle of a clean sheet of creamy paper. Contour drawing is one of those exercises you do in Drawing I, but Kelly's version is a thing apart.

In the abstract work of Barnett Newman and Franz Kline, drawing comes across as a very immediate thing. Newman creates lines that he calls "zips" from the white of his paper. Using ink and brush, his strokes and washes isolate white lines. Meanwhile, Kline's frenetic and calligraphic strokes are direct records of the gestures and movements of his hand. (I bet he's also giving the conservators nightmares — one of his drawings was executed on the brittle acidic paper of a page from a telephone book. In another drawing, you can see where the oil has leached out from his paint and stained the paper like a disposable napkin at a fish fry.)

The show goes on and on. There are Claes Oldenburg's little doodles on lined notebook paper and working drawings for his sculptures. At the other end of the spectrum, there are Donald Judd's anal and exacting schematics for his boxes. Bruce Nauman's planning and investigative drawings are somewhere in the middle.

It's an incredibly strong show overall, but Cy Twombly's Poems to the Sea (1954) is really disappointing. I find Twombly's work to be kind of hit-or-miss, but this series of 24 — count 'em, 24 — drawings doesn't have anything going for it but a pretentious title. The drawings all have a sea-like horizon line of pencil, some of Twombly's little pencil smears and some thick, white oil paint smudged over their centers. There's nothing thoughtful, investigative, purposeful, expressive or experimental about them. They just feel dashed off, like he was just trying to crank out a series.

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