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"How Artists Draw"

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

Drawing is revealing, and the selection of drawings from Jasper Johns makes him look like a pretty overrated artist. Without the thick texture of encaustic paint to carry him, his images and surfaces aren't especially interesting. His Study for Fall (1986) is a neatly executed pencil drawing that looks like the product of a diligent high school art student. Corpse (1974-1975) is a large sheet of paper filled with patches of red, yellow and blue cross-hatched lines. It feels like an undergraduate 2-D design project.

The exhibition ends with Richard Serra's massive, site-specific 2008 drawing Wedge. One hundred and twenty-five years after Seurat's image of a factory, Serra is all about industry. He is best known for his massive minimalist sculptures — slabs, curves and angles crafted from enormous sheets of COR-TEN steel. With his Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long and 12-foot-high steel slab, which sliced the Federal Plaza in New York City in half, Serra gained a reputation as a guy who makes macho, obtrusive sculptures. (Pissed-off office workers viewed it as an obstacle, and their protests led to the work's removal and destruction in 1989.)

But I don't think anyone is going to protest his phenomenal drawing at the Menil. Created in the gallery by the 69-year-old artist, Wedge (2008) at first looks like a huge, angled slab of blackened steel that's been attached directly to the wall. Beautifully and subtly lit with natural light, it takes a moment before you realize it is actually a drawing.

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

Details

Through May 18.
The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

And what a drawing. It's about the very act of making marks. Serra stretched and stapled an angled sheet of linen across the bottom half of a 38-foot gallery wall. He then went at it with black oil paint sticks, grinding hundreds of them into the linen until the entire surface was black. It's an incredibly arduous process; this guy is almost 70, and he's taking a drawing implement the size of a carrot and "coloring in" a space the length of a barn.

Wedge is so fresh you can still smell the paint. It's so long that at first you can't tell whether the top of the drawing actually angles slowly up, or it's just an optical illusion caused by the distance from one end of the wall to the other. Wedge has an amazing presence; the sheer physicality of the work is overwhelming. And word is Serra was wonderful to work with.

The exhibition marks the founding of the Menil's Drawing Institute and Study Center. Rose is chief curator, and she's a pro, having served as curator nearly 25 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her fascinating, highly readable essay in the show's brochure makes you wish there were an entire catalog in the offing. She has taken work by names we're all familiar with and shown us something new.

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