Visual Arts

Line Drawings in Menil's "The Beginning of Everything" Range From Sublime to Less Than Lofty

Edgar Degas, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” c. 1859. Graphite, traces ink wash on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/16 in. (19.3 x 25.2 cm).
Edgar Degas, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” c. 1859. Graphite, traces ink wash on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/16 in. (19.3 x 25.2 cm). Collection of Janie C. Lee

Phillip Guston’s Head is one of the best things in “The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections,” while pervy Balthus’s Study for Nude in Front of a Mantel is the most problematic. The wide-ranging show of nearly 100 works consists of promised gifts from Lee and Sarofim and a bequest from the late David Whitney. These are the trustees of The Menil Collection who were early advocates for creating the Menil Drawing Institute. The institute, with 30,000 square feet and a price tag of $40 million, is slated to open on October 7 this year. It is described as a “premier venue for the exhibition, study, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.”

Head, Guston’s 1968 ink drawing of said cabeza, is a wonky silhouette showing the clunky outline of a figure standing sideways but with his head turned toward you. No profile is visible, just the lumpy shape of a noggin and the cut-off shoulders. The thick, awkward forms we know from Guston’s paintings are reduced here to a thick, awkward line. It’s simple but wonderfully evocative and fascinating for what it leaves out.

There are a lot of the usual suspects in this show, numerous works from de Kooning, Pollock, Rauschenberg and Twombly. There is a smattering of white women represented. Unless I missed someone, there is no artist of color. You can’t retroactively enlighten private collections, but the Menil Drawing Institute will have an obligation to broaden the discussion.

Balthus is one dead white guy I could do without. His awkward and slightly surreal paintings featuring very young, early-adolescent girls have always been controversial. His response to the criticism was that the viewers simply had dirty minds. (Isn’t that some kind of abuser tactic?) He painted these girls in sensual and sexualized ways, the artist’s view of his subject manifesting in his rendering. It later came out that he had had an affair with one of his teenage models.

The drawing on view, Study for Nude in Front of a Mantel (1949), reads as a well-drawn and fairly academic nude with the kind of subtle sensuality you see in other such drawings. The exception is the obvious youth of the model. Balthus’s model is a girl, probably just starting puberty. She still has a little-girl body and is drawn in profile, one raised arm holding her hair up and displaying the side of a training-bra-size breast. The profile of a hairless pudendum is also visible.

A lot of arguments are made around Balthus’s work. Certainly there have been many appalling and morally bankrupt people who made good art. But I think intent matters. Balthus drew and painted these girls because he was attracted to them, essentially making arty pedophile erotica for himself. He also exploited his young models, and an argument can be made that we are perpetuating that exploitation by showing their images.

I suppose a similar argument can be made about pox-ridden Gauguin and all those young Tahitian girls. It could extend to God knows how many artists. But in this case, there was a living victim with a recent account. Nobody should go and dig up Jesse Helms, but Balthus’s work is an ethical quandary for museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a big Balthus show in 2013 but excluded the artist’s most overt paintings. Germany’s Folkwang Museum recently canceled an exhibition of 2,000 Polaroids taken by the artist as he photographed a young girl from the ages of eight to 16. She was occasionally topless in the later photos. Die Zeit called them “documents of pedophile greed.” Photos are a lot less ambiguous than paintings.

There are far better nudes in this show in any case. Check out Joseph Beuys’s 1954 Women, hanging right next to Balthus. The expressive watercolor drawings of grown women depict a rear view of angled hips and limbs. It has an Egon Schiele vibe and an engaging bodily awkwardness. And if you are seeking a different gender, there is a beautifully executed circa-1859 Edgar Degas sketch, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” which shows a cleanly muscled man lunging to lift something. The faint grid lines Degas likely used to help transfer the drawing to canvas (or possibly create the drawing) are still visible and highlight the negative space around the body.

The Drawing Institute is an exciting project, and the Menil has already been acquiring and organizing under its umbrella. The 2008 “How Artists Draw: Toward the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center,” masterfully curated by Bernice Rose, was inspirational. This show is less so. Rose had all of the drawings in The Menil Collection to work with, while this show is strictly composed of promised works from three private collections. It is really raw material for later, better shows.

There are some some great and unexpected things, however. Sam Francis’s 1952 ink drawing Grey Cloud Study is wonderful; the smoky gestural ink marks look to have been made by some entity emerging from nothingness. I only knew his paintings — crayon colors and a loopy, decorative Abstract Expressionism. But seeing the artist’s gesture without the overbearing primary colors of his paintings makes you really appreciate the mark-making. It has a strange, slightly otherworldly presence.

Conversely, I think Jasper Johns’s thick, tactile encaustic paintings and their cast elements are way more successful than the majority of his drawings. His technically skilled drawings come off as glib with no sense of investment. Even when he is working with something as loose and difficult to control as the ink on plastic he employed for Souvenir for Janie, 1977, it reads as facile. And we’ll be getting a lot more Johns drawings; the October opening show at the Menil Drawing Institute is a survey of Johns’s drawings. Sigh.

I don’t know that I have seen Eva Hesse’s drawings before, but they are a fascinating contrast to the loose, organic nature of her sculptures. The tiny circles and dots in a graph paper grid on an untitled work are microcosmic studies in precision and control. But on closer inspection, there is a looseness to the circles the makes them feel like massed cells.

There are drawings in the show intended as works in themselves, and others likely viewed by the artist as part of the process of creating something else. (There is a particular Richard Serra that looks as if it were rescued from the studio floor.) There are no rules; a casual sketch may be a wonderful thing in itself, but there are also works that read more as artifact. There is nothing wrong with this; from a scholarly point of view, the great and the incidental are all relevant to an artist’s work.

The Menil has always wanted viewers to confront artwork one on one without a lot of verbiage in between. But in this kind of show, the Menil’s presentation style and eschewing of didactic wall text becomes frustrating. There are drawings here that you want some context for. The 20-plus Bruce Nauman drawings, most from 1965, read like the pages of a sketchbook. And as in a sketchbook, some drawings are interesting, some not. Viewers might like to see how the arching and angling images relate to Nauman’s early sculptures.

A tiny blue undated and untitled Agnes Martin drawing has a cobalt blue wash over a delicate rectilinear grid of ink and graphite lines, thin as a hair, some side by side with only a millimeter between them. You can feel the artist’s quiet focus and contemplative precision. But her untitled 1978 drawing with watercolor, ink and graphite on rice paper is so subtle, or likely faded, that it practically isn’t visible to the human eye. The nine-inch square of rice paper is crinkled and buckled because it isn’t a great freaking idea to do watercolor washes on a tiny swatch of rice paper. It looks like old typing paper that got wet. Did the artist consider it a study for something else or a work in itself? Has it altered over time? I’d be interested in the answers.

Georgia O’Keefe’s 1962 From a River Trip needs no additional information. It is a charcoal drawing of two mountain forms that has the same wonderful, weighty sculptural feeling as her paintings. You want to run your hand on the rock and are convinced it will be cool and smooth.

A lone work by Lee Krasner makes you wish there were more. The collage seems to be made of strips torn from a brushy drawing in black gouache. There is a raw, almost frenetic energy to the work.

A lovely early Piet Mondrian drawing from 1907 of a chrysanthemum gives no apparent hint of the lively abstraction to come. Ellsworth Kelly has contour drawings of the natural world that somehow manage to convey both effort and simplicity, as well other drawings with clean, weighty, abstract black forms.

It is a show worth seeing, but it feels a lot like an inventory. Perhaps the best strategy is for the viewer to pick and choose, mentally creating his or her own show from the offerings. And in the meantime, we can look forward to the shows that will come out of the Menil Drawing Institute.

The Beginning of Everything: -Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude-Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections continues through June 18 at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400,

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer