"How Artists Draw"

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.

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.

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.

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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer