Drawing, a Cure for the January Blahs

As far as artistic mediums go, drawing is far and away the best. It has a deep and wide background, spanning over the entire world. It’s a springboard for other creative endeavours like painting, sculpture, and even building.

However, the act of making marks is foundational to so many other things, including the evolution of written language, arithmetic, and musical notation.

But there is also the microcosmic, the naked fragility of individual drawings that are frequently little bigger than the faces that lean in to absorb them, which stands in stark contrast to the cosmic scale. You can’t get any more barebones than this in the art world.

Drawings evoke spontaneous responses that can reveal hidden aspects of our personalities in the same way that they bring us near to the artist’s thoughts, feelings, and touch with an intimacy that sometimes seems physiological.

Drawing, a Cure for the January Blahs

Drawings are useful for several reasons, including their low cost to create, ship, display, and acquire for artists, curators, art dealers, and novice collectors. Even if you’re not an artist, just looking at a lot of drawings will help you perceive the world in a new way.

The visual impact they make is unaffected by the bulk or nature of the medium. It’s true that in my more pessimistic (OK, realistic) moments, I consider collectors who don’t purchase drawings to be unworthy of the label. Just leaving this here, as they say on Twitter.

In New York, the time is right for art. The third and final instalment of the Drawing Center’s unconventional and inquisitive “Ways of Seeing: Three Takes on the Jack Shear Drawing Collection” is currently on view.

Artist Arlene Shechet, writer and curator Jarrett Earnest, and the collector, Jack Shear, each made their own selections from a big, amazingly diversified trove of drawings. There was a clear divergence of aesthetic and curatorial tastes as a result.

On the same day, the Upper East Side from the 60s to 82nd Street will play host to the 16th annual Master Drawings New York, a kind of dispersed art fair lasting a week (until Jan. 29). Exhibits of mostly European drawings from the 17th through the 19th centuries will be presented by a consortium of 20 galleries, some of which will house private or out-of-town dealers.

There are a number of noteworthy exhibitions currently on view in New York City. One such show is “The Drawings of Jean-François Millet” at the Jill Newhouse Gallery (4 East 81st Street).

Additionally, the historic London gallery Agnews will present “Dürer and His Time” at the former Colnaghi location at 38 East 70th Street. The remarkably calm Madonna and Child drawing lately attributed to Dürer has electrified old masters circles, and it will be featured in this exhibition.

The art dealer Cade Tompkins Projects, with locations in Providence, Rhode Island, and New York City, will present “Presently Drawn,” a presentation of works on paper by eight contemporary artists, in the Pierre Hotel’s Fifth Avenue lobby (entrance at 2 E. 61st St.).

Even for a gallery solely dedicated to its medium, The Drawing Center’s 15-week celebration of drawing, “Ways of Seeing,” seems lavish. The exhibitions functioned as a kind of drawing tutorial, with the enjoyment of the pieces serving as inspiration.

The title is derived from John Berger’s seminal 1960s book “Ways of Seeing” (also a BBC television series). The Drawing Center’s principal curator, Claire Gilman, made the final selection. She writes on Berger’s belief that an artwork’s meaning is always shifting, depending on factors such as its context and the viewer’s emotional state, in her essay for the show’s first catalogue volume.

Shear, a photographer, curator, and collector, began amassing artworks shortly after the death of his husband, the famed American abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, five years ago. The collection now numbers approximately a thousand pieces. It spans many decades, aesthetic movements, and the better part of three centuries; nonetheless, the one constant is the high quality of the works shown.

The first installation, “Take One,” was organised by Shear last fall, and it was all fireworks. There were many excellent illustrations, but the ones discussed here are all from Jarrett Earnest’s third and final draught, aptly titled “Take Three.”

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Roger Freeing Angelica” is one of the most well-known paintings in art history, and this sketch of it completely awed me because of the intricate filigree patterning. So many unexpected twists and turns, even in the most expected places, as this Robert Rauschenberg transfer drawing from 1965, which combines discovered pictures with scribbling to spectacular, brilliant effect.

There are a lot of unexpected pairings here, and the fact that several of the works are hung with their frames touching only adds to the shock value. Contrast Ingres’s “Portrait of Alexis René Le Go” (1918) with Tom of Finland’s unnamed homoerotic representation of two cruising sailors and their pickup truck (1980), both of which feature fine rendering and detail.

The “Ways of Seeing” episode featuring Shear set a high bar. With her “Take Two” exhibition in November, sculptor Arlene Shechet chose an appealing installation. She hung the pictures at varying heights and added benches of her own design, the edges of which were alternately rounded and right-angled, as if to comment on the nature of line.

Shechet made sure that her pieces were cohesive with one another by choosing works that were similar in style or dealt with similar themes. Riskily, but ultimately proving Berger’s point, she included several of the same drawings in her presentation as had been included in Shear’s.

By placing a minimalist painting by Blinky Palermo and a dreamy night sky by Vija Celmins on either side of a 1964 graphite drawing by Lee Lozano depicting a huge screw poised to penetrate a screw eye, Shear diffused the sexual tensions presented by Lozano’s work.

Shechet accentuated the warmth by inserting the Lozano between a drawing of magnetic fields by Robert Morris and a drawing of partnering bizarre creatures by Salvador Dal.

Shechet also provided a comparison between a Frank Stella sketch for an early stripe painting and a Kazimir Malevich suprematist composition, whose floating geometric shards may be fallout from an explosion, to illustrate the disparity between the two artists’ approaches to colour and composition (perhaps of the Whitney).

Using the works of Arshile Gorky and Julie Mehretu, Earnest emphasises Whitney’s explosiveness in “Take Three.” Both artists are known for their use of line and the implied motion in their paintings.

In contrast to its more effervescent predecessors, Earnest’s display in the huge front gallery is a model of moderation. It’s quite a sight to see such a long wall covered in black and white drawings that are all centred at eye level and evenly spaced.

This orderliness stands in sharp contrast to the images, which are dominated by the gentleness of beautiful bodies and faces, and it also encourages you to focus more on the individual drawings than on the connections between them.

Nonetheless, there are startling contrasts, such as a late Willem de Kooning image that is beautiful in its delicate fluttering or a ballpoint pen sketch by Jeff Koons for an early vacuum cleaner work that is impatient and terse. The beautiful Annunciation by the lesser-known pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon hangs next to a Tom of Finland artwork of two lustful Adonises.

The vast gallery’s wall colour shifts from dark to pale grey (twice), mirroring shifts in the drawings themselves, which Earnest discusses in an essay that will appear in the catalog’s second volume.

I don’t understand this just now, but maybe someday I will. I also want to take pleasure in the rear gallery, where yellow and lavender walls host vibrant pieces by Henri Michaux, Anne Ryan, Gladys Nilsson, and Stanley Whitney.

This huge project has been a wonderful journey through the acts of drawing, gazing, and curating. If The Drawing Center could do this every few years, spreading the medium before us with such ingenuity and generosity, that would be fantastic.