Two exhibitions at major museums will draw you in.
There is a fine line connecting the Museum of Contemporary Art with the Art Institute.
“Drawn into the World,” the MCA’s first survey of drawings from its collection, was organized by curator Lynne Warren, who gathered 60 works from the 1950s to the present. Warren thoughtfully sketched out a show that illustrates how rich and varied the medium has become.
In “Drawings in Dialogue: Old Master through Modern” at the Art Institute, there are 166 works from a private collection of 240 pieces (all to be gifted to the museum) dating from the 16th century up to the 1940s. They were gathered over the decades by Dorothy Braude Edinburg, a Boston philanthropist who likes to shop for art and, more important for us, likes to give it away.
With both shows comes an opportunity to see how far drawing has come materially from the early days when tinted paper was as experimental as it got. Drawing has been undervalued in the past in part because of the role it played as preparatory sketches for paintings and murals. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself loving the drawings by the Old Masters and their students as much as the paintings.
At the MCA, Warren sought out works made with materials one might not immediately connect with drawing (like leaves, soil, gunpowder).
Drawing is definitely in the air. You couldn’t help but notice more drawings than usual at the major art fairs this year, particularly among emerging artists at the satellite shows, where intimate, small works were as plentiful as Starbucks. In October, the Smart Museum will put on “Drawing as a Process in Contemporary Art,” and currently there are works on paper at Valerie Carberry in the John Hancock Center, gescheidle and Skestos Gabriele. There is even a show countering the current drawing trend at Wendy Cooper.
The MCA decided to do “Drawn” partly to present a contrast to Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography by offering a different medium, but also to sate the renewed interest in drawing.
What’s driving this reappreciation? Warren offers a few ideas. “The art world has been dominated by big installations and extravaganzas involving lots of video or electronic media.” Drawing, by comparison, she says, seems so direct.
Probably no one exemplifies the elaborate planned art project more than Matthew Barney. Yet his piece in the MCA, Drawing Restraint 8: Le Bois (2003), consists of beautifully crafted drawings. There is nothing simple about the presentation or the way they were created: The drawings of graphite and petroleum jelly were made with a series of self-imposed hardships (tethered body parts, extra long tools) and reside in a large green acrylic vitrine. It’s no longer a mystery how he managed to raise millions for his beautifully tedious epic films.
The long, double-sided watercolors by self-taught artist Henry Darger have become widely known in recent years and the museum was lucky to get some choice pieces early on from. The MCA tries to put one out every now and then because there is such an intense interest in Darger, but the works are subject to fading so exposure is limited. Here is an opportunity to see five pieces at once.
There is also a gigantic charcoal by Chicago artist Fred Berger, who died a few months ago. Berger taught life drawing for more than 20 years at the American Academy of Art but had been overlooked for most of his career. Warren put his piece A Flower, A Child; Will They Grow? on the checklist for the show because she recognized that with the popularity of painters like John Currin who were looking back at classical techniques, Berger’s style will find an appreciative audience. When some of Berger’s former students called the MCA to ask if this piece could be hung, Warren said she was happy to report it was already on the agenda.
Another standout here is Sol LeWitt’s “portable” wall drawing One-, Two-, Three-, and Four-Part Combinations of Vertical, Horizontal, and Diagonal Left and Right Bands of Color (1993–94). It’s a title that tells you nearly everything—except that there are 64 large, framed gouache-on-paper sheets. It’s a piece that is rarely shown in its entirety, and here it fills an entire barrel-vaulted gallery space. Chicago artist Jim Nutt’s drawings from the 1970s are also a fresh treat. A Nutt retrospective is in the works so consider this an amuse-bouche.
Warren dug around the museum’s own history for a segment on schematics and plans. Included is John Cage’s A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago, created in 1978 by randomly choosing intersections where sound recordings were collected. While it’s lovely as a piece of art, it was meant to be used as a musical score. Claes Oldenburg’s model of the old museum’s facade as a mouse head was made in 1977. He was having a show at the MCA around the same time that the architectural plans for the new MCA were being discussed. Maybe he saw the architect’s maquette and decided to add to it—the history isn’t entirely clear—but what is clear is that the MCA has been more than a repository of great art, it has also inspired it.
“Drawn into the World” is at the MCA through October 15. “Drawings in Dialogue: Old Master Through Modern” is at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sunday 30. See Museums & Institutions.
John Cage, A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago, 1978.