Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change

Tate Liverpool

Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change, curated by Gavin Delahunty and Katharine Stout, brought together around a hundred works made between c.1891 and 2012. Most were drawn from Tate’s Collection, although these were supplemented by several loans. The exhibition’s title encouraged us to think about drawing’s relationship with twentieth century (art) history, and to question the nature of the change for which drawing is claimed as a catalyst. Our idea of the proposition here might be brought into focus by comparing it with a recent exhibition of comparable scope organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century (2010-11). Curated by Catherine de Zegher and Cornelia Butler, On Line decisively privileged abstract art in its survey of 20th century drawing. No doubt also partly dictated by the nature of Tate’s collection, Stout and Delahunty instead explored what they call the ‘continuous slippage’ between abstraction and figuration, and replaced the chronological structure of the MoMA show with more plural and unorthodox organizing principles.
Tracing the Century was instead articulated by way of trans-historical clusters of individual artworks from different periods, comparative encounters between pairs of conventionally unassociated artists, and, more occasionally, by single artist presentations. The clusters and couplings were related by formal or thematic affinity rather than by direct historical connection. This worked to subtle, enlivening effect in a sequence towards the beginning of the show, which brought together variously shimmering, dematerialized, diagrammatic ‘world-scapes’ by Paul Cézanne, Paul Klee, Richard Hamilton, Lee Bontecou and Julie Mehretu. What do these artists have to do with one another? Not a great deal, thinking historically; but isn’t one property of art, as an aesthetic and discursive category precariously situated in a condition of relative autonomy from historical forces, to act as a space for less determined forms of connectivity and exchange to take place? And here the eclipse of the idea of drawing as rooted in a perceptual encounter (signaled in the late Cézanne watercolour), by an emphasis on drawing as closer to thinking, imagining, and, returning to the body’s fundamental processes, breathing, was beautifully articulated in this sequence of variously abbreviated and dispersed pieces.
Other groupings also worked to suggestive and provocative effect. William Orpen’s large-scale, pedagogical chalk studies of anatomy were nicely foiled by de Kooning’s blind drawings from the 1960s. The latter showed how the body reveals itself quite differently when it is unharnessed from pre-given visual and conceptual categories. Henry Moore looked newly exciting too: firstly beside Matthew Monahan’s recent, large-scale Body Electric series (2012), and secondly within the eroticized company of, amongst others, Cornelia Parker’s Pornographic Drawings (1996), a selection of varyingly explicit drawings and photographs by Andy Warhol, two elegantly sexual works on paper by Hannah Wilke from the mid-1960s and, across the room, a number of studies by Joseph Beuys.
The issue, raised with particular urgency over the last few years, of the relation between drawing and sculpture – an expanded notion of the line ‘freed’ from the page – was tackled here in a satisfyingly understated way by another unexpected constellation of works. An early, spare, beautiful work by Paule Vézelay indicated the long historical trajectory of this concern, as did the inclusion of sculptures by Julio González and David Smith. These were again well foiled by Richard Tuttle’s small shelf-bound works, Wealth, Plush, Enrich, Fortune, Luxury and Treasure (all 1973-76), eloquent of the aesthetic potential of the small and unemphatic. This array constituted a measured, modest address to the issue of ‘drawing in space.’ A more dramatic (and by now canonical) statement on the matter was provided by Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), which, despite being so famous, retains its capacity to surprise and enthrall by way of a slow simple magic between media.
At times, however, the trans-historical groupings came off a bit less powerfully. For example, in one room Agnes Martin’s Morning (1965) was juxtaposed with works by Tracy Emin, Brice Marden, Jasper Johns and André Masson, amongst others. This grouping spelled some problems for Martin’s work especially. I felt that the issue of abstraction was best negotiated in the exhibition through works that themselves wavered on the threshold of figuration. When such a decisively, radically evacuated work as this one by Martin was grouped in this way, the effect was a loss or confusion of impact rather than a gain. Indeed, overall, the integration of abstract and figurative work tended to pull otherwise more resolutely formal pieces towards the figurative pole. The human body performed as primary object here, exercising an almost magnetic attraction on works by Henri Michaux, Eva Hesse, and Sara Barker, for example. Abstraction is never released from the body, and the shadow of the kind of utopian project inaugurated by the historical avant-gardes, or the intense froideur of many more recent abstract artists, did not persist here.

Matthew Monahan: Body Electric (hate crystal) (2012), oil on paper, 226.1 cm x 232 cm. © Matthew Monahan courtesy of Stuart Shave/ Modern Art London and Anton Kern Gallery New York
Matthew Monahan: Body Electric (hate crystal) (2012), oil on paper, 226.1 cm x 232 cm. © Matthew Monahan courtesy of Stuart Shave/ Modern Art London and Anton Kern Gallery New York

As with the earlier section centring on sexuality, towards the end of the show figuration, or rather disfiguration, afforded the curators a means of focusing their engagement with politics. Here the selection was dominated by British and North American artists, with Fernando Bryce (a Peruvian who lives in Berlin) the only exception. Indeed, this Anglophone bias was present throughout the exhibition and, while it might have been more explicitly negotiated, the resulting, more limited claim of the show lent it coherence. The central object of concern here was not any specific political event, position, or mode of activity, but rather the formal and technical disordering of our image of the body as it is ravaged, flattened and convulsed by war, violence, exploitation, and psycho-social malaise. Bryce was at a remove in the soberness of his archival retrieval and transcription of images and documents of loaded historical significance. Two works by Raymond Pettibon provided a bridge to the rest. Pettibon also appropriates the languages other media (here, comic books, amongst other things), bringing jarring, staccato drawings together with provocative, oblique, and blackly humorous text, the voice of which is never clear. Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and Peter Kennard variously distress the surfaces onto which they work, each contributing new means for the expression of rage and indignance at the ideological wars and exploitation attending the development of post-war capitalism. Across the room was the stunning third ‘Documentation’ of Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-79). These coloured sheets, scrawled on by her infant son and then written over by the artist, when experienced in the flesh rather than via the black and white reproductions of her well-known book, deliver a more lively and affectively ambiguous charge than her reputation for stern analysis might suggest. Margaret Harrison’s sexualized, hallucinatory drawings of ludicrously excessive ciphers of femininity (Banana Woman, 1971), added a barbed humour while also helping to make the feminist context of Kelly’s work explicit.

A more sustained treatment of a particular political, social and psychological formation (apartheid in South Africa) was offered at the end of the exhibition by three of William Kentridge’s celebrated Drawings for Projection. In Felix in Exile (1994), the exiled character Felix Teitelbaum sits naked in a cheap hotel room contemplating a suitcase full of drawings. These sheets, depicting the traumas of apartheid, become animated under Felix’s gaze, flying onto the bare walls around him. Their resulting configuration, together with Felix huddled on a simple chair in the corner of the room, explicitly evokes the famous installation photograph of Kasimir Malevich’s legendary 0:10 – Last Futurist Exhibition, held in Petrograd in December 1915. That exhibition represents a key moment from the historical avant-garde, in which abstract art seemed to have prefigured the utopian drive of revolutionary politics. Unlike the elemental clarity of Malevich’s paintings, however, Kentridge’s scene is marked by a texture of smudges and erasures. These celebrated works, which recall graphic languages associated with social satire and political protest (Goya, Daumier, Grosz, Beckmann), were made by recording the erasure and reworking of charcoal drawings with a film camera. They are palimpsests in which there is a drag or weight placed upon processes of change. Here the dream of pure beginnings is abandoned, or, perhaps better, mourned.
For Kentridge, the process of drawing is the engine of change in his films, which nevertheless refer explicitly to their contemporary situation in South Africa. As in the exhibition as a whole, drawing is not claimed as a catalyst for social and political change, at least not in any direct way. That avant-garde aspiration for art is mourned rather than re-enacted here. Indeed, drawing’s conventionally more modest and minor status lends itself instead to furthering more internal, reflexive concerns. This does not mean, however, that it is not a powerful and affecting means to work through our social, political and psychic condition. While drawing is perhaps closer to thinking and reflection than to action, more a part of the vita contemplativa than the vita active, it might still help to show a way forward – like a map or a diagram – by way of imaginative engagement and conceptual extension.
Tracing the Century did not provide a history of twentieth-century drawing. Indeed, such a history does not yet exist: there is currently no adequate account of twentieth-century drawing, although such large-scale exhibitions as this (and MoMA’s On Line, for example) are leading the way towards one. But this show did not claim to provide a history as such: chronology was abandoned in favour of clusters and constellations, and references to historical moments and trajectories were at a minimum. In the end, the history of twentieth century art looks less rather than more coherent following this exhibition; the curators have sought to shake up familiar sets of associations and to suggest certain affinities and connections aside from broader, more stable trajectories. The result is a loss in the falling away of some kinds of logic, which would perhaps have located the extraordinary formal innovations on view here more firmly, but a gain in re-staging the kinds of associative liveliness and flexible insight that many artists talk of as characteristic of the drawing process itself.
Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change was on view, 16 November 2012 – 20 January 2013. It was accompanied by the solo exhibition, Matt Saunders: Century Rolls.