Time Out New York

Issue 371: Reviews
November 7th, 2002
Papering the house

MoMA tries to wrest a zeitgeist from Drawing Now

By Howard Halle


Drawing Now: Eight Propositions,” the Modern’s survey of works by 26 artists, is enjoyable enough. But don’t expect it to tell you what “drawing” is. (Is painting involved? Sometimes. Working directly on the walls as well as on paper? Ditto.) Or even what now means. Once upon a time, the word signaled a willingness not only to state what was current but also to suggest what the future might bring. Who does either with assurance these days? Thanks to the Internet and 24-hour news channels, the reporting of events—let alone the prediction of them—has devolved into a dissonant echo chamber of competing points of view. Is it any wonder that the art world has, too? That situation is certainly reflected by the suspects (some usual, some not) in this show. They don’t just gaze into their navels; they go spelunking in them. 

What they find there has little to do with the official, step-by-step version of art history that MoMA, as an institution, espouses. If these artists share an ideology, it’s that anything goes. MoMA is still MoMA, however, even if it is spending the foreseeable future in a glorified Manhattan Storage unit. So it tries to simultaneously achieve incompatible goals: cast as wide a net as possible for younger artists in order to seem hip; and maintain its more traditional mission of categorizing art in a linear, historical fashion. Enter curator Laura Hoptman, whose solution has been to divide the show into eight “propositions,” or sections. Her stated aim is to show how drawing has moved from the conceptual/process orientation of years past to the more iconic/”imagineered” approach of today. In doing so, she likens the present to the 19th century. While I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, it strikes me that in making it, Hoptman is missing a central irony: If we’re back to the 19th century, then Modernism, and all that MoMA stands for (including the idea that art can be an agent of progress), was little more than an interregnum between gilded ages. But in terms of method, this show, with its kicky headings like “Cosmogenesis” and “Ornament,” proceeds as if nothing fundamental has changed. 

Nonetheless, “Drawing Now” serves as a useful reminder that you don’t need fancy digital video equipment to make decent art. And a lot of the work is quite good if not astonishing, especially the offerings by some of the Brits who are a generation younger than the famed YBAs of the 1990s. 

In the section labeled “Fashion and Likeness,” for instance, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton (who are doomed, apparently, to being forever lumped together in group shows despite their real differences as artists) are joined by YYBA (Younger Young British Artist) Graham Little, who blows them off the walls. Instead of cleverly dancing around fashion illustration, as both Currin and Peyton do, Little offers colored-pencil drawings that unabashedly are fashion illustrations: The models are, well, models wearing the latest couture. They regard or disregard the viewer with the same hyper-aloofness one expects from the pages of Vogue or i-D. Little, however, manages the neat trick of making his subjects seem both of their world and outside it, largely through the strength of an adamantine draftsmanship that marries the Renaissance precisionism of Holbein with the photographic glamour of Horst. The women in these drawings transcend the usual fashion business of serving as signifiers of attitude to become true apparitions of the sublime. Currin, meanwhile, seems stuck in a rut with his drawings of walleyed WASP-y doyens, pretentiously rendered with conte crayons on sienna- or moss-colored paper like so many deracinated Watteaus. As for Peyton, a self-portrait on gold-stamped stationery from London’s Savoy Hotel reveals a heretofore undetectable debt to early-modern outsider Florine Stettheimer. Indeed, both artists are child-woman auteurs who describe salon universes centered around friends; except that in her work, Peyton substitutes a cold-eyed narcissism for the effervescent innocence bubbling through Stettheimer’s scenes of picnics and shopping sprees. 

As well as Little stacks up against Currin and Peyton, though, his virtuosity is given a run for its money by another Brit, David Thorpe, camped out in the section titled “Visionary Architecture.” His work features images of futuristic wooden chalets set in Alpine redoubts: One such structure is shaped like a conga drum and sits on stilts at the base of a looming, snowy promontory. Thorpe’s style could be described as comic-book romanticism, yet the remarkable thing is that everything in the drawing is made of layer upon layer of cut-out colored paper. This gee-whiz aspect of his approach, however, doesn’t obscure the fact that Thorpe finds a genuine paint-by-number pathos in these scenes from a timbered utopia. Similarly, German artist Neo Rauch re-imagines another—failed—paradise, that of the communist East Germany of his childhood, as a surreal seraglio of early-’60s artifacts, memory fragments and painterly abstraction. 

Other standouts include Chris Ofili, who offers handsome portrait heads and flights of pure decorative fancy composed out of long chains of tiny, obsessively penciled Afro-topped noggins. Russell Crotty exhibits a wall-size mural of gridded sheets of paper, divided into hundreds of sections. In them, he endlessly loops a sequence in ball-point pen of a tiny stick-figure surfer wiping out on a wave, an exercise in miniaturist grandeur that resolves into a veritable ocean of ink. 
Our society as a whole is moving back toward plutocracy, a development the largely conservative art here certainly mirrors, even if it doesn’t necessarily endorse the situation. And if this show leaves one with a certain hollow feeling as a consequence, the fault is MoMA’s for insisting that now is now when it’s really then.

“Drawing Now: Eight Propositions” is on view at MoMA QNS through January 6.