Not on display
At over three and a half by one and a half metres, Woodstock # 1, NY 1973 is a large-format drawing in graphite on paper that is hung on the wall slightly lower than the sheet length so that a part of it rolls out onto the floor. The pencil drawing is monochrome gray and fills the entire sheet except for a thin frame that has been left blank. It was made using the technique of frottage, with the paper roll being placed directly in the landscape onto the ground and the pencil rubbed over the surface of the paper, so that the texture of the earth below was transferred to the sheet. The resulting hatchings build a dynamic but even surface, denser in some places, and create an almost organic impression. The quality of the paper, which is a strong archival rag paper that was laminated with natural muslin, played an essential role in the making of the work, needing to be strong enough to withstand the process but thin enough to permit the transmission of the texture of the ground beneath. Originally this type of paper was intended for drafting, engineering and architectural use, made to withstand the elements.
Woodstock #1, NY was first shown in a solo exhibition at Max Hutchinson Gallery, New York in 1974. Its title refers to Woodstock in New York State, the place where the drawing was created and where the artist lived in at the time. Specifically she made the drawing near Moray Hill Road, off route 28 in a Bluestone Forest preserve. The work is the first drawing in a group of scroll-type works that Stuart made with this method and that are named after the site of their creation. At first she worked with a pencil, as in this drawing; later she used larger chunks of graphite for this technique. The drawings appear as monochrome and homogenous works from afar, but on closer inspection reveal countless details, as described at the time by art critic Lawrence Alloway:
The surfaces of her drawings ... are lovingly and compulsively animated by small marks that invite close inspection, like a chalk drawing by Watteau. However, she sets up an interplay of close focus and distance. The size of the paper and the protracted homogeneity of the surface support distant viewing. The drawings can be viewed, close up, as a porous matrix or, from a distance, as a black cloud. The delicacy of multiple strokes might appear to dissolve the surface of the paper, but their iteration over a large area produces a resilience of surface. Stuart’s black and dark gray marks are small in area and brief in directional momentum, making the mottled fields of her drawings both vibrant and calm.
(Lawrence Alloway, ‘Michelle Stuart: A Fabric of Significations’, Artforum, January 1974, pp.63–6.)
Stuart’s interest in the character of various natural surfaces and the idea of a transfer of landscape onto paper is a combination of her practice as a land artist and her employment in the early 1950s as a topographic draftsperson in the preparation of maps. She used the idea of cartography in her art and her drawings can thus be understood as maps on a 1:1 scale, which allow the transfer of nature and its variety of surfaces to an abstract level. However her scrolls are not only the support for the structure of the landscape, but also absorb the time of their creation and are therefore repositories of memory.
While early land art, as seen in the work of the American Robert Smithson (1938–1973) or British artist Richard Long (born 1945), is known for its monumental scale and site-specific nature, Stuart’s work takes the genre back to the classical medium of drawing as well as adopting a portable format that can be displayed indoors. The immediacy of nature is transmitted through the body of the artist in the physical act of rubbing the graphite onto the paper scroll. The act of drawing is thus something very physical, combined with the intellectual processes of the choice of surface, artistic means and paper quality. Through the mode of their making, their scale and the presentation of the drawing as a physical object that reaches into the viewer’s space, works such as Woodstock #1, NY take on a decidedly sculptural quality. This view of drawing as sculpture corresponds to Stuart’s own understanding, as she sees the scrolls as differentiated from the medium of drawing. Such works are part of a wider rethinking of the medium in the late 1960s, as described by art historian Anna Lovatt in an essay on Stuart:
Using chance operations, strategies of delegation, and systematic procedures, artists including William Anastasi, Sol LeWitt, and Dorothea Rockburne had challenged the presumed relationship between drawing and subjective expression. Writing in 1976, Bernice Rose argued that ‘the story of drawing from the mid-fifties onward is the story of a gradual disengagement of drawing as autography or graphological confession and an emotive cooling of the basic mark, the line itself.’
(Anna Lovatt, ‘Palimpsests: Inscription and Memory in the Work of Michelle Stuart’, in Djanogly Gallery 2013, p.14.)
According to Lovatt, Stuart’s contribution to this is to create a direct imprint of the natural world with her technique in which the act of drawing becomes something automatic. Stuart herself has drawn a comparison between her drawings and photography: ‘My process is using the earth and the imprint as well. So they are married. I also think, though it may seem like a very different process, photography is an imprinting process. So I think they are very much hand in hand.’ (Michelle Stuart, quoted in ibid., p.10.)
Michelle Stuart: Sculptural Objects. Journeys In & Out Of the Studio, Milan and New York 2010.
Anna Lovatt (ed.), Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature, exhibition catalogue, Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Art Centre, University of Nottingham, 16 February–14 April 2013, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, 21 July–27 October 2013, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 25 January–19 April 2014.
Michelle Stuart: Topographies. Works on Paper 1968–2015, exhibition catalogue, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Beverly Hills, 18 July–5 September 2015.
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