Jenny Holzer From the Living Series Bench #16

Jenny Holzer
From the Living Series Bench #16 1980–2
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2007

In 1973, Vija Celmins painstakingly produced Galaxy #1 (Coma Berenices). A velvety drawing of a remote constellation, with white patches registering as blurred stars amid dense graphite marking, it packs a considerable amount of cosmological grandeur onto such a small piece of paper. The Latvian-born Celmins is concerned with changeable surfaces: she has made similarly meticulous drawings of rippling oceans and dewy spiders’ webs, for example. But her art also testifies to the power of drawing. What may be thought of as a modest medium is capable of enfolding, and evoking, the farthest fields of space. And the diversity of ways that artists have used drawing, particularly since the mid-twentieth century, suggests something similar: that drawing is not a minor supplement to painting and sculpture, but a significant art form in its own right.

Drawing is often associated with spontaneity and free expression, and the practices of Abstract Expressionists such as Franz Kline in the 1940s and 50s and, in a more lyrical vein, Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s, would appear to confirm that view. Early admirers of Abstract Expressionism argued that the gestural mark, as a real-time record of the artist’s innermost feelings, was what counted. In retrospect, Kline’s canvases have been revealed as less impulsive than originally thought: he enlarged details of sketches on a Bell-Opticon projector, copying them to get his speedy-looking strokes. But, myth-deflating aside, Kline’s deft and vigorous Study for Black & White #1 1952 and Frankenthaler’s delicate Untitled 1961 seem to combine the energy of drawing and the gravity of painting. Such works tap into an ancient impulse: the human passion for mark-making.

Drawing is also, of course, a representational medium: a supremely flexible vehicle for the recording of physical characteristics and responding to the world. The American artist Philip Guston was vilified by his fellow Abstract Expressionists when, instead of his acclaimed gauzy abstract paintings, he returned to depicting what he called ‘tangible things’. His sometimes brutal, cartoonish figures show an artist seeking ‘impurity’, and are as attuned to newspaper comic strips as to the history of art. Guston’s Artist in His Studio 1969 shows himself as a hooded Ku Klux Klansman labouring on a self-portrait. The medium – charcoal – lends the image a particularly fragile, nervous and confessional quality.

The idea of drawing as a transmission direct from the unconscious, implicit in Guston, is made even more apparent in the German neo-Expressionism of artists such as Walter Dahn, Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz. The latter’s pen-and-ink drawing Peitschenfrau (Whip Woman) 1964 is a deliberately grotesque vision of humanity’s depravity and carnal urges. A year previously, Baselitz’s first public solo exhibition, in Berlin, sparked a public scandal over its sexual explicitness. The obscured half-human, half-animal portrait in Rosemarie Trockel’s gouache Untitled 1983 is a complex of narcissism and shame that anticipates her career-long interests in human attitudes to the sexual divide and our relationships to animals. But it is enigmatic and, like the Baselitz drawing, almost feels to have sped past the artist’s own mental gatekeepers.

By contrast, and highlighting its ostensibly humble status, drawing can also be a vehicle for understatement and calm restraint: mark-making as meditative act. One sees this in American minimalist and post-minimalist art, such as Brice Marden’s striped graphite rectangle, Untitled 1971. And, as many of these works suggest, it is an intimate, private medium that can enable a slowly achieved precision in the rendering of reality. In Chuck Close’s pseudo-pixillated Self Portrait 1995, a shimmering image of the artist is patiently built up point-by-point on a cellular grid. The characteristic use of loose circles is due to the fact that, since becoming quadriplegic due to a spinal artery collapse in 1988, Close now holds the drawing implement between his teeth.

Other artists look both backwards and forwards in time – at what drawing has been, and what it might be now. The American painter John Currin, whose canvases flaunt their fine draughtsmanship, appears in his drawings to look back to the Old Masters for tips on technique. Yet his subject matter is resolutely contemporary. The headless man being admired for his well-tailored apparel in New Suit 1995 shows the artist’s concern with social convention. In his droll works on paper from 1970-74, Ed Ruscha displays a restlessness with the strictures of drawing, using materials such as blood, egg yolk, ketchup and the liqueur Fernet Branca. In Coiled Paper 1973, made with gunpowder, he calls attention to the materials of drawing itself.

Since the mid-1990s, artists such as the Californian Jim Shaw have made drawing their primary means of expression. Another example is the young British artist Charles Avery, who is possessed of a potent line and a runaway imagination devoted to making a complex, character-filled imaginary world as real as possible. This most venerable of cultural activities has proved equal to speaking for our strongest and subtlest emotions, our need to represent reality and to transcend it, our desire to mingle these various registers in a myriad of ways. Drawing, it might be said, is the star that never burns out.

Text by Martin Herbert