The Sublimity In Viewing Drawings!

We have been taught that painting, and particularly oil painting, is the highest achievement of modern Western art. And we see it presented in our art museums worldwide, offered for sale in our art galleries and auction houses, and projected on wall sized screens in our art history classes. There is no right or wrong here…paintings of all shapes and styles are great artistic statements that we can relate to and that we love to view. And who would go to Paris and not visit the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa? Or forget to visit the Impressionists at the Art Institute of Chicago? Probably no one taking the time to visit this blog!

But on a personal level, our first experience with making art is drawing. Whether a pencil stub on scrap paper or crayons on a magnificent piece of manila paper or doodles of a custom car or imagined horse in our middle school notebooks, we have all experienced the joy in making a drawing. So when we see drawings we understand the skill and emotion and imagination involved in the making. We have an innate understanding of the process! It isn’t magic the way that painting often feels.

So why isn’t our art viewing experience more involved with drawings? Well there is one fairly simple answer…and it isn’t a lack of drawings in the world…most museums have a trove of drawings in their holdings. It is the simple fragility of a drawing…they are generally works on paper…something that is destroyed by excess light and requires more attention to climate control than paintings. So showing them in a museum requires a great deal of care and thought and they are only shown for limited periods of time. And the means to restore a damaged drawing isn’t the same as restoring a damaged painting.

So when do we see drawings? Most often we will see drawings that are representative of a painter’s development or study in a retrospective of the artist’s work. Sometimes these drawings show a different side of the painter like the caricatures by Claude Monet that were included in the Monet in Chicago show at the Art Institute of Chicago recently. Or we see a vitrine protecting a sketchbook open to a selected page.

On occasion we are presented with shows made up exclusively of drawings like Michelangelo: Mind of the Master at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2019 or Cezanne Drawing currently (through September 25, 2021) at the Museum of Modern Art in New. York. Another opportunity for viewing drawings are dedicated galleries within museums that rotate mini-shows of drawings (or other works on paper) from their holdings. The one I am most familiar with is the Art Institute of Chicago. They have a gallery in the Michigan Avenue building on the main floor just northeast of the Grand Staircase (galleries 124 – 127 from the map) that features works on paper…usually a drawing show or a print show but often with both. It is a don’t miss gallery whenever we visit AIC.

So why do artists draw? For all of the same reasons that you draw (or drew). There is a human need to make marks to express ourselves but there are as many reasons as there are us…what makes each artist draw is universal but as individual as they come.

So why do artists draw? Well for this bit of discourse I am going to pick three instances that are certainly universal. First, to make a statement via a drawing that is a complete piece of art…Second, as a study for another work of art, most often a painting, but for any piece of art that requires research, development, or refinement before the final vision is realized…Third, because artists are always sketching. I am going to try to provide some examples here and maybe a bit more detail…although writing about the why of drawing seems a little futile!

So my first instance, creating a drawing as a complete final work of art. Why would an artist select drawing for a finished piece? Well, because the drawing medium suits the expression of the art work. Certainly a chalk, charcoal, or conte crayon drawing has a decidedly different feel and intent as an oil painting or watercolor. Or it may be a matter of convenience and drawing materials are close at hand if working somewhere away from the studio. Even portable easels are an effort to move and plan around…a pad of fine drawing paper and a box of graphite sticks are often second nature. And there may be economic issues involved…charcoal and paper are relatively inexpensive and there is a part of the art market who will buy art but may not of the wherewithal to purchase a painting. And possibly someone may commission a drawing for as many reasons as an artist may draw!

From a viewers point of view, we have a whole new world to explore. We have another opportunity to understand how the artist sees the world because the problems that need to be worked out in a drawing are different than in a painting. We can also often see the other interests that the artist may have, particularly if they depict a topic or subject matter that isn’t typical of their paintings. Is a landscape artist making portrait drawings? Is an artist who is polished and precise feeling free and unconstrained in the different medium? What new insights will we be exposed to? This can be a rather exciting experience.

So let’s start with a few finished drawings that are the end result themselves. This can be tricky because the value of ‘old master’ drawings has resulted in sketches by name artists being framed and displayed just the same as a fully realized drawing. But let’s take a few peeks!

© 2020 Ed Heinzelman : Vincent Van Gogh : Avenue of Pollard Birches and Poplars, 1884 : Art Institute of Chicago

To my mind this is undoubtedly a finished drawing meant to stand alone as a finished and complete work of art. But one that provides us with a bit different view of Van Gogh although the landscape feels very familiar…but without the energy and of course the confusion of color we are used to in his paintings.

But this…this is obviously quintessential Pablo Picasso!

© 2020 Ed Heinzelman : Pablo Picasso : Portrait of Jacqueline, 1962: Art Institute of Chicago

I am going to add one more to this section, just because these drawings originally came as quite a pleasant shock to me. Some years ago we went to New York to see a Rembrandt show at the Met and a side show was George Seurat drawings. Now we are all familiar with his incredible pointillist masterpiece, the oil painting Sunday Afternoon On The Island of La Grande Jatte. But his drawings were just different different different and just as amazing. So here’s an example of a Seurat drawing that was recently on display at the AIC.

© 2020 Ed Heinzelman : Georges Seurat : Landscape, circa 1881 : Art Institute of Chicago

Let’s press on with drawings that are preparatory sketches for a painting or other piece of art. And lets start with one of the world’s favorite Impressionists, Claude Monet. I captured these photos during the recent Monet show at the AIC (my response is here: Water Lilies and Caricatures: Monet At The Art Institute of Chicago).

© 2020 Ed Heinzelman : Claude Monet: Stacks of Wheat, 1891 : Art Institute of Chicago
© 2020 Ed Heinzelman : Claude Monet ; Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn) 1890/91 Art Institute of Chicago

And now my favorite artist, Gustave Moreau, just for fun because I can! These photos were taken at the Musee Moreau in Paris in 2019.

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman :
© 2019 Ed Heinzelman :

and now our last category…if you are an artist or know an artist…you know that an artist’s sketchbook is a common appendage…and it isn’t uncommon to make a sketch of something anytime and almost anywhere. And again the reasons are innumerable but an idea pops up and needs to be explored or the light is just right or the subject demands to be limned or one’s fancy is captured! But this is where the artist hones their skill. This is where the artist gets to try new things. This is where the artist works on new ideas. This is where the artist can make art that is a surprise and can lead to the new. The following are just a number of drawings labelled as studies…enjoy:

© 2019 Ed Heinzelman : Edgar Degas : Study of a Singer, 1878/80 : Art Institute of Chicago
© 2019 Ed Heinzelman : Gustave Moreau : unkown : Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris
from auction catalog by M. S. Rau.

So please go off and search them out and enjoy the Sublimity In Viewing Drawings!

Bisa Butler: Portraits, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This exhibition threw me for a loop. The photos and promotional lit for the show simply don’t do justice to the vibrant colors or the tactile sensation that quilting imbues on these portraits. And Ms. Butler’s subtle (yes subtle) color transitions from one shade/value to another are extremely effective, particularly in the faces, as we see the bright light highlights of certain features quietly shift into darker shadow as we move our view across a face.

I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Butler before this show and I am sorry that I hadn’t seen her work before now. She works with textiles and in this show of portraits, primarily quilts. This is an incredibly effective medium for her style of story telling and these portraits certainly do tell a story. We see and hear clear stories about family and community told with a personal warmth and pride that just feels so very very refreshing. And quilts allow her to work with these vivid colors probably more easily than paint and certainly on a larger scale as well. And the quilting technique allows her to build layers of color without having to think out exactly how to lay in that next vibrant color adjacent to the first.

And as I’ve said, the quilting process provides a certain tactile sensation. Far more interesting than painting while being more subtle and reflective than sculpture. And the colors and techniques here are just totally apropos to Ms. Butler’s vision. Simply amazing…this is an unforgettable show.

Now, some background for the Art Institute of Chicago web page: Bisa Butler: Portraits.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts vividly capture personal and historical narratives of Black life.

She strategically uses textiles—a traditionally marginalized medium—to interrogate the historical marginalization of her subjects while using scale and subtle detail to convey her subjects’ complex individuality. Together, Butler’s quilts present an expansive view of history through their engagement with themes such as family, community, migration, the promise of youth, and artistic and intellectual legacies.

and again here is the link to the AIC…this includes a six minute interview with Bisa Butler…more than worth those few minutes! And now, after telling you that the photos that I’ve seen don’t do justice to the physical works, I am going to share three of my favorite pieces from the show!

Black Star Family, First Class Tickets to Liberia
Dear Mama
Survivor

Bia Butler states that her major influences are family photo albums, the philosophies of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Romare Bearden’s collages, Faith Ringgold’s quilts, and Gordon Parks’s photographs. And although they may not be direct influences, to my eyes there is a similarity in the use of background ‘textures’ to another contemporary artist, Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Obama’s portrait, and even Jacob Lawrence, who is best known for his migration series. I have examples of each below.

The Bisa Butler: Portraits show continues at the Art Institute until September 6, 2021. It is free with general admission to the museum. Currently the AIC is open limited hours, 11 AM to 6 PM Thursday through Monday with early openings each day at 10 AM for members. As of this writing, masks are required and social distancing enforced as best as they can. So I highly recommend seeing this show!!

Jacob Lawrence, The Wedding, 1948, the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. © Kehinde Wiley. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

photos of Bia Butler quilts taken at the Art Institute of Chicago by Ed Heinzelman

Jesus Rafael Soto: PENETRABLE sculpture and beyond:

I am not going to actually write about Jesus Rafael Soto because he is an artist that I just came across as a result of auditing a class in Latin American Art History. And this isn’t the type of art that generally appeals to me but the videos show the appeal of the actual work in situ and the audience and their interaction with his work. It is really quite compelling how it makes people happy and adventurous. So here are three videos, all a bit different. The first two discuss his Penetrable series which is what caught my attention. The third is an interview with Mr. Soto who is speaking in Spanish but it has English subtitles. It gives us insight into his work, his history and his legacy beyond the Penetrable. So I hope you enjoy:

Surprisingly Jesus Soto is well known in most of the world but a virtual stranger in the United States. There are a lot of videos on YouTube that describe or portray his art…and there are several longer documentaries as well…so enjoy getting lost in his work!