On ViewMuseum Of Modern Art
Degree Zero: Drawing at Mid Century
November 1, 2020 – June 5, 2021
Curator Samantha Friedman has made a sensitive selection of some 80 drawings from MoMA’s international pool of artists working between 1948 and 1961. Her emphasis is on these post-World War II years and what it meant to consider being an artist—that is, what to put down on paper when the world had nearly been torn asunder. Where to begin?
“Zero means ‘nothing,’” the Japanese artist Saburo Murakami said in 1953. “Start with nothing,” she advised. Well, as this gathering confirms, there is no true nothing to begin with. Artists worldwide actually emerge from similar point zeros—from the landscapes before them, from writing, their own, brain to hand, and from their reading, as well as from their feelings, their movements, their intuitions, their physical perceptions, and accidental thoughts and sightings. They can simply just let it happen.
As Belgian born French artist Pierre Alechinsky attests “When I paint, I liberate monsters. They are the manifestations of all the doubts, searches, and groping for meaning and expression which all artists experience. One does not choose the content, one submits to it.” Alechinsky, a member of the CoBrA school of artists, practices a vigorous version of Abstract Expressionism with allusions to figuration and dreamlike movement as here in his Study for The Snowman ([Étude] L'Homme des neiges) (1956), with its vaguely melting contours, an emerging eye, and a threatening serpent’s jaw.
Similarly, Danish CoBrA artist Asger Jorn’s two-sheet 1950 ink composition depicts a huge monster-like face, mostly mouth, and shapes resembling bent legs or simply folded forms like plants that turn up in works like Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral’s.
An untitled strikingly delicate Jackson Pollock drawing (ca. 1950), composed of scatter lines suggesting the synchrony of a couple dancing hangs in a grouping with Matisse’s assured modernist line drawing of a nude, The Necklace (Le collier) (1950), which mentally serves as a roadmap to and away from subject matter. Together at this intersection between the figurative and the abstract is a nearby grouping of works that includes a Giacometti portrait, a de Kooning Seated Woman (1953–54) amid a frenzy of lines and smudges, a Karel Appel furious Beast (1956) scrawled in black ink, and a Dubuffet Body of a Lady (Corps de dame) (1950), something between woman and beast, in the Art Brut mode with a wildly meandering nomadic line.
The many affinities among the works in the show demonstrate the multitude of categories of inspiration and style that are inherent to creation. Landscape is probably the biggest unifier in this wide-ranging show. Norman Lewis’s calligraphic drawing The Messenger (1952) takes us on a scratchy pictographic hike through a misty atmosphere in a course of motion to nowhere, in contrast to Japanese artist Morita Yasuji’s The Wind Man (1953), a landscape in words visually evoking traditional Chinese mountain-scapes. And Georgia O’Keeffe surprises with her dark, uncharacteristically weighty, almost sculptural Drawing X (1959), actually an aerial view she witnessed from a plane. As O’Keeffe pointed out, “There’s nothing abstract about those pictures; they are what I saw—and very realistic to me.”
The multifaceted avant-gardist writer, poet, musician, and inventor of sound devices, Brion Gysin portrays in A Trip from Here to There (1958) a subtle rhythmic adventure across a gentle terrain, influenced by Japanese and Arabic calligraphy he saw when he was in Morocco, and British artist-choreographer Dick Higgins produces a truly hybrid ink on paper work, Graphis No. 82 (1960) that choreographs a line over paper linking words along the way, such as “lynx” and “locks” to free-associative effect. Meanwhile, the charming linear patterns of Nigerian artist Uche Okeke are like a topographical mental map.
The representation of emotional and psychological states are notable in the powerful, restrained and taut drawing of the French artist Hans Hartung, who lost a leg in WWII. His 1960 work here is a bundle of strong vertical dark lines testifying to the artist’s assertive personality, will to order, and penchant for packing together his artistic forbears and styles.
A founder of the ZERO group, German artist Otto Piene, represented here by one of his “smoke drawings” from 1959, let process do the work. He would place a mesh screen over a candle and a sheet of paper above it so that the pattern of vibration would show up in the smoke. “Zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new,” he explained. Similarly, Murakami let a paint-covered ball make his deadpan titled Work Painted by Throwing a Ball (Tōkyū kaiga) (1954).
It seems an oxymoron that the idea of Zero could embrace such a plentiful and diverse group of practitioners. They range from the American mystic conceptualist James Lee Byars, with his defiantly thick, unfathomable black ink shape on paper; the Brazilian duo Willys de Castro and Hércules Barsotti, who moved from the rational geometry of Brazilian Concrete Art to embrace Neo-Concrete Art in strong geometric minimal forms, to the perennial Henri Michaux, whose writerly poetic abstractions secretly account for the visual rhythm of much modern drawing.