Drawing the line

Two views of drawing at Denver museums show artists thinking it through, growing up and creating drawings that deserve consideration in their own right

Clyfford Still\'s \"PH-563\" from 1943 \"PH-23\" from 1944-45 and \"PH-128\" from 1952 show him revisiting a similar composition over a decade in pastels and oil, always in conversation with his own work.
Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Drawings are generally seen as the preliminary sketches for later, more polished works, but two exhibitions in Denver, at the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum, are making the case for viewing drawings as artworks in and of themselves. Each exhibition works to very different ends. At the Denver Art Museum, Drawing Room: An Intimate Look at French Drawings from the Esmond Bradley Martin Collection isolates the drawings, offering an intimate look at an intimate art form, separate from the complete works that might otherwise dwarf them. For Drawing/Painting/Process at the Clyfford Still Museum, the curators have put abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still’s drawings alongside the finished oil paintings they inspired or revisited compositions from.

The effect in both is of pulling back the veil of varnish and oil to glimpse the artist’s mind at work, to see a little bit more of the process behind the end products and understand the craftsmanship that fed into creative works.

Drawings are also as close to the artists’ hands as we will ever get; there is less between the artists’ mind and us in these simple pen and ink or pencil and paper representations — that’s the motif that sings through the Drawing Room. Here are the artists at work, at play, at their freshest views of the world. Until Impressionism took off in the late 1800s, all paintings were done indoors. Only a drawing would have been completed outdoors or on the streets. These artists are, perhaps, at the starting point for the journeys that will lead them into grand scale landscape paintings or epic oils.

“I think the drawings in particular allow you to see each artist, the creative genius in their hand,” says Angelica Daneo, associate curator of painting and sculpture for the Denver Art Museum. “There’s really very little, if nothing, that separates you, in a drawing, that separates your eye from the hand of the artist. There’s no varnish, there’s no multilayer of paint. There’s really just your eye, and almost you can feel the hand of the artist tracing the paper.”

“I think drawing also is a way to connect artists to tradition,” says Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum. “I think the Impressionists and the Abstract Expressionists use drawing because it is a part of their tradition of how you make artworks, and I think many artists, as avant-garde as they chose to be — in fact this goes all the way through very, very contemporary artists — they still make drawings, for various reasons, but I think it’s part of that tradition and tool kit that you have as an artist.”

The opportunity to see these works, in both cases, is unprecedented. For centuries, drawings were used only among artists as teaching tools, then they slowly gained attention among certain connoisseurs who took an interest in the craftsmanship behind the final artworks. Only recently have they been treated as something worthy of exhibiting in their own right. So the drawings at the Clyfford Still Museum — which holds some 2,200 works on paper by the sole artist exhibited there, Clyfford Still — were never shown in his lifetime. The 39 drawings collected by Esmond Bradley Martin, now on view in Drawing Room, one of the trio of shows under the banner of Passport to Paris, have been loaned only sporadically and never before exhibited as a group. The two exhibits weren’t planned in tandem, but show an increasing sophistication in our understanding of art — and reap generous rewards in a sense of immediacy, closeness to the artist and intimacy, as well as a chance to view the artist’s process and perhaps even evolution over a lifetime.

Drawing is the basic art of every artist — the common denominator, the point from which they all begin and in some ways, the point to which they all return as a way of exploring new ideas and a low-cost, low-penalty form of experimenting.

“[Drawing] really was perceived as the intellectual moment, the moment the artist sits down and uses his intellectual abilities to draw something instead of just putting directly colors on the canvas, so it was really what allowed the artist to shift from a mere craftsman to someone that could be on par with a poet,” says Daneo. She points to the founding of the Academy of Drawing in Florence, Italy, in 1564 as demonstrative of that shift. (And that, the Italian native argues, justifies the inclusion of three drawings by Italians in an exhibition focused on French art.)

“In earlier centuries, drawings were sort of recipes that were given from one generation to the next of how to do things, how to look at something,” Heinrich says. “Italian Renaissance drawings played really a role of information within a studio, and in the 18th and 19th century, drawings were something for the connoisseurs. … But an exhibition of drawings is a rare thing.”

The fellow Passport to Paris show Court to Café covers the same 300 years of French art in a historic narrative, charting its evolution from the late 1600s to the early 1900s, and includes many of the same artists featured in Drawing Room. In contrast to the bright, feminine Court to Café, the drawing exhibit aims for intimacy over spectacle. The labels are hand-drawn calligraphy, and magnifying glasses are available for inspecting details.

“In this show we want our audience to lose themselves, in a way,” Daneo says. “We have some guidance in the sense of these groupings, but fundamentally, we want you to look closely, to really appreciate the virtuosity of these artists and the creativity of each artist.”

The assembled works are anything but monotone; from Antoine Watteau’s work in red, black and white chalk to pastels by Claude Monet, there’s plenty of color to be found. But more than that, variety emerges in the many ways a drawing can be manifested.

“It feels like a little jewel box of different materials,” says Molly Medakovich, the Denver Art Museum’s master teacher for Western American art. A dozen lines in pen flesh out Pablo Picasso’s “Man with Pipe” while watercolor, gouache and black chalk is used to produce an elaborate portrayal of mythical Telemachus, Eucharis and Love done by Jean-Guillame Moitte.

“It’s really a celebration of the stories that the artists are telling, the wide variety of approaches to making art, how individual they are, in other ways, how related some of them are,” Medakovich says.

Moments like François Boucher’s “The Young Mother,” a sketch of a woman from behind, a child in her arms, have the feel of a candid photograph. That sense comes not from the exactness of their representation — these figures are roughly drawn — but in the care and attention in catching this particular moment as a mother lifts her child up, catching a layer of her skirts in her grip, and looks away a bit from the infant toward something Boucher didn’t bother to illustrate — it doesn’t matter. She does.

“What I really particularly love about the Drawing Room show is how much closer you are with the drawing to the artist’s original idea and, really, how much closer you can be with an artist if you look at his drawings or her drawings and just this spontaneity, this direct proof of their creativity, of their artistic mindset which you have in a drawing, whereas an oil painting, it gets done over months, sometimes a year — layer after layer after layer, and then the layer needs to dry, and then the artist might get back to the painting six weeks later and does the next layer,” says Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum. “A drawing very often is done in half an hour, or maybe two hours, but it’s very direct form, shape of an idea, of an artistic mind. … You never feel as close to an artist as when you see their drawings.”

And in their drawings, we see their first attempts to look at what has already been made and remake it as their own — to adapt common subjects and increasingly standardized templates to their own style. The edges of the minds and hands at work that will build iconic styles for these artists become visible just in their early sketchwork.

As a teenager undertaking an informal study of art, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew “The Egyptian Mare,” completed in 1880, which copies the composition for Théodore Géricault’s “Jument Égyptienne (An Egyptian Mare),” from 1822. In both, an Arab groom in billowing white pants holds the reins of a horse while an onlooker, seated below a palm tree, smokes a hookah. But his handwork makes it his own. Géricault’s meticulous, fine lines and precise representations are replaced with Toulouse-Lautrec’s looser style. There’s just a bit more swagger in the hip of the groom, the details of his turban are lost in a tangle of graphite, the eye of the horse obscured by the bangs in Géricault’s rendition comes sharply forward in Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawing, which is completed in the chunky lines that will recur in his posters, prints and lithographs throughout his career.
By 1888, when Toulouse-Lautrec completed the second of the two drawings in Drawing Room, he was deep in the subject that would be central to his most famous works: performers in Paris. “The Dunce Cap” shows a clown in an acrobat costume, hands on hips and chin lifted. It’s one of 36 drawings he completed at the Cirque Fernando, one of four permanent circuses in Paris at the time and a subject he shared with Impressionists Edgar Degas and Pierre-August Renoir. He was still on his way to creating the line of posters of Paris’ entertainers that would memorialize his career and amassing sketches that would support those later works.

The acrobat depicted is at the ready, but not yet in the grip of his act — a brief moment of waiting that Toulouse-Lautrec has jotted down in graphite on paper. It’s precisely the kind of moment Impressionists set out to capture, whether in light or in the face of the theatre-goers in Montmartre.

“Really the job of the artist is to capture that glimpse and that moment in time,” Medakovich says. “It’s the same objective, I think, no matter what their subject matter is.”
Perhaps among the more notable surprises in the exhibition is a tiny caricature of a businessman, his small body, basically all suit-coat, topped in an enlarged head with a prominent nose, dispassionate eyes fixed in the distance and a firm set to the mouth above his double chin. The signature reads “O.M.” for Oscar Monet — Claude Monet was christened Oscar-Claude Monet and went by, and signed his artwork as, Oscar Monet until his early 20s.

As a teenager in Normandy, Monet drew caricatures on the streets of iconic figures around town. At age 15, Eugène Boudin, an established landscape painter and one of the first French artists to paint outdoors, spotted Monet at work, sketching the architecture and the nearby landscapes and drawing caricatures of Le Havre businessmen. Boudin slowly persuaded Monet to add his pencil to the growing momentum in the art movement, which hinged on a choice to paint outside that lead to a sense of immediacy and personal experience in artwork fundamental to the Impressionist movement. The caricature depicts an art dealer from Le Havre and a patron of Boudin’s work.

And where did Monet’s study of art with Boudin begin? In drawing, of course.

“After meeting Boudin he said, ‘My eyes finally were opened and I really understood nature. I learned at the same time to love it. I analyzed it in its form with a pencil, I studied it in its colorations,’” Medakovich recounts.

The caricature, done when Monet was 18 or 19 years old, is a bold, brave and cheeky interpretation of the man. In this elementary work, we see, yes, the certain skill of a nascent artist, but also, in that youthful exuberance, we see a boy not afraid to walk away from the traditions upheld by the men already at work in his art form. We see a young man who will grow into a rogue artist not afraid to ride the wave of a changing art world, challenge the French Academy, the maker and breaker of so many artistic careers and go on with the unwavering belief that his artistic choices, and not theirs, were the way in which art should be made.

* * *

In final form, Clyfford Still’s paintings take on a light, levitating feel — his late works in particular seem to capture cloud-like forms in mid-aerial rotation across a blank canvas atmosphere. His drawings, however, reveal the carpentry behind the final construction. You see him thinking things through, adding weight, changing colors but maintaining the same composition, shifting emphasis, deciding, like any good editor does, that less can be more, and the heavier strokes thin out as he moves from ink to oil or crayon and paper to oil and canvas. That’s the conversation highlighted in the Clyfford Still Museum’s group curatorial effort Drawing/Painting/Process, which exhibits oil paintings alongside paper drawings Still made. It’s a flexing of the museum’s collection of more than 2,200 works on paper Still preserved, and some 94 percent of all the artwork the artist produced.

Still’s work went both ways — sometimes an oil painting was produced from a drawing, and sometimes the painting produced the drawing. The conversation with his own body of work was ongoing.

“More than anything else, Still was returning to his own art for inspiration,” says Sobel, who co-curated the exhibition with Senior Consulting Curator David Anfam and Collections Manager Bailey Harberg. “Drawings aren’t considered only a step to something else. So in Still’s case, he would even use oil paint on paper or they would be place holders for other ideas as he works through other similar compositions on canvas or on paper.”

Given their sheer numbers, Sobel says, it’s clear they were a vital part of his artistic process, but Still did not exhibit these drawings in his lifetime.
They’ve spent the decades carefully stored in archival boxes, and arrived that way at the museum, where conservation staff began the task of documenting them and matting them for exhibition. Some are so sensitive to light that they’re hung with gray fabric curtains just the size of the frame over them, which each viewer must lift to take a look at the pastel drawing on colored construction paper underneath.

“We call it almost like an exhumation, you know, digging up a life or a body,” Sobel says. “In early 2012 we started that inventory, and that’s exactly what led to this exhibition. Over the year and a half it was like, ‘Wow, that looks familiar,’ and ‘That relates to something, but I can’t remember what,’ and it started to organize itself in a certain way as we started to learn more about the drawings.”

Still’s paintings had been photographed, so when conservation staff unfurled them from the rolls in which they had been stored, they knew largely what to expect. But the drawings had virtually no visual record.

“We actually had to see them,” Sobel says. “It’s part of that reveal, the discovery of all this, which is still ongoing.”

Still’s studies and experimentations with abstract forms are hung alongside their final expression in oil paintings — as are the anatomical drawings he completed displayed beside drawings in which abstracted forms just hint at the vestiges of a skeleton.

In an interview, Still once described the farmworkers in western Washington, where he grew up, as “men and machines ripping a meager living from the thin top soil” with “arms bloodied to the elbows from shucking wheat.” That memory of farmworkers’ bloodied hands and the toll taken in trying to rip a life from the stubborn land of a Depression-era farm seem to have haunted him for years to follow.

In the 1930s, before Still had abandoned recognizable human figures for pure abstraction, he completed a series of paintings hung together now. In them, we see him engaging again and again with a figure he takes from a black-and-white photograph of a man leaning against a car. “PH-644,” from 1934, shows a loosely drawn blue field and a man in blue coveralls leaning against a blue tractor, his over-large cherry red hands dangling from the end of arms draped over the side of a blue tractor.
Still returned to that figure two years later, this time rendering him in pen and ink, showing an increasing reduction of form in favor of line. In the same year, he completed a large oil painting of a farmhand holding a scythe, his elongated features typical of Still’s paintings of farm workers.

Then comes “PH-324” — also from 1936, which shows the hints of that figure in just the hook of a face with two tiny spots for eyes, with the massive, beast-like hands that have appeared in every rendition. Nowhere else is it more clear that when Still had finally reduced his paintings to those singular strong lines and ephemeral clouds he was still talking about humanity than it is here, where we watch the human form being slowly pared down to its bare essence.

“I think it’s authentic, I don’t think it’s just curatorial license here,” Sobel says. “Legitimately that’s what’s really happening. He’s just abstracting, and we’ve kind of known this anyways, but he’s abstracting those things — landscape, figure machinery, clothing, etcetera, and I think that reveals that pretty definitively.”

In a series of landscapes produced early in his career, we see a pastel rendition of a canyon from 1923, then he treats the same landscape in a pencil sketch in a work dating to roughly the same year. A decade later, he comes back and renders that same view in pen and ink. The horizon once so dense with shadows and color is reduced to black singular lines and yet it feels most truly, honestly present in that simplicity.

In a delightful duo from 1942, “PH-550” and “PH-757” (Still was adamant about leaving his canvases unnamed to give their interpretation entirely to the viewer), PH-550’s flourishes of near-primary yellow and orange in geometric forms are replaced with caramel, burgundy and near navy blue. The spindly forms that look more mechanical on paper feel, on canvas, reedy, organic, plantlike. The move from one medium to the next — and the exhibition includes, alongside the oil paintings for which Still is most well known, watercolors, pastels, pen and ink drawings as well as lithographs and wood carvings — changes the shapes of recurring compositions.
Sometimes, he comes back to entirely reconceived forms, as in 1938’s “PH-297,” an oil painting of geologic features with undulating profiles which are then recast in the hard lines of a lithograph in 1944’s “PH-15.”

Like any artist, Sobel says, Still was at play with what a medium change could to do change the image itself.

“Still, especially, knew that paint itself and the way you apply it and the properties of paint and the way it can be varied, wet or dry or et cetera, is and can be a powerful expressive agent,” Sobel says. “What you’re feeling when you see an abstract expressionist like Clyfford Still is often times your own response to that paint. It is what’s communicating as opposed to a subject, a portrait or a landscape.”

A trio of paintings show him employing a similar color scheme of black, brown and a flourish of red, in pastel, in oil on canvas and then again in oil on paper. The move from pastels to oil and canvas just reaffirms how oil paint asserts itself as indispensable in Still’s particular style in his mature works — the texture of the palette knife-applied paint gives a sense of movement lost in the even surface of the pastel in “PH-128.” The oil rendition — hung between two similar compositions in which Still visibly plays with the weight of various colors on the canvas and the width of a central brown form — has a sense of gesture and an ability to capture the moment, the gesture of the artist’s hand at work.

In the extraordinary “PH-87,” Still appears to have applied teal paint to the canvas and then scribbled through it with the point of his palette knife. Gesture, indeed.
It’s in vast contrast to the work of the French artists in the neighboring museum, where finished works are ones in which the actions of their hands are all but invisible behind smooth, painterly surfaces — leaving their drawings as the only place to get close to their hands. When Impressionists began to leave texture in the paint surface, the works were called “unfinished,” but it paved the way for an aesthetic that could accept seeing the brushstrokes on the canvas. Still picks that conversation up in many of his mature works, and the brushstrokes become a foundational element in experiencing the work.

And yet, at the end of his career, as he moves toward compositions with an airy, breathless feel and less use of the vertical lines that often dominate the middle part of his career, the number of drawings he’s producing increases. Of the 2,200 works on paper at the museum, about 900 of them were made in the last 15 years of Still’s 60-year career.

“What I find striking in Still’s later paintings, the last paintings especially, is that in many ways they look like big pastels. … I think they are absolutely informing each other,” Sobel says. “As drawing went up in his career, painting stayed about the same, but the relationships between the two — and I mean more the quality, not the actual, this drawing was made larger into a painting — but it’s the quality of the paintings that seem to be coming right from those pastels.”

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