“The Thaw Collection” at The Morgan Library

Gauguin imagePaul Gaugin, Study for Breton Girls Dancing (1888), pastel, charcoal, watercolor and gouache on cream-colored paper; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum

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Whatever else you can say about it, The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Acquisitions Since 2002 offers instructive examples of how artists have dealt with the challenge of drawing foliage. Do they depict it en masse or one leaf at a time? As impressionistic mélange or botanical artifacts? The forest or the trees? The nineteenth-century German engraver Heinrich Reinhold bridged the gap by honing in on the specificities of this leaf or that vine within a broader orchestration of tangled branches. Adrian Zingg, Reinhold’s Swiss contemporary, codified nature by transforming it into jagged shards of patterning. In a spare and scratchy ink drawing circa 1790, Jakob Philipp Hackert rendered foliage as an electrical current. One hundred years later, Edgar Degas elicited the natural world through frantic areas of smudged pastel.

There’s more to Acquisitions Since 2002 than a sterling array of stylistic how-tos, not least the generosity of the former art dealer Eugene V. Thaw and his wife Clare. The current exhibition is the fifth at the Morgan devoted to the Thaw Collection. (A concurrent show at the museum, Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection, highlights another aspect of the couple’s artistic interests.) Since 1975, the Thaws have donated over four hundred drawings to the Morgan, often with the intent of filling gaps in the museum’s holdings. That feels like the case here: Any exhibition that traverses an ink study for a Renaissance temple and The Factory—or, at least, Jamie Wyeth’s Andy Warhol—Facing Left (Study #2) (1976)—is, by definition, a grab-bag.

But, so what? Complaints are niggling given the quality of the couple’s gift to posterity. Acquisitions Since 2002 spans five centuries and includes reputations great, small, and unknown. Consistency is maintained by force of purpose and vision. Eugene and Clare’s eyes—keenly informed, stringent, and attuned to exquisite minutiae—are readily discernible, as are their idiosyncratic enthusiasms: the couple’s devotion to nineteenth-century German drawing, for example. The exhibition includes a number of curiosities. There’s the aforementioned Warhol portrait—Wyeth’s expert use of white gouache does justice to the Pop artist’s sickly pallor—but also a silvery depiction of the Bay of Naples by Goethe, an engaging zoological study of a brown bear, and a contour drawing of the Virgin and Child by a brother of the Brothers Grimm.

Drawings of architecture are in ample supply; all of them are accomplished, many are more than that. View from Chiaia to Pizzofalcone, Naples (1783), the only extant watercolor by the Welsh artist Thomas Jones, is an immaculate sorting of geometry keyed to a startling, antiseptic light. Conjecture has it that Josephus Augustus Knip’s The Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome (c. 1810) is unfinished, but the stark areas of uninflected paper surrounding the title edifice are part and parcel of the artist’s exacting linearity. In several pieces, draftsmen combine perspective and light to engender moody dioramas of solitude and spiritual yearning. The dramatic chiaroscuro of François-Marius Granet’s Two Monks in a Cloister would have made Rembrandt smile. The vertiginous space and encompassing quietude in Carl Gustav Carus’s A Monk in a Cloister presage de Chirico, while his Fountain Before a Temple (1854–57) is as ripe a Romantic image as you could hope for.

French artists are handsomely represented here. Ingres, that prince of the draftsman’s art, is represented by three drawings—finds, really: a recently discovered equestrian study and fetching portraits of a young aristocratic couple that haven’t been exhibited in close to a hundred years. Odilon Redon’s Reading Centaur is a superb example of this otherworldly artist’s gift for charcoal—its density, tactility, and flexibility. Gauguin’s mixed-media study for The National Gallery’s Breton Girls Dancing, Pont Aven is airy and roughhewn, its play of greens and grays at once soft and astringent. The graphic sensibilities of Félix Vallotton and Pierre Bonnard are seen to winning effect, as is Matisse’s calligraphic élan: Grande Visage I (Lydia) (1952) displays the great artist at his punchiest.

The modernist selections hop-scotch through different aesthetics—Dada, Cubism, Expressionism, The New York School, Minimalism, and, with Georgia O’Keeffe’s dusky graphite on manila paper of antelope horns, the American sublime. Intransigent loners like Alberto Giacometti and Joseph Cornell are accounted for. Duchamp’s big brother Jacques Villon’s brusquely cross-hatched drawing of a skull is out-of-left-field and welcome because of it. David Hockney rounds out the show with a charming picture of his pet dachsunds, but it’s Jackson Pollock you’ll remember best. Untitled (Abstract Ram) (c. 1944) may be a transitional work of scrabbled totems and Jungian portent, but its velvety patina, keyed to mint green, is unlike any Pollock I’ve encountered. There are greater drawings at the Morgan, but the Pollock’s unique character speaks to the acuity, independence, and, yes, the love that are the hallmarks of a great collection.

©  2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2009 edition of The New Criterion.

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