On The Importance of Drawing

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Following is the text of a lecture I gave at The New York Studio School on April 10, 1996. It was written before Chelsea became the commercial hub of the international art scene–note the antiquated nod to SoHo–and before virtual reality became the cultural legerdemain. (Alas, some things never change: see the not-so-antiquated mention of Jeff Koons.) At a time when art rooted in observed phenomena is increasingly pooh-poohed as unnecessary, I thought it a good time to post the talk. Some minor stylistic changes have been made. Otherwise the words remain the same as they were sixteen years ago; certainly, the sentiments are unchanged.

One of my favorite anecdotes involves a family friend, an erudite gentleman very much of the old school–a cosmopolitan in touch with the verities of culture. Upon learning that I had studied to become a painter, the first question asked was not whether I was a successful artist. It was: Can you draw? The question rankled. As an art student, I was drilled in drawing from the figure and had achieved a certain proficiency as a draftsman. My first answer to “Can you draw” was:  Well, sure. My second response was: Why should that matter?

The questioning of my drawing abilities chagrined me for some time. Not because I felt it to be an insulting question, but because, as an art student, I had resented being required to take innumerable figure drawing and painting classes toward the completion of my degree. I received my BFA from the University of Utah in 1984. While it is a city renowned for many things, art isn’t one of them. Among the cluster of artists working in Salt Lake there was a wry bemusement about their standing in relation to the country’s cultural centers and, especially, New York. As a serious young art student–and young art students are usually a very serious bunch–I, too, was aware of my cultural isolation. Consequently, I gobbled up all of the glossy art magazines in an attempt to capture just an iota of all the goings-on in the New York gallery scene. That is, of course, when I found time between all of those damned figure drawing classes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photo © 2011 Jim Steinhart

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When I arrived in New York City in the mid-80s, a curious thing happened. When I was able–finally!–to view the art I had read so much about, I found it less than thrilling. A lot of it wasn’t thrilling at all. While there was good art to be seen in the galleries, I spent more time than I ever thought I would standing in front of Old Master paintings at the Met. I came to the realization that this made me, in the estimation of some of my peers, unhip. Well, better that than adulating the current crop of art stars. Why admire a bunch of guys who can’t, you know, draw?

I have since come to the conclusion that drawing–specifically, drawing from the figure–matters quite a lot. This, I realize, does not qualify as earth-shaking news. But I say it knowing that, in more than a few quarters of the art world, the notion of “good drawing” counts for little, if it is thought of at all. Even infrequent visitors to SoHo know that a lot of what is exhibited in the galleries has little to do with drawing, let alone what we value as art. Of the many things I know about Jeff Koons, and of the many things I wish I didn’t know about Jeff Koons, I am positive he could not care less about drawing. This indifference is only one reason, but an important one, why much contemporary art is pointless and ugly.

We live in the age of Conceptualism; we are, in fact, dominated by it. Conceptualism values intention over the object. Art, under these terms, is material proof of an artist’s idea. Conceptualism has little regard for tradition–forget the traditions of painting, drawing and sculpture. Conceptualism has, however, proven remarkably proficient at promoting novelty and is, in this regard, an unqualified success. This success has resulted in exhibitions that are full of stuff to see and nothing to look at. Conceptual Art isn’t art–it’s a vehicle for commentary that pimps the prestige of High Art. The artist’s very own smarts–that’s the locus of Conceptualism. It’s an inherently and inescapably narcissistic belief system.

* * *

What does all of this have to do with drawing? Conceptual artists make a lot of drawings, of a sort anyway. And the world has never been lacking for narcissists. But it’s no coincidence that the rise of Conceptualism, both in our museums and in the academy, corresponds to the devaluation of traditional schooling in the arts. Who needs to go through the rigors of drawing from the figure–you know, with anatomy and proportions and stuff–if all an artist has to do is find a predictably outrageous outlet for a predictably outrageous opinion? (Besides finding an audience that will be predictably outraged by it.) What on earth does that have to do with drawing?

Not much and everything. This begs the question: What is drawing or, should I say, good drawing? Whenever I’m confronted by the question, I’m tempted to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s response, in 1964, when asked to define pornography:  “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” A glib answer, sure, but it is handy, particularly in a field where seeing is everything. How can anyone present the astonishing representational clarity of a drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres alongside, say, the groping, abstract scratching of Philip Guston? They are so dissimilar as to make the comparison absurd. But both are good drawings. What links them, I would suggest, is a thorough and disciplined grounding in drawing from life.

To be schooled in drawing, and to carry the lessons learned from it throughout a lifetime of creating art, involves a constant questioning of the world of appearances and things. It requires a willingness to meet with a person or an object halfway, to get outside of oneself if only for a moment, and to convey that experience to another person through marks made on a flat surface. The work of Alberto Giacometti attests to the difficulty inherent in such an enterprise. It also attests to the beauty that can be elicited when such a project is undertaken with diligence, receptivity, a sense of history, a modicum of talent and luck.

Alberto Giacometti, Drawing of Van Gogh on a page of John Rewald’s’ 1961 book on Post-Impressionism; photo by Eykyn Maclean, courtesy The New York Times

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Giacometti considered this enterprise doomed to failure (we should all be failures on the scale of Giacometti), and I don’t want to suggest that being a capable draftsman alone qualifies one as a major artist. There are plenty of people who can draw a convincing likeness of a person or a thing, but who we would hesitate to call artists. David Hockney can draw very well, but I wouldn’t consider him a good painter so much as an amiable illustrator. Nor does being an uninspired draftsman necessarily lead to uninspired art. Cézanne was a clunky hand at drawing and yet the art of the last century is unimaginable without him. But Cézanne is an exception to the rule and, on the whole, the rule holds. Drawing from life is an integral grounding to the creation of significant art.

While this grounding may be obvious in the case of representational artists, with abstract artists the connection can be slippery. It is, nonetheless, there. If we ask that a painting or sculpture be an autonomous object–a thing with its own inherent vitality–it must also have some connection with the world it occupies. If we ask that a painter create a convincing illusion of a world, then it is necessary to have had an encounter with actual objects and actual space. The art critic Robert Hughes wrote that “the philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.” Anyone who attended the great Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art can attest to the truth of this statement. What we learn from Mondrian is that drawing from life can inform abstract art just as it can with figurative art. It can serve as a scaffolding for art which veers away from representation. Drawing is an armature that can be overt and covert.

That is why we accept the distortions of the human form in a painting by Max Beckmann as natural–because they are of a piece pictorially. You would never mistake his anatomical exaggerations, which can approach the cartoonish but are never without a certain stubborn gravity, for those of an amateur. One of my favorite aspects of Beckmann’s work is how a figure will be distorted only to be pinched by an area of “anatomical correctness”. You see this in Matisse’s work; Picasso and de Kooning’s as well. These artists lay foundations for their pictorial inventions by anchoring them with snippets of tangibility. Drawing is an indispensable component in the structuring of a work of art, as well as the means by which is it animated by lived experience.

Max Beckmann, The Night (1918-19), oil on canvas, 52-3/8″ x 60-1/4″; courtesy Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen

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For the past few years, I have been teaching a basic drawing course for Pratt Institute’s School of Professional Studies. Of the many lessons I’ve taken away from teaching, one has stayed with me more than most. And it resulted from a student who was, yes, the bad apple who spoils the bunch.

This student insisted on snorting, snuffling and guffawing through each drawing session, incessantly making snide comments about the other student’s drawings, as well as his own. This was, however, until one evening when I had the students warm-up with a blind contour drawing–an exercise wherein the students draw a person or object without looking at the paper. I had set up a still-life featuring a single object: an old fashioned meat grinder, a wonderfully sinuous contraption that I had purchased at a flea market. It was a good thing to draw; my students were given an hour to do so. It was a peculiarly silent hour. Not a peep was heard from the students, least of all my troublesome student. He was drawing with an intensity that was out of character. He kept his mouth shut for 47 minutes. (I timed it.)

During the break, this student approached me. “I want to tell you something. I wasn’t drawing the meat-grinder. I was experiencing it.” He was shaken and I was pleased–for two reasons. First: after this “experience”, my student pretty much kept his mouth shut for the remainder of the semester. Second: I like to think my student’s world had become a little larger and a little richer. That such an experience arose from, of all things, a meat-grinder, says a lot about the peculiarities inherent in the creative process.

Nicolas Poussin, Crossing the Red Sea (1647), pen and brush, brown wash and black chalk, 7-1/2″ x 13″; courtesy The Academy of the Arts, Petrograd

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The platitude that art makes us see the world as if we’d never seen it before is ages old. It’s used by artists, teachers, critics and the chairs of arts organizations when they are explaining (or defending) their avowed purpose in contributing to culture. I don’t want to condone the promiscuous use of clichés, but they usually contain a kernel of truth, and this is a good one. Anyone who has stood in front of a picture or a sculpture and been moved by it knows what a pleasurable and unsettling experience it can be. It reaffirms that there are bigger things to know and that they can be known.

Which brings us back to drawing. One of my favorite quotes about drawing comes from John Berger, a critic with whom I often disagree but who, nonetheless, has sharp insights into art. In an essay titled “Drawing On Paper”, Berger describes a space within [a] drawing” that is “as large as the earth’s or the sky’s space . . .

“Poussin could create such a space; so could Rembrandt. That the achievement is rare . . . may be because such space only opens up when extraordinary mastery is combined with extraordinary modesty. To create such a space one has to know oneself to be very small.”

The notion that two of our greatest painters drew with “extraordinary modesty” presents a sobering lesson in creativity. Drawing is a humbling experience. Need I add that humbling experiences are those we learn the most from?

Drawing from life isn’t an all-purpose panacea to what ails the art of our time. But drawing can form a link to what is out there, a connection with the world and with others. This might seem a hokey sentiment, but only when placed within the narrow legacy of Conceptualism, which has traded in an increasingly debased cynicism since Marcel Duchamp finished putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Drawing isn’t an imposition on the world–as, I would argue, Conceptualism is–but a way in which the eye and, by implication, the mind and heart, remain open to it. This is why drawing remains the primary foundation of art. This is why Giacometti’s failures are anything but and why Mondrian felt the need to add some boogie-woogie to his geometry. Drawing from life has been a precondition of art since Day One. There is no reason for it to be otherwise today.

© 2012 Mario Naves

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  • Michelle Kelly  On November 9, 2012 at 8: 28 pm

    Thank you for so beautifully articulating why drawing always matters. As a teacher of foundation drawing and painting, and in my own often abstract work, I become more aware of this daily.

  • John McLaughlin  On November 11, 2012 at 12: 17 pm

    I will disagree with most of the debate (or argument)–a purely western thought on art and drawing. The always big question—what makes a “good drawing”. I think I’m a very good artist (self taught), but I admit I’m a terrible drawer. It took me many years to finally get over that and pursue my artistic ideas and not worry about proficient drawing.

    I think drawing to whatever skill level or whatever the artist is trying to say is all that matters. If stick figures gets your point across then stick figures it is. For instance Basquiat was a good artist—he wasn’t very good at drawing. I think academeia will always preach drawing because what else would you teach in an art class?

    I don’t want to sound like I’m condemning teachers or instructors, they are good for beginners because they provide—the means—the support—the encouragement—which is great to have. But you can’t teach art.

  • duvalbydesign  On November 14, 2012 at 11: 21 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this, as it definitely solidified my own attitude on drawing, especially figure drawings. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

  • Ernest Agoba  On February 10, 2014 at 4: 41 am

    The world is running amock. Conceptualism fills our canvasses the same way poignant air chokes our nostrils. There appears to be corrolaries of some sorts in almost all spheres of the arts, particularly music. I think the problem with art is that the bad and escapist artists are proving their points and the good artists just keep nodding.

  • sheila chapman  On March 1, 2014 at 6: 28 am

    Hi. I enjoyed this piece of writing. I am doing a part-time art degree at a Scottish art college and am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the kind of art that is being encouraged the most, namely the conceptualist intermedia stuff. Drawings (even if in a contemporary style) feel like increasingly unfashionabl art.

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