Art Review: The Drawing Center Presents

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Painted Drawings by Dorothea Tanning & Leon Golub

Situated in the Soho section of Manhattan, The Drawing Center with its annex, The Drawing Room, exists to promote drawing as an artistic practice in its own right.  Since 1977, when this nonprofit exhibition space was established to foster emerging and under-recognized artists, it has mounted shows of historical, contemporary and innovative work.  Designed to demonstrate the important place of this modality in the art of many cultures, many genres and many eras, The Drawing Center has brought a much needed emphasis to drawing as the foundation of all art.

The notion of what constitutes a drawing has broadened considerably since the first prehistoric tracings of hands on cave walls millennia ago.  During the Renaissance,  Michelangelo said of this art form,

“Let this be plain to all: design (disegno), or as it is called by another name, drawing (tratto), constitutes the fountain-head and substance of painting and sculpture and architecture and every other kind of painting and is the root of all sciences.” (1)

Times change and many of the drawings exhibited over the years by The Drawing Center might have left the Old Master pulling at his beard.

The drawings of Dorothea Tanning’s Early Designs for the Stage on view in The Drawing Room consist of watercolor or gouache and ink on paper while across the street at The Drawing Center, the drawings in Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion? are mostly oil stick and ink on vellum or Bristol  with the occasional paper and acrylic.

All these paintings, although works of art in their own right, were designed for specific purposes.  In the case of Tanning’s, they provided instructions for creating costumes and sets for three ballets.  For Golub, they expressed ideas that, had he the time and the strength, would have found their way into his usually expansive paintings.

The 99-year-old Dorothea Tanning (b. 1910), the oldest living surrealist, met the choreographer George Balanchine in 1945 at a party hosted by New York art dealer Julien Levy.  Soon after, they began collaborating on producing the ballet Night Shadow (using music arranged by Vittorio Rietti based on operas by Vincenzo Bellini) in which the Poet becomes enamored of the Coquette at a masquerade ball, meets the Somnambulist (sleep walker), ends up murdered by the Host at the behest of the jealous Coquette and gets spirited away by the Somnambulist.

The otherworldly quality of La Sonnambula (the name by which it has been known since its 1960 staging) and of the other two ballets for which Tanning also designed sets and costumes, Bayou and The Witch, provided fertile ground for the artist’s surrealistic imagination.  The fantastic characters depicted appear to have stepped right out of Tanning’s paintings though their rendering suggests images from children’s picture books.  Gracefully executed, they both delight and intrigue.

With some of the same mystery inherent in Tanning’s creations, in works he produced during the last five years of his life, Leon Golub (1922-2004) stared down his own mortality.  At 72, no longer able to summon the physical effort required to execute the large paintings he developed with repeated scraping and repainting, Golub returned to his roots as a draftsman.  After studying drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1940s, he had spent the next two decades producing large, graphically based works.  It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that he shifted his energies toward painting.

In an interview that took place five months before Golub’s death, the artist had this to say about drawing:

“There’s something about a big painting that says, ‘Let’s be serious, this is a big item!’  Just by scale and ‘cosmic’ intentionality!…A small drawing says, ‘You don’t have to be so tight!  OK?  If you flub it, so what?  The wastebasket is under the table!’” (2)

Considering how harshly most artists criticize their own work, Golub’s wastebasket must have been a treasure trove of discards.  Nonetheless, 440 eight by tens did survive, about 60 of which were on display in the huge square gallery of The Drawing Center, punctuated by two centrally located vitrines containing, in one, the contents of a folder of photographs, ideas for paintings, and in the other, oil stick sketches of backgrounds for drawings.

Perhaps the exhibit’s title, Live & Die Like a Lion?, taken from the picture (2002) of the same name, was chosen because FUCK DEATH (1999), although the earliest piece in the show and therefore introductory to the rest, might present problems for the publicity department.  Golub was never one to “go gentle into that dark night,” raging as he always did against the abuse of power.  His late work continued that tradition, though this time he was raging “…against the dying of the light.”

Aging artists down through the centuries have tended to loosen up in order to speed up their artistic production, and have altered styles and mediums to accommodate their disabilities.  Think Monet’s failing eyesight and his disintegrating form in his late years, Chardin’s late self portraits in pastel, and the elderly Titian’s expressionistic brush strokes.  So many ideas, so little time.

Golub made good use of his remaining years, confronting the specter of death with images of old lions like the one holding a sign that says Getting Old Sucks (2000), of skeletons like the purple skull of FUCK DEATH, of resistance to enslavement epitomized by the man struggling against his bonds in NO ESCAPE NOW (2002) and the man with bared, white teeth in I DO NOT BEND BENEATH THE YOKE (2002) whose bald head lends it the air of self portraiture.  Golub’s many depictions of erotica–nudes, satyrs, and couples copulating–brought to mind Picasso’s late etchings of the Minotaur and his model:  the last flickering of a dimming libido.

With a palette of mostly uncut colors–red, blue, turquoise, green, orange–and occasional black, grey and brown, Golub’s “drawings” contain the words of their titles, perhaps in an attempt to render unambiguous his intentions, using all caps when he felt compelled to shout.

Older artists can be expected to incorporate in their work themes related to aging and death simply by virtue of their developmental stage.  The tandem Tanning exhibit flashed back to her younger years.  A more satisfying coupling with the Golub show would have included her latest, or last, drawings accompanied by her most recent writing; she has in her advanced years given herself over to her other great love, writing.  For highly creative people like these two, “[o]ld age should burn and rage at close of day.”

1  Stephanie Buck, editor, Michelangelo’s Dream, (London: The Courtauld Gallery, 2010), p. 105.
2 “Leon Golub with Douglas Dreishpoon,” Art in America (April 2010), p. 111.

Dorothea Tanning’s Early Designs for the Stage
Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion?
The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10013

Catalog available for each exhibit.