Compass at Martin-Gropius-Bau: Navigating the world of Contemporary Drawing

by Jessyca Hutchens // Mar. 16, 2011

Around 2005, I did two things: undertook a course called the History of Drawing and got myself a copy of Phaidon’s Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. The course, much to my disappointment, was fairly archaic in approach. The history of drawing was treated as a parallel history to the main event, always seen in relation to how it reflected or enhanced an artists “other” work or otherwise documented (in an incidental way) the movement they were associated with. The Phaidon book, by contrast, displayed quite the opposite sentiment, showcasing contemporary artists from around the world working nearly exclusively in the medium of drawing. My course had missed the point. The book (amongst many others) was just beginning to grasp it. Although drawing, as a medium in and of itself, has been on the rise since the 1900s, only in recent times has it achieved more universal acceptance. The sheer number of new artists emerging in the last two decades who treat drawing as a primary or essential practice, have stimulated interest in a medium that can no longer simply be dismissed as preparation, documentation or illustration. It was quite timely then, that in 2003, Harvey S. Shipley Miller, on behalf of the Judith Rothschild Foundation, began amassing an expansive collection of drawings with the intention of donating it to a major museum. The collection took in the new and the old, the known and relatively unknown as well as the outermost limits of what may be considered drawing. The collection was acquired in its totality by MoMA in 2005, and a selection of these works is currently on display at Martin-Gropis-Bau as the comprehensive Compass exhibition.

The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection numbers some 2,500 works on paper and includes over 650 artists. Most remarkably, over half of these artists (close to 350) were not formerly featured in MoMA’s collection. This fact alone shows the collections significance to younger and lesser-known artists and attests to it being a truly new collection – one that covers fresh ground. As Miller has suggested, this collecting style is reminiscent of MoMA’s early years when, under the Directorship of the enigmatic Alfred Barr, Jr., the institution took many risks on emerging artists. [1] Miller, with the assistance of MoMA curator Gary Garrels and independent curator André Schlechtriem, set out on this ambitious collecting project without a clear focus in mind. The result is a collection that is in some ways definitive, yet also inclusive and open-ended. Miller has described it as panoramic rather than encyclopedic. While incredibly wide-ranging, the collection does not purport to be the final word on contemporary drawing, but rather a unique snapshot of a whole confluence of histories, stories and perspectives from the time it was collected.

The challenge for Martin-Gropius-Bau and curator Christian Rattemeyer, was in how to distill such an expansive collection into a single exhibition. While Compass includes just10% of the total collection, it is still comprehensive, managing neither to limit the scope of the original collection nor attempt to represent it in full. Of the relationship between the collection and exhibition Rattemeyer explains,” the exhibition may serve as a first guide into its vast inner reservoirs, touching on the core principles that have determined its gestalt and philosophy.”[2] In terms of display, Rattemeyer seems to employ just about every trick in the contemporary curator’s book. Works are grouped thematically and stylistically, paired to promote comparison, shown in art historical groupings, installed directly onto the wall and displayed in sprawling clusters that seem to move through multiple possible connections. In many ways, art audiences have grown accustomed to such shifting modes of display, which, at worst, can sometimes feel like a “something for everyone” approach. In this case though, the curation is so intimately bound to the broader collection, anything more focused would no longer bear its resemblance. In all, the exhibition provides the perfect cross-section, a slice of the thing itself rather than a summary.

The definition of drawing encompassed by the exhibition is quite expansive. Indeed, the only single defining feature of all of the pieces on display is that they are considered “works on paper.” Everything from a faint scrawl (Joseph Beuys, Blut/Nerven, 1974) to a printed photograph (Sol LeWitt, A Photograph of Mid-Manhattan with the Area between The Plaza, Ansonia, Biltmore and Carlyle Hotels Removed (R 770), 1978) comes under the umbrella. In many popular definitions of drawing, the term mark making is often bandied about. While this term is certainly reflected in the exhibition, it is not the outermost limit. An obvious exception would be the collages, assemblages and appropriations included. In Christian Holstad’s work, drawing is reduced to pure subtraction. The artist erases and otherwise manipulates newspaper print to create eerie new images via the removal of parts of the original. The exhibition includes many works that would more commonly be described as belonging to some other category, many of the Conceptual works for instance, or the works bordering on installation. The Cy Twombly piece included is arguably one of his more “painterly” pieces, with only the faintest suggestion of his characteristic crayon scribbles present. What Compass reveals is that as artists have pushed the boundaries of drawing ever outward, our retrospective understanding of the medium has also shifted.

While Compass does not follow a linear art-historical narrative, it does make frequent connections between the past and present. These connections are shown to be infinitely more complex than the usual story – one that often simply distinguishes between the process-based and material concerns of the 60s and 70s and the far more illustrative, narrative-based styles that have prevailed in the last two decades, often assumed to be a return to Nineteenth Century style figuration. The inclusion of artists such as Raymond Pettibon and Henry Darger, who both rose to recognition during the 70s and 80s, are evidence of more temporal influences. Dargers’ illustrated writings were discovered posthumously in 1973, and his naïve and fantastical imagery have had a profound impact on so-called ‘indie’ culture from music, to design to art. Pettibon, famous for his comic book aesthetic, is both a music and art-world icon, doing covers for bands such as Black Flag and Sonic Youth, while inspiring a new generation of illustrators and artists. This link to, and inclusion in popular culture is also a strong feature of many of the newer artists, for whom the line between artist and illustrator has become increasingly blurred (and irrelevant).

One small section of the exhibition (thematically arranged), seems almost eponymous – a collection of pieces relating to maps. Amongst them are Mona Hatoum’s drawn upon maps (British of Palestinian origin, born in Beirut Lebanon, Routes II, 2002), and Öyvind Fahlström’s Sketch for World Map, 1972. Hatoums’ work feels autobiographical, a personal narrative transposed onto the objective reality of cool, factual maps. Fahlstörm’s piece is almost the reverse of this; a hand-drawn, highly idiosyncratic map that projects the artists politically charged world-view. In both there is a dual sense of searching and finding, exploring and documenting, sentiments that reverberate throughout the exhibition. Drawing once considered an exploratory process (used to map out ideas), is now the thing that we must explore. Its outer limits are vast, its inner worlds are infinite.

[1]Rattemeyer, Christian, Compass in Hand: Assessing Drawing Now, Catalogue for Compass: Drawings of the Museum of Modern Art New York, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin., p. 38.
[2]Harvey S. Shipley Miller and Gary Garrels interviewed by Cornelia Butler and Chistian Rattemeyer, Catalogue for Compass: Drawings of the Museum of Modern Art New York, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin., p. 15.

Additional Info

“Compass: Drawings of the Museum of Modern Art New York”
Exhibition: Mar. 11–May 29, 2011
Open: Wed.–Mon.: 10am–8pm, Tues. closed, at Easter and Tues. following Easter (April, 26, 2011): 10am–8pm.
Niederkirchner Straße 7, Berlin, click here for map

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