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Four Decades of Drawing @ Berggruen

Sam Messenger, Veil from Anapos, 2014, ink, pigment and rain water on paper, 18 x 18"
“Conceivably, drawing may be the most haunting obsession the mind can experience.”  — Paul Valery, 1938
Drawing arguably remains the oldest and most constant thing in art.  How drawings are made, and the reasons for making them are as diverse as the artists who make them.  The work on view in this must-see, museum quality show primarily emphasizes work made from a place of intimacy.  The direct mark making, the evidence of hand, and the calibration of touch offer a powerful sense of the artist’s presence in the act of making. 
Roy Lichtenstein, Study for Studio International Cover, 1967

Much of it comes from artists who are instantly recognizable.  Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close, for example, can be easily spotted at forty paces.  Still, it’s affecting to see them staring back at us from a distance of four decades.  Roy Lichtenstein’s colored pencil and pasted paper Study for Studio International Cover (1967) is a humble, spontaneous, deft composition of positive and negative space.  Its loosely drawn pencil lines show Lichtenstein’s thought in action.  An early Chuck Close, Leslie (1977), is a delicate grid of pastel, graphite, and watercolor on watercolor-washed paper.  Close’s characteristic dots are placed with care, even tentatively, as if he is still questioning the possibilities for the work.  

Ed Ruscha’s Report (2007) is a moody acrylic painting on paper.  The dusky purple palette evokes a sky like a setting bruise, and the off-register stencil used for the text slows the eye, inviting the viewer to consider the process of its making.
The strongest works in this show are both the most delicate and fiercest.  Richard Serra’s Tracks #10 (2007) and Transparency #4 (2012) are aggressive slashes and gashes of black litho crayon and paint stick on paper.  They look like skid marks, smearing a powerful, primal line into road tar under a midday sun.  The physical tactility of Serra’s work, its greasy particles of matter can be gut-wrenching.  There is no hesitancy in his gesture.  His work is made from a collision of impulse and material by a massive, burly paw, beastly and thrilling.
Tom Friedman, NYtimes on Xmas, 2007, 23 x 26"

On the other side of sensory spectrum, Tom Friedman and Sam Messenger offer delicate, obsessively cut and drawn works that rely on the grid to encapsulate the image.   Friedman’s NYtimes on Xmas (2007) is a lacy, ephemeral scrim of incised shapes made like a child’s cut-paper snowflake or doily.  But in Friedman’s hands the unfolded paper is barely recognizable as newspaper.  Glints of red printer’s ink appear seemingly at random as the cuts mediate the text, creating a confounding array of seemingly effortless configurations.  Friedman “draws” with a knife, extracting paper to create a dazzling, decorative mosaic of shapes. 

Sam Messenger’s two pieces, Veil from Anapos and Veil from Mentha, (both 2014), conjure webs or mended nets in a relentless inevitability of his rule-based line. Over a gray, water-spattered ground Messenger paints a fine-spun white line that begins from the premise of making triangles.  As the line is inevitably altered by tiny

Chuck Close, Leslie, 1977

incremental changes in length or angle, the shapes widen, enlarge and expand in a mesmerizing display of linear spectacle.  The work is bewitching. 

The show is not without flaws. Robert Longo, Julie Mehretu, Sean Scully and Christopher Brown present lackluster work that seems disengaged from its making, relying on shop-worn graphic strategies.  And women are given short shrift:  Out of 30 artists only three are female.  Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Dorothea Rockburne, Ellen Gallagher and Eva Hesse are notably absent.  Yes, there is the magnificent Vija Celmins, but her magical skies risk becoming old chestnuts if we are to continue seeing them over and over again.    
“Four Decades: Drawings and Works on Paper” @ John Berggruen Gallery through June 28, 2014. 
All photos this article courtesy of John Berggruen Gallery except Sam Messenger, Veil from Anapos – courtesy Maxwell Davidson Gallery; and Mark di Suvero, Untitled – courtesy the artist and John Berggruen Gallery.
About the Author:
Julia Couzens is a Sacramento-based artist and writer whose work has been widely shown, most recently at the di Rosa Preserve.  Her drawings and hybrid objects are in museum and public collections throughout the U.S.  These include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts; Berkeley Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina; and Yale University.  She lives and works on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta. 

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