Between Them is an exhibition without a center or an argument. It is excessive: With 242 drawings created by 63 artists across five centuries, Between Them seems to aspire to chronicle all that drawing has been and can be. No matter how large, any such effort is doomed to failure. Nearly everyone draws at some point, so for each artist included in the show, there is another of equal stature left out. This would be inexcusable in an art-historical survey striving for impartiality and exhaustiveness. Instead, ?Between Them is more like a sprawling personal travelogue documenting the artistic exploits observed at the frontiers of a medium. Unlike an atlas, a good travel diary is personal: it reveals as much about the traveler as about the landscape. As an idiosyncratic portrait, Between Them is glorious, and its ostensible vices—vaulting ambition, unscholarly abandon, autobiographical logic—are what make it so.
Its organizer, gallerist Todd Hosfelt, has developed a distinctive curatorial style, organizing works into dense networks structured by affinities of form, pattern and color, history, biography and theme. Hosfelt has a keen intuition for the way that the experience in the gallery unfolds through space and time (sightlines and sequences). In his exhibitions, meaning comes as much from relationships between artworks as from the works themselves. This strategy is an immensely economical approach to creating meaning: Even a small number of works can give rise to a vast number of groupings, each of which generates different associations and focuses attention on different aspects of the works. The title Between Them refers to all of the potential relationships that generate meaning: between the curator and artworks, between artworks and viewers, and between the artworks themselves.
Drawing, as Hosfelt has envisioned it, appears to have the structure of a decentralized network, patterned through endlessly overlapping family resemblances without any single center of gravity. There are clusters within the show: a wall of geometric abstraction; a “death-and-destruction” wall, about nuclear disaster and environmental degradation; a grouping of faces; and another of map-like drawings. The exhibition is knit together by relationships that span these clusters. These relationships can reach all the way across the gallery, like the William T. Wiley sketch of globe facing Russell Crotty’s monumental landscape drawing on the surface of a sphere. One has a sense that it is possible to pick any contiguous set of artworks in the gallery and find a common theme which joins those artworks, and which is unique to them. This approach yields an astounding density of meaning.
Hosfelt maintains a point of view that is fiercely resistant to the authority of art-historical dogmas. It is true that Between Them contains works by artists widely considered central to contemporary drawing. Crotty, Eva Hesse and Shahzia Sikander were represented in important shows of contemporary drawing at MoMA in New York. Zarina Hashmi, Nasreen Mohamedi, Ed Ruscha and Fred Sandback are all featured in a recent survey published by the Tate. However, Between Them—which includes works from Hosfelt’s personal collection and others loaned from friends— is not limited to either the art-historical canon, or to the roster of artists the gallery represents. It is organized instead according to Hosfelt’s persistent fascinations with wordplay and wit; the sublime effects of repetitive, intricate labor; the pleasures and tragedies of technological invention—and, of course, drawing itself.
Justin Manley: This show is huge — I think it’s the largest show you’ve organized in the 23 years that Hosfelt Gallery has been around. How did it begin?
Todd Hosfelt: Between Them was just supposed to be a little group show for half of the gallery space. There were a few works that were in the show from the beginning: Bruce Conner’s Rorschach ink blots, Nam June Paik’s sketch for a musical score, the 18th-century Japanese painting of a man riding an ox. The Chinese drawing of insects came in because of the Bruce Connor piece. I had admired the drawing for a long time, but it was the insect quality of Conner’s inkblots that made me think about relating these things that were so culturally different and from such different times and places.
Beyond those works, I had a few things in mind: I knew I wanted to include Native American ledger drawings. Initially this kind of drawing would have happened on animal hide. Then, as Native Americans were forced onto reservations, the material that was most available to them was ledger paper—cast-off, secondhand paper from accounting books. It’s a record of a culture at the moment that it ended—literally the moment that it ceased to be. They feel important to me in that they express a deep human need to say: “I was here.” So I find them beautiful and interesting and really sad.
So when I started organizing this show, I thought: here’s my excuse. I can find some fucking ledger drawings for this show!
I also knew I wanted some Argentine and Uruguayan and Brazilian geometric abstraction from the fifties and sixties.
I started looking at those kinds of works and picking out pieces. I called friends. I called colleagues. I have a close friend who works with old master drawings. I talked with her early in the process and she helped me find the Italian and Dutch old master drawings in the show. If I was at dinner with somebody, I’d ask if they knew where I could get a particular kind of work. As I started finding these things, it was organic — it started to snowball.
I could have done a show that was all about these drawings that are unbelievable technical feats. Like this square composition by Jacob El Hanani, made by writing his signature thousands and thousands of times. It’s kind of frightening how small the signature is. Or this Bruce Conner, which is a white piece of paper covered in so many Sharpie marks that it looks like a black paper. Or this piece on black paper by Tyrell Collins, made by swirling a colored pencil. It’s all made out of tiny lines — so luminous.
I could do a show about horror vacui, the compulsion to fill a composition with detail so that no empty space is left over. But that’s been done before. I wanted to make a bigger show than that — not bigger physically, but bigger spiritually, or emotionally. But if you’re gonna do a show where you explore what drawing means, you can’t limit it to 50 drawings — it had to be something completely different. Between Them does not purport to define drawing. It offers ideas about what a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different places mean when they do drawing.
JM: Who is the audience for the show?
TH: I think art historians would look at this show and think it was the dog’s breakfast. Like — what the fuck does he think he’s doing? You can’t put this piece next to that piece. I think they’d hate it — the fact that it isn’t linear at all.
I’m interested in exhibiting the poetry and the humanity of drawing. There’s certainly an audience of people who come to this gallery regularly. So I’m doing it for them. I would guess that probably artists like this show better than anybody else. But the truth is, I really did this show for me. If the show doesn’t delight me, how is it going to delight anyone else?
There are galleries where there’s no point of view. They decide what to show because of politics or commerce or whatever. There may be an agenda there, but it doesn’t have any personal resonance. The galleries that I most respect have a point of view. I think every show I organize has a point of view — and it’s my point of view. I’m choosing these pieces because I’m engaged with an artist’s work, and I’m saying: “Look at this. This is cool.”
Between Them is a pretty personal show, partly because so many of the works in the show come from my personal collection. A few days before the show opened, Michael Light — an artist I represent — came by to see it while it was being installed, and he sent me an email later that he felt the exhibition allowed him access to the way I think and the way I look at the world.
I hope the rambling quality of the show signifies my interest in things beyond my experience, or outside what I normally see. With these works from different places and times and cultures, I’m looking to show their place in history and how they influence other things, as well as how related they are to each other, without knowing it.
JM: How do you hope your audience will respond to the drawings?
Whenever I'm putting together a show, I want there to be a certain amount of surprise. Hopefully there are things that anybody gets when they walk in. But there are also things that only one or two people see because they’re really paying attention. I always wait to see if anybody mentions those things to me. And of course there’s always a lot of stuff that nobody’s ever gonna see.
Take Liliana Porter’s piece of a line drawn across two hands. The thing that’s amazing about this piece is that both of the hands in the image are her hands, 40 years apart. She drew a line on her hand and then drew it off onto the wall and photographed it. Then, 40 years later, she came back to the photograph, put her other hand next to it, drew a line on her hand and onto the wall, and re-photographed it. When you show the piece, you complete it by continuing the line out onto the wall of the gallery. So the line leaves 1973, continues through 2013, and comes out into the present.
JM: Let’s talk practicalities. How did you plan the layout for such a large and intensely concentrated show?
TH: I confess to absolute panic when I was laying out the show out and realized how much stuff I had.
A few days before the show opened, there were a couple hundred pieces lying on blankets all over the floor of the gallery. Even though I'd spent weeks and weeks with these little images on my computer, moving them around and relating them to each other and moving them around again, taking a piece from one group and putting it in another group — once they were here, physically they had a different presence and I started seeing different kinds of relationships.
When I started with the second wall, I laid the wall out so that it had the sketch for a musical score by Nam June Paik, Bruce Conner’s Rorschach ink blots and the Chinese drawing of the grasshoppers. That was all I hung on the wall — just the three of them straight across from one another. That was the first day I had seen Gustavo Diaz’s new three-dimensional cut-paper work. As soon as it was unwrapped, I looked at it and thought: that's a wing. So it had to be near the drawing of the grasshoppers. So then there were four pieces on this wall. I moved on and did some other stuff, and eventually I had about six pieces on this wall. At that point, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to get everything in the show that I wanted. And so there was a little bit of panic, and I realized I needed to hang the show differently than I normally would. On every wall in the show, there’s at least one piece that could have gone into another one of the loose groupings.
JM: What role does a show like this play in the art market?
Gustavo Diaz was actually one of the starting points for this show, because I knew that I wanted to show his work. I also knew I’d have to wait ten years for him to make enough work to fill the entire gallery, because his work is so labor-intensive. So being able to show his work was a big part of the idea of doing a drawing show from the beginning.
The primary art market is both about supporting artists with their career and their artistic vision, and also supporting them financially. It’s about enabling them to create their work. The secondary market is more about supporting the gallery, about making the gallery financially viable. Part of the reason I get such great secondary market material is because of my relationships with people who have those works — and including those works in a show like this is a way of doing them a service, helping them sell work they’re interested in selling.
Tyrell Collins, Judith Belzer, Yulia Pinkusevich, Ana Tiscornia, Alicia Mihai Gazcue…all of those artists are new to the gallery. I think it does the artists a great service to put them in the context of this other work, and in the context of art history. That’s important for the viewer and it’s important for the artists.
JM: Returning to the beginning of our conversation, and the beginning of the show: why did you choose drawing as the organizing theme for the show?
I’ve organized at least three big group shows of drawings over the past 23 years that I’ve run the gallery. One of the first artists to sign on with the gallery was a Uruguayan artist named Marco Maggi, and I’ve shown Marco’s work in each of those three big group shows. His presence in each exhibition is completely different. He had a drawing on aluminum foil in the first show. Here, he has a drawing made with pencil on a sheet of graphite, as well as a work made of tiny pieces of cut paper which turns paper into something sculptural and three-dimensional. He makes drawings in plexiglass using a razor blade, so that the only time you see the drawing is when it casts a shadow.
Marco’s continual reinvention is part of the reason I feel that drawing is so broad and has so much potential. Its boundaries should be pushed: you can use a bug [like Emil Lukas] or burn a piece of paper [like Gustavo Diaz]. It continues to be interesting and amazing because
there’s so much room, and part of the reason there’s so much room is because it doesn’t cost anything to make a drawing. You can use a sheet of paper out of a notebook, like the ledger drawings. Even if you’re buying the most expensive pen and the most expensive paper, you’ve got about $7 invested in that drawing. You can do it sitting at your kitchen table, or on a park bench. There’s a freedom do whatever you want.
I like drawings. There’s no better way to feel like you have an intimate relationship with an artist than to look at a drawing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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“Between Them: An Installation Composed of Drawings” @ Hosfelt Gallery through August 17, 2019.
Justin Manley is a Bay Area writer and engineer. He writes about architecture, technology and art.