Exhibition looks good on paper

Art: The National Gallery outlines a century's worth of works, decade by decade.

January 30, 2002|By Chuck Myers | Chuck Myers,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - For centuries, artists often used drawing as a tool to formulate ideas and make preparatory sketches for an endeavor in another medium, such as painting or sculpture.

But for many 20th-century artists, the drawing became a finished work of art in its own right.

With this in mind, the National Gallery of Art has organized a sweeping survey of drawing in the 20th century. The exhibit, A Century of Drawing: Works on Paper From Degas to LeWitt, showcases 140 works by many of the biggest names of 20th-century art. The display offers a rare opportunity to view the cream of the National Gallery's roughly 4,000-strong work-on-paper collection.

The exhibit remains on display in the museum's West Building through April 7.

The term "drawing" takes on broad meaning in the show, extending to just about any work-on-paper media. Sorted by decade, the exhibit touches on the many styles and drawing media used by artists during the last century.

The display is peppered with treasures that give the assemblage exceptional scope. The thematic threads that run through the exhibit reflect both the historic spirit and stylistic trends of the time.

Early drawings, such as the fluid Dancing Figure (1905) by Auguste Rodin and a vibrant bouquet of pansies set against an empty background by French artist Odilon Redon, offer examples of how turn-of-the-century artists exercised new creative interests and styles through traditional subject matter.

Works by Pablo Picasso pop up several times early in the exhibition, and for good reason. In what has been described as perhaps Picasso's greatest gouache, Pierrot and Harlequin, (1920) demonstrates how the celebrated artist skillfully created compositions using different techniques. The same can be said for another Picasso work, The Cup of Coffee (1913), one of his early great Cubist-inspired collages.

The explosive, often raw power that German expressionist artists conveyed through their paintings likewise came through in their drawings.

Two graceful early nude figure ink drawings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner stand in contrast to another Kirchner drawing on view, Erna Bathing in a Tub (1912-13). Kirchner's elegant line figure is present once again, but this time it is fused with a kaleidoscope-like whirl of color.

Nearby, turbulent doesn't seem to begin to describe the intensity of Homunkulus(1918), a pen-and-ink drawing by Otto Dix. At the other end of the spectrum, artist Kathe Kollwitz mastered a much more subdued tension in her self-portrait renderings and scene of family misery in Out of Work (1909).

Creativity and draftsmanship often go hand in hand in many of the works. Two conte crayon drawings by Charles Sheeler - an interior featuring a stove and a double-exposure-like architectural rendering - have a remarkable photorealistic quality about them. Adjacent to the Sheeler drawings is a luscious watercolor Storm Over Taos (1930) by John Marin that was given to the National Gallery by Georgia O'Keeffe - the first gift from an artist given to the museum.

Although renowned for their bold paintings, the abstract expressionist artists of the late 1940s and 1950s also produced a cornucopia of works on paper.

In his End of Dover Beach (1953-57), Robert Motherwell combined torn paper and ocher and blue tempera colors in a collage to create spontaneity and an unsettling, violent feeling.

An untitled work by Jackson Pollack offers still another take on conventional drawing. In it, Pollack hurled ink onto a stack of fine Japanese paper. The ink then bled through to underlying page, creating a series of sister works.

Rounding out the show are late-20th-century works that took the notion of drawing to a new level.

One of the more intriguing drawings found here is a 10-foot long contour line drawing of a beanstalk by Ellsworth Kelly. The twisting stalk climbs upward, extending from a gallery floor to the ceiling. Rather than employ a receding perspective, Kelly opted to maintain an eye level perspective throughout.

Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt has by four works in the show, including one drawing he literally phoned in. He instructed National Gallery staffers to produce a wall drawing based on simple, yet specific geometric forms.

Although technically created just for this exhibit, the graphite work reflects a method of drawing first developed by LeWitt in the 1960s. Ephemeral in nature, work will disappear under a coat of fresh paint once the exhibit concludes.

For more information, check out the National Gallery's Web site at www.nga.gov or call 202-737-4215.

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