Last Saturday, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened a very small but charming free show, Island Boy, featuring Barbara Cooney's illustrations for her children's book of the same name, a self-described "hymn to Maine." A delightful all-ages confection, it's also a secret hinge between two larger exhibits, ticketed together, which opened on the same day, combining the drawing of Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art with the setting of American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals.
Otherwise, the two exhibits could hardly be more different. One features a hundred drawings by almost as many artists; the other features dozens of paintings by a single artist. One is full of sketches and drafts, the other of finished works. One displays a dazzling variety of subjects, techniques, and cultural perspectives, spanning the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century; the other is limited to paintings of a single New England island around the turn of the twentieth century. And while both shows are worth a look, only one demands a substantial amount of your time.
As curator Dennis Weller said at a media preview, the only common denominators of Marks of Genius are paper and drawing, "the basis of all of the other arts." This allows the exhibit to send tendrils into varied and remote corners of the art world, from medieval illuminated manuscripts and expressive Baroque portraiture to Abstract Expressionist zings and Pop Art punches. There are drawings in every kind of ink, gouache, tempera, chalk, charcoal, graphite, watercolor, and pastel, made with pen, crayon, brush, and stylus. The exhibit is exciting not only for its depth and breadth, but also for its viewer-friendly flexibility.
- circa 1908–09, charcoal and tempera, 52 ⅜ x 20 ⅝ in., Minneapolis Institute of Art
- Egon Schiele: "Standing Girl"
If you want it to be, it's a master class in drawing. The wall texts are copious, and the catalog, with its glossy acres of prefatory essays, footnotes, and critical exegeses, is a bookshelf-keeper—a remarkably thorough compendium of drawing's cultural history and technical practices. The sheer number of items borrowed from Minneapolis makes room for surprising, chancy choices to crop up in an exhaustive anatomy of a form.
If that sounds like a lot of work, you can just home in on the big names. A few of their contributions don't measure up to their status: It may well be that the graphite line in a small drawing of a reclining woman moves with "a luxurious quality that shows you the genius of Picasso," but it's still just a master's doodle. But plenty of marquee artists have meaningful contributions; I found emotional resonance in a similarly simple sketch by Matisse, whose quote in the catalog—"My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion"—underscores the impetus to reveal the intimate, vulnerable artist's hand behind familiar styles.
There are many portraits, including a darkly ethereal one by Edgar Degas, who has a second fine offering in the intoxicating pastel-covered monotype "Winding River." There are still lifes, architectural plans, and studies for works in other mediums, including a luminous figure for a fresco by Gustav Klimt, a lively red chalk sketch that screams Toulouse-Lautrec, and a Conté crayon study for a painting by Matisse. There are documentary slices of life (Winslow Homer shows us conch-shell divers in the West Indies); magazine illustrations (Romare Bearden portrays black factory workers for Fortune magazine); and transliterations of busts (Modigliani) and cubist sculpture (Otto Dix).
One result of looking at so much drawing is discovering a strong sense of continuity, as though it were all one ongoing line, passed from hand to hand down the ages. See how a late-sixteenth-century ink drawing of Christ's resurrection by little-known Flemish artist Joos van Winghe looks startlingly like a fantasy comic book, with soldiers composed in a dynamic scatter around a hovering wizard-like figure. Sometimes, the drawings reveal dimensions of familiar artists we might have forgotten about. Does the name "Mondrian" summon only geometric color blocks? Check out his stylized but realistic pastel and crayon landscape.
This could be my predilection for modern and postmodern art speaking, but those are areas in which the exhibit seems very strong, bookended by Egon Schiele's "Standing Girl" on a long brown sheet of wrapping paper (1910) and two other strikingly large works, Jim Dine's gloriously abraded "San Marco with Meissen Figure and the Buddha" (1988) and Mequitta Ahuja's root-like system of dreadlocks, "Tress IV" (2008), my favorite new discovery in the show.
- 2008, waxy chalk on paper, 96 ½ x 45 in., Minneapolis Institute of Art, © 2008 Mequitta Ahuja
- Mequitta Ahuja: "Tress IV"
The humming color of Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart's pen-and-paint abstraction will stop you in your tracks. It resonates with Philip Guston's color-block etude and de Kooning's phantasmagoric oil-on-newspaper figure. The riches just keep coming: Magritte at his most talismanic in "The Sixteenth of September," a Lichtenstein comic-book panel in graphite, a Warhol drawing of a dollar bill, a dark monolith of a numeral two by Jasper Johns, a meticulous study from Brice Marden's monochromatic days, a scripted "L'Amour" by Ed Ruscha, and a Cy Twombly enigma that adventurous musicians could use as gestural notation. You can ferret out the whole history of Western art—or you can simply wander and marvel at the explosion of techniques and subjects, the infinite textural and emotional varieties of lines pressed into paper, parchment, newsprint, or vellum.
If the other exhibit, American Impressionist, tells a narrower story about art, it is still a fairly rich one. Childe Hassam, Boston-born and Paris-trained, is about as canonical as a non-French Impressionist (he disliked the term, though it's what he was) can be. Over the course of three decades in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, he spent many summers on Appledore Island, a resort popular with bohemian artists—including the poet Celia Thaxter, who ran the hotel that became Hassam's second home—in the Isles of Shoals in the Gulf of Maine. Its terrain became the defining subject of Hassam's career.
In Hassam's early years on Appledore, he mostly painted near the hotel, especially Thaxter's garden. But after she died, he started venturing out into the wilder parts of the island, painting the minutely varied confluences of its rocky coasts and placid surf. Curator John Coffey has installed thirty-nine paintings so as to give the viewer a sense of this widening gyre, as Hassam escapes the humanity that, on a teeming resort island, he had already excised from his paintings, before coming at last to the outer limits of his ninety-acre world.
- 1891, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 × 24 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz, 1997.135, Image courtesy National Gallery of Art
- Childe Hassam: "Poppies, Isles of Shoals"
Hassam's style is beautiful, like a slightly more fastidious Monet. His oils and watercolors of flowery fields, lonesome shoals, rock formations, and downy skies display a poised brushstroke, a weighty sense of proportion and mass, and a deceptively rigorous way with color that, as photos of the sites reveal, was actually quite free, capturing the feel of the place instead of its perfect likeness. There is no faulting the paintings' quality, but except for serious students of Impressionism, their repetitious subject wears thin.
To be fair, I might have lingered longer had the museum not chosen to pipe in distracting, superfluous seagull sounds. They might be contemplative on a windy shoal, but indoors, they are shrill—not to mention kind of tacky, as if NCMA were a small-town natural history museum. I half-expected to find a stuffed egret in a replica of its natural habitat around each corner. Plus, as Coffey noted of Appledore, "a who's-who in Boston and New York came out for the healthful summer breezes." As fine as Hassam's craft is, I couldn't quite shake the fact that I was essentially looking at a well-heeled person's pretty vacation paintings, however masterfully executed and art-historically ratified.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Drawing the Line."