Martha Beck, curator of drawings at MOMA, founded The Drawing Center after her departure from that institution in 1976, out of dissatisfaction with the lack of attention given to drawing in the museum’s curatorial program. 500+ shows and 250 catalogs later, The Drawing Center has done more for the discourse around drawings than any other institution. Today, drawing is fully embraced as an important collecting category, including by MOMA. Brett Littman is the current Executive Director of The Drawing Center, and joined us to discuss drawing, and how to collect it. Bid now on works in the Drawing Center Auction, running through October 28.
What is drawing?
For me the first contemporary drawing is the Erased De Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg. In that work you have encoded all of the thorny issues that come up in contemporary drawing.
I don’t like to define drawing but this is what I say publicly when asked that question: A drawing is an approach to object making that values line, shading, process and thinking over other values. It can also be the visualization of ideas, not necessarily on paper, and not necessarily tied to art. For me, drawing is something not based on the material substrate. Any medium or subject is fair game, because drawing is more about the journey than the finished product. It’s a manifestation of thought processes.
For example, I’m currently working on an exhibition with Ferran Adrià, head chef of the former elBulli restaurant in Spain that will open in the Center in January 2014. A lot of it is diagrammatic, flow charts and lists of products and cooking techniques. It was the lingua franca of his kitchen – how he and his brother, and his sous-chef communicated. Everything he does is underpinned by drawing, and for me these are some of the most engaging drawings I’ve curated. It should be fascinating for artists and drawing collectors as these drawings show what can actually be achieved in the medium in terms of language, ideas, and documenting analytical research.
What lead you to collecting drawings?
I have an interest in process, and I started collecting in the design and craft worlds. Moving into drawings and printmaking was a way of extending that thinking about process. Also, when my wife and I started collecting, it was economically viable for us. We knew artists and were able to collect friends before they joined larger galleries.
What is important in collecting drawing, and how does it differ from collecting other mediums?
Being comfortable with the unfinished nature of the work itself. If you’re going to have it on your walls, you should be able to appreciate what kind of information it’s relaying. For many artists, it’s on the way to somewhere else. Drawings are very different from paintings in that sense. They really give a sense of the ebb and flow of life through the studio.
You’ve got to look a lot more, through a lot more material. Some artists make 800+ drawings a year. It’s very much a “narrowing down” process. I go into the archives and basements looking through dusty files, sometimes through hundreds of drawings, just to narrow it down to 40. You’ll spend more time collecting great drawings than great paintings. With paintings, one show might have less than 20 works to choose from. Artists are more prolific with drawings, so picking out the gems is a more time-consuming process.
Where do you buy?
We’ve bought a lot through galleries and charity auctions, particularly institutions like Dieu Donné (where I was director). I’ve also bought a lot from print shops, Harlan & Weaver (who works with Louise Bourgeois, Francesco Clemente, James Siena), and Hamilton Press, from whom I acquired a couple of Ed Ruscha prints. And of course, on Paddle8.
The market for drawings?
It’s shifted tremendously. In the 1970s, people weren’t showing or selling drawings. But after the Conceptual Art movement things shifted and a market formed. Especially in Europe in the ’80s, a strong market developed. Artists like Michael Heizer, Richard Serra and Agnes Martin, who were drawing pretty much as a primary activity, became collectible. It’s still taking a little bit of time for artists who were active in the ’60s-80s to come to terms with the idea of selling their drawings and parting with them, as they hang on to them as very personal output. But it’s happening.
Who are some artists who excel in the medium, now and throughout history?
Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of the deluge and his studies of the movement of water are very important. They are in some ways the best examples of what drawing can do. In modern times, Ellsworth Kelly with his reductive work, where you’re just looking at color in relationship to geometry, is quite fascinating. Gerhard Richter, who totally denies drawing as a medium of art making despite making 600+ himself, is also important. His project is to deconstruct modern drawing in its entirety, which makes him useful to the canon.
What are some of the outstanding collections of drawing?
Publicly, Vienna’s Albertina is a great institution with a vast collection of historic and contemporary drawings, from Albrecht Dürer onwards. The Winterthur Museum in Switzerland has a very strong Post-War collection. In the US, few museums focus just on drawing, but institutions like New York’s Morgan Library, and the Menil Collection in Houston, are well worth visiting.
Privately, there are some great collections in Europe. Edigio Marzona’s collection in Berlin is quite good. It’s very much in line with our institution’s broad explanation of what drawing is. Wynn Kramarsky has one of the preeminent collections in this country, and he was very involved with founding and supporting The Drawing Center for many years.
What are some of your favorite works from The Drawing Center auction?
I’m generally a big fan of Ed Ruscha‘s work, and I really like the “Let’s” drawing he’s given us. Louise Despont: I love that obsessive almost outsider-esque language she uses, and also the use of the Old Indian antique ledger paper.Beth Campbell‘s wall piece, again an example of sculptural drawing and drawing in space. I’ve known Beth a long time, and really appreciated how she thinks about drawing in 3-dimensional space. Richard Forster‘s drawing of Levittown in Long Island is also a stand-out for me. Richard is a UK-based artist who painstakingly sources material to make these exquisite highly-rendered Photorealist drawings that can take months to complete. I appreciate that level of detail. His concept really is to take what could be banal images, and inject into them some of his own views, thus reclaiming photographic images through drawing. Paddle8 News