New Morgan Exhibit Celebrates Collecting Modern and Contemporary Drawings

New York, NY, January 14, 2015—In 2005, the Morgan Library & Museum embarked on a new program of drawings acquisitions with the goal of bringing to the present a collection that was known for its Old Master and nineteenth-century holdings. During the ensuing decade the institution put together a formidable collection of modern and contemporary drawings, representing a wide range of artists and movements. Embracing Modernism: Ten Years of Drawings Acquisitions, opening February 13, features more than eighty works from the collection and explores the dynamic creativity that revolutionized the medium in our time. The exhibition runs through May 24.

Embracing Modernism includes work by artists from Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Egon Schiele, to Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Susan Rothenberg, Martin Kippenberger, and Marlene Dumas. The exhibition is divided into five sections. Each focuses on a particular departure or shift in emphasis in modern drawing—such as the approach to the use of the line—that sets it apart from its antecedents. The exhibition is organized by Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings at the Morgan, who has led the museum in this area since 2005.

“The Morgan’s decision to collect modern and contemporary drawings underscores its belief that artists of our day are part of a long continuum that celebrates the primacy of the medium,” said Peggy Fogelman, Acting Director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “Embracing Modernism presents an extraordinary collection of works by some of our greatest artists. The Morgan is deeply grateful to the collectors and donors who helped build our collection over the last decade and make possible an exhibition such as this.”

Exhibition Sections

The Autonomy of the Line

An essential component of drawing from its origins, line took on a new role in the twentieth century as artists eschewed naturalistic representation. Liberated from its descriptive function— as the outline of an object or a figure—line achieved greater autonomy. Drawing became, in Paul Klee’s words, “an active line which moves freely; a walk for a walk’s sake, without aim.” The sheets by Matisse, Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Saul Steinberg in this section show them investigating the expressivity of the line, whether continuous or broken. During the 1960s and 1970s, artists such as Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin eliminated any remaining illusionistic function of a line on a ground with the adoption of the grid format, in which the line is a basic modular unit.

More recently, contemporary artists have used the line to visualize aspects of man’s relationship to the world in dense, labor-intensive drawings. Examples include Giuseppe Penone’s extension of a fingerprint into growth rings of an ancient tree, or Marco Maggi’s nod to the electronic age with an intricate network of nearly invisible incisions.

Gesture and Trace

Drawing as a gesture—the record of physical engagement—is central to twentieth-century expressionist tendencies. It reflects a conception of art as a direct, spontaneous experience as seen in the work of Cy Twombly, Michael Goldberg, and Joan Mitchell. But the gesture can also be more automatic, calling into question the traditional notion of the hand of the artist. The Surrealist Max Ernst was the first to explore the technique of frottage (rubbing) to create unexpected patterns intended to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. During the 1960s, the technique was revived in process drawing—drawing as the trace of an action independent from usual artistic practice—as in Robert Overby’s rubbing of his studio wall. 

Contemporary artists’ fascination with the use of chance has led them to rely more and more on unconventional modes of drawing. Gavin Turk, for instance, produced his elegant Rosette by placing a sheet of paper in front of the exhaust pipe of his van before starting the engine.

High and Low

In the modern era, the interplay between art and popular culture considerably broadened the range of drawing styles available to artists. Inspired by commercial illustrations, comic books, graffiti, tattoos, and posters, artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Paschke, Red Grooms, and Martin Kippenberger gave their drawings a new kind of energy At the same time their work questioned the very nature of what constitutes “artistic” drawing as opposed to any other form of mark making.

The use of non-traditional art material was another way to bridge the gap between art and everyday life. Following the lead of the Cubists, who first introduced fragments of newspapers and labels in their papiers collés, Kurt Schwitters created collages from scraps of contemporary urban culture: ads, ticket stubs, candy wrappers, torn packaging. The practice has remained a vital form of expression to the present day as can be seen in the collage books of John Evans and the poignant compositions of Hannelore Baron.

Everyday Objects

Although the depiction of everyday objects has a long tradition in the genre of the still-life, the range of items deemed worthy of the artist’s attention has expanded in modern times, as attested by the cigarette-butt, ice cube, soup can, and portable electric heater in the drawings on view in this section by artists including Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Artists also explored new modes of representation, notably in compositions that favor odd cropping and extreme close-up, largely influenced by photography and film.

From Melancholia to Schizophrenia

Nowhere is the disruption of the academic tradition in modern art more visible than in portrait and figure drawings. Liberated by photography from the necessity to produce a likeness, and stimulated by psychoanalytic revelations about the complex inner life of individuals, artists set out to render emotions and mental states with unprecedented immediacy. Various formal means— fragmentation, distortion, exaggeration, awkward poses and cropping—were used to convey sensations and feelings, from the psychological tension of Walter Sickert’s bedroom scene to Anne-Marie Schneider’s vision of a schizophrenic bus passenger who imagines himself in the luggage rack.

Self-portraits offer particularly rich territory as artists used drawing to probe their most intimate psychological states and lay bare on paper their fears and anxiety. Examples in this section include work by Egon Schiele, Lucas Samaras, Philip Guston, and Maria Lassnig. Others, such as André Masson, Jackson Pollock, and Steve di Benedetto, relied on a range of visual metaphors—including the labyrinth and other intricate patterns—to conjure the workings of the unconscious.

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