7.12.17 — The Tropics of Soho

The Met has the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and the American Museum of Natural History its special collections. Only the Drawing Center, though, has a department of tropical research.

At least it does through July 16, and its exhibition is an act of the imagination, but the department and the research are real. William Beebe directed them for over thirty years, on behalf of the New York Zoological Society—now the Wildlife Conservation Society. As the Center puts it, he “took the lab into the jungle, rather than the jungle to the lab.” Isabel Cooper's Margay Tigrina Vigens Head (photo by Martin Parsekian, Wildlife Conservation Society, 1922)And now, more than fifty years after his death, he has taken it to Soho. It has taken in some artifice by Mark Dion along the way.

Exploratory Works” lays out its history, with maps, documents, and period equipment. As curators, Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson bring these and more together in a tall cabinet and a recreation of its field station. They include a film of the research team poised to take their floating laboratory to the rivers and sea—in a bathysphere and along the coast of South America. Most of all, they set out the product of its research, in the form of watercolors of tropical life. The show gains relevance today thanks to global warming and Donald J. Trump, as scientists march for their and the planet’s future. It has added punch, too, because women did so much of the drawing.

Some of the names are lost, including both artists and species, but Isabel Cooper helped get things moving when she joined Beebe in 1919. They show the world less as “dog eat dog” than as animal life struts its stuff. A tiger for Cooper, as for William Blake, is burning bright, while ocean sunfish for Else Bostelmann appear to smile or to cower—even as a viper fish swoops in with its saber-toothed jaws. The stomach contents of another deep-sea fish, notoriously larger than the fish itself at rest, seem to be getting along just fine. Plants or invertebrates make an appearance only as a backdrop to the exotic display of color and motion. An insect for George Swanson Carpito may be feeding on a leaf, but the leaf seems to be deepening its pink and purple on behalf of the bug.

Then, too, there is another element of their symbiosis and the ecosystem, in Dion. The field station looks more convincing than many of the drawings, but he has pretty much made it up. It has a full wall where one can linger but not enter. It also has the clutter and quaintness of his Curiosity Shop, again at the intersection of art and science. Like Beebe, he has made art from the space between sea and shore, with his Thames Dig, and he has gone deep with his Rescue Archaeology. He has to like a project in which the same individuals served as lead scientists and field artists.

The entire exhibition may have one wondering what counts as science or art. Is the Drawing Center taking on the job of a natural history museum for a change? And is it doing so because that, too, is an aspect of drawing—or because the drawings are so vivid as art? (Cooper took pride in her Japanese brushes and spoke of a “tapestried” lizard.) Or is it doing so because they have become part of an installation by a living artist? One may wonder whether watercolors can do the job of science at all.

Of course, Beebe could not rely on color photography back then, especially in the field. And scientific drawings have a long history, including Leonardo when he had given up painting and Albrecht Dürer when he saw his work as art. Art and science, I have argued, can meet in more than one way. Art can take science as its subject, as with science fiction, or as the tools of its trade, as with color charts and Post-Impressionism. It can aspire to the study of nature, like science, or explore science as itself a mode of representation. The best side of “Exploratory Works” lies, like its title, in the plural.

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3.20.17 — Dancing in the Bauhaus

Take a long strip of cardboard or stiff paper, and fold it into white squares. Stand it on its side, like an accordion book, but with alternate folds pointing outward, like a six-pointed star.

The gray end pages can still bend apart from one another, like a grand entrance to the pointed inner chamber—or the covers of a book. Now cut a rectangle out of each square, apart from the covers, and replace it with colored paper. from Mateo López's Time as Activity (Drawing Center, 2016)Do not worry if the pieces never quite line up, leaving six doors to the inner chamber slightly ajar. Is it architecture, collage, or book art?

For Mateo López, it could be a model for the rest of his exhibition as well—and I hope you will excuse me for a follow-up to last time on shows at the Drawing Center through March 19, although just closed. Maybe not a scale model, but a model for his multidisciplinary art. Actual architecture takes up much of the main gallery, with similar plain white walls broken by open passages and bright colors. This structure, though, consists of staggered rectangles, as reasonable places to live or to display his art. They are also spaces to wander, much as he might have experienced them in the process of assembly. Accompanying videos document just that.

Trained as an architect and still in his thirties, López plays with the borders between space, objects, and the human body. A chair takes the angle of its back, he insists, from his own while seated. (Hint: he has atrocious posture.) A drawing portrays a less strained spinal column, while a watercolor takes its shape from a dance in New York subways. An actual dancer stops by now and then to “interact,” as the Center puts it, with two of the sculptures. One, in brown wood staggered much like the rooms, consists of bed slats.

This is interactive art without need of a touch screen or mouse. The show’s only allusion to new media comes in its title, “Undo List“. And López likes lists, as part of the regular assembly of his designs. One drawing amounts to the days of the week and another of numbers. They also amount to yet another kind of interaction, between the artist and modern art history. They come close to copying works familiar from Minimalism, conceptualism, and process art.

One drawing borrows a knot from Bruce Nauman, while a dustpan contains the remains of an interview with William Kentridge—in an exhibition, after all, that is just cleaning up. The allusions reach further back in time as well, comporting with the boundary breaking. Another drawing in fact has as its title Look Back, Move Forward. The house pays tribute to the Bauhaus and Oskar Schlemmer, and a sphere hanging overhead could pass for steel sculpture by Antoine Pevsner or Naum Gabo. Of course, its spiraling planes are paper.

The Colombian artist also alludes to his homeland, with a gold mask after pre-Columbian art. Still, his heart is in Latin American architecture and European modernism. With his mix of disciplines, he also revives debates over both. Do they reduce people to puppets or machines, like the dancers in Schlemmer’s film in “Dreamlands” at the Whitney—or do they serve instead as designs for living, open to the choices of their creators and inhabitants alike? One last drawing resembles dance steps, but its curves connect words that begin “walking around a bit like an animal in a cage.” They also end with “hope.”

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3.17.17 — From Language to Landscape

It took Jackson Mac Low a long time to find his voice. It took him even longer to lose it, in a tangle of line and color.

With each step, he was becoming an artist. With the first, in 1953, he had made some of the earliest text art, well before Lawrence Weiner. By his death in 2004, he had found his way to a boisterous abstraction, in crayon, acrylic, and oil stick on paper. When others were questioning publicly whether painting was dead, he made it a matter of private celebration.

It was for him a literal celebration, and it still involved words. With his late “name poems,” he made art as a shout-out to others—most often to his wife, with love, on her birthday. You may or may not be able to make out her name. Does that make Mac Low a poet, an artist, or both at once? The Drawing Center makes the case for his art, through March 19, but it does not insist too hard. It calls the show, open-mindedly enough, “Lines – Letters – Words.”

If you know him at all, and I did not, it is more likely as a poet and performer. He counts among the “language poets,” a group for whom the elements of language mattered as much as their meaning. He admired chance procedures in music by John Cage as well, and he meant many of his drawings as scores. That includes letters from Sanskrit chants and prayers, arranged every which way on graph paper as his Gathas, starting in 1961. It also includes the Skew Lines from 1979, in light pen traces that he imagined as “dropped” onto paper. Their length corresponds to the duration of sounds, and never mind that he rarely got around to performing them.

With each stage, Mac Low was working against his time, like a proper avant-garde artist. Born in 1922, he made text art just when Abstract Expressionism and then Minimalism insisted on the purity of visual expression. Then he made his text visually alive and unreadable, just when art had become drier and more ironic. Still, he was by no means standing apart from his time. It comes as a shock to discover pen drawings from 1951 as fluid, dense, and abstract as those by Jackson Pollock that very year. It comes as a shock, too, to see his “static film” of a tree from 1961, three years before Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building.

Static or not, his only constant was change. As it happens, he shares the Center with Amy Sillman, who called her last exhibition “Stuff Change“—here with a video of drawings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (The main gallery holds a hybrid of art and architecture by Mateo López.) The display begins in 1953 with something akin to primitive traces, although also to black brushwork by Franz Kline—followed by the equally primitive language of Hi and Ape, just one coarse red word to a sheet. More jumbled text from the 1960s approaches aphorisms, and one last series, from 1995, takes language to the edge of landscape, with the faint pencil of Birds, Trees, Mountains, Moss, and Leaves. As an artist Mac Low may have earned only a footnote, but as a performer he had entered fully into space.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.