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A drawing is ‘a unique work of art on paper’ (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Is this an adequate definition of drawing, and if not then why not?

A drawing is ‘a unique work of art on paper’ (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Is this an adequate definition of drawing, and if not then why not?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Anna Murphy. Originally submitted for Art History at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Ed Krcma in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Anna Murphy. Originally submitted for Art History at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Ed Krcma in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
A drawing is ‘a unique work of art on paper’ (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Is this an
adequate definition of drawing, and if not then why not?
The definition of drawing as ‘a unique work of art on paper’ implies several things even in its brevity.
The first and most striking is that a work of drawing is defined not by medium but by its receptacle, inthis case, a (presumably) two-dimensional sheet of paper. The second implication here comes in the use
of the word ‘unique’: instantly excepting prints and copies other than the original (which becomes more
problematic as we approach areas of printmaking such as engraving and woodblock), it also seems torequire of the drawing a certain gesture or investment of the artist. From these two points of departure, wecan further infer that drawing is a process: the lack of specificity regarding its media of inscriptiondescribes drawing as an
event 
that takes place on paper, one that can happen in multifarious ways (pen,
ink, pencil, chalk, conté, paint, string, collage), but that ultimately signifies the ‘unique’ gesture or 
presence of the artist. Finally, if it is an event
 – 
a progression of mark and thought spreading across thesurface
 – 
 
one can read in it the continuing unfurling of time, the eternal ‘present tense’ that seemsexclusively intrinsic to drawing through its ‘fundamental principle of non
-
erasure’ that openly exhibits its
materialisation, its c
onstant state of becoming, meshing together as it does the ‘interlocking temporalgears’ of the line as drawn by the artist and the line as seen by the viewer.
1
 This is, perhaps, a wishful interpretation of the definition, one that expands it to accommodate as muchof the philosophical theory of drawing as possible
 – 
temporality, transience, process, immediacy, and theconception of drawing as the most direct expression of artist to viewer
 – 
but nonetheless it is a readingthat is supported by the definition itself. What remains questionable is the designation of paper as the only
vehicle for what we have come to understand as a form that speaks ‘more through its tracing than in its
trace, more through its process than as a product
.
2
Is this relegation to paper a historical anachronism, acuratorial necessity, or is paper artistically fundamental to the very essence of drawing itself? In my
exploration of this topic, I want to first summarise briefly the theory surrounding drawing’s relationship
to its surface, and question why it is (and what it implies) that this surface is so often assumed to be paper.With this background in mind, this essay will then look at a number of drawings that have taken placeoutside the page
 – 
 
on Tacita Dean’s blackboards, Grayson Perry’s ceramics, and in Eva Hesse’s
1
See
 Norman Bryson, ‘A Walk for a Walk’s Sake’ in Catherine de Zegher, ed.,
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and  Act 
, London and New York, 2003, 149-158.
2
 
Catherine de Zegher, ‘Drawing as Binding/Bandage/Bondage’, in
 Eva Hesse Drawing
, New Haven and London,2006, 111.
 
1
sculptural objectification of line
 – 
in the hope of establishing a fuller understanding of what drawing is,where drawing is going, and whether or not this, or any, definition of drawing can be truly conclusive.
Drawing is often conceived of as both the ‘generative space of thought’
3
of the artist and the complex,tacit projection of space on the surface understood by both the creator and viewer. Unlike painting, whichgenerally demands an all-over handling of the canvas and a constant relation of its form and content to its
overall composition, drawing has a locality of line that need reference only itself, creating as it does ‘a
single cell of design, sequestered from its surroundings, cordoned off by the neutralising effect of the
reserve’s protective cocoon’.
4
 
This ‘reserve’, as Norman Bryson calls it, refers to the emptiness of thesurrounding paper which he claims is ‘perceptually present but conceptually absent’
5
; similarly, JohnBerger describes how pa
 per ‘becomes what we see through the lines and yet remains itself’.
6
It is worth
noting, however, that paper is not always ‘conceptually absent’ or unchanged; it often has an implicit
function not only as the surface on which the drawing is made but as its inverse, as telling in its negativespace as the line is in its descriptive markings.
7
In this case, the surface becomes integrated as a medium,
interweaving purposefully with the artist’s line; it is exposed through the stroke’s textural revelation of it
s
materiality even as it is denied by the viewer’s construction of space, which accepts or refuses the
incorporation of blankness as necessary.
8
Alain Badiou rather poetically examines this duality of surface
 – 
present and absent
 – 
when he declares that th
e essence of drawing is its ‘movable reciprocity betweenexistence and inexistence’.
9
What is foregrounded is the inextricability of drawing from its surface (here,presumed to be paper), both artistically and philosophically, a condition that is deemed exclusive todrawing and fundamental to its very nature.This intertwining of drawing and surface does not necessarily imply paper, though it is often inferredthat way (as evidenced by the above quotes). The reasons for this linkage are many, and worthquestioning anew. Although paper may not be intrinsic to the process of drawing, it is certainly intrinsicto its history, and it has long been the standard stage on which drawing took place. As drawing expanded,theoretically and artistically coming into its own, and began to include more mark-making media than thecustomary ink, chalk, pencil and conté, it became necessary to demarcate drawing-in-itself from the other
3
 
Catherine de Zegher, ‘The Stage of Drawing’, in Catherine de Zegher, ed.,
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act 
,London and New York, 2003, 267-278, 267.
4
 
Bryson, ‘A Walk for 
a
Walk’s Sake’, 151.
 
5
Ibid., 151.
6
 
John Berger, ‘Drawing on Paper’,
in Jim Savage, ed.,
 Drawing Texts,
Cork, 2001, 156-162, 161.
7
Here we see an interesting correlation with typography, in which the letters are often said to be held in space by thesurrounding blankness more so than by the forms of the letters themselves. See Gary Hustwit,
 Helvetica
, 2007,London [DVD].
8
 
 Newman, ‘The Marks, Traces and Gestures of Drawing’, in
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act,
93-108, 95.
9
 
Alain Badiou, ‘Drawing’,
 Lacanian Ink 
, Issue 28, Fall 2006, 42-49, 44.
 
2
forms of practice in which it plays such a foundational role; the (arguably arbitrary) designation of paperfulfils this requirement. However, this seemingly innocuous definition could also be construed as one thatkeeps drawing in its historical and traditional place: that of the preparatory gesture or fleeting sketchrather than of a completed, independent work in its own right. Furthermore, paper has a particularconnotation in modern times. It is inexpensive, ubiquitous, mundane and perishable, which emphasises a
‘throwaway’ quality of drawing as merely a juncture in the process of someth
ing greater, or as a kind of 
doodled, insignificant moment. Consequently, it could be argued that drawing’s present and ongoing
emancipation from other art forms is undermined and devalued by this definitional confinement to paper.On the other hand, it is also worth acknowledging that these very qualities of paper
 – 
transient, disposable
 – 
often translate into, and are imbued in, the medium of drawing itself: for example, paper echoes the oft-perceived fragility of drawing, making the two aesthetic partners.
10
Effectively, the qualities of paper havebecome irrevocably linked with the qualities of drawing in the mass consciousness for better or worse,further propagating the idea that paper is the natural form on which drawing occurs.The result is that drawing is defined by its past and not by its potential. This becomes especially
 problematic when we consider that drawing, as a practice, is ‘historically contingent’,
11
developing inrelation, and response, to other art forms.
12
With the advent and advance of digital media, as well asincreasing experimentation with the surfaces appropriate for art, drawing has, essentially, developedbeyond paper (ostensibly even beyond the realm of the two-dimensional, as we will see); a large body of contemporary drawing therefore remains unaccounted for under the constructs of this definition. Whilemuch of this contemporary drawing work straddles the boundaries between different artistic practices, thefocus, both conceptually and aesthetically, remains on the drawn elements.One of the major areas of overlap is the correspondence between drawing and film. One such example
is Tacita Dean’s blackboard drawings,
The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days
(1997, fig. 1).This series of work emphatically highlights the performativity of its making in much the same way as
drawing, traditionally, has always done, dramatising as it does the ‘ongoing processes of the mind that
drawing evidences at every stage of its ap
 pearance’.
13
 
Dean’s nautical blackboard scenes hold the dustyevidence of their lines’ erasure and re
-
emergence just as drawing on paper’s ‘permanent visibility of eachunit of production […] means that there is no escaping the sense of line as emerging fro
m an initial state
[…] to the state we eventually see’.
14
The chalky haze has an ebb and flow that mimics not only the spray
10
 
Badiou speaks of the ‘fundamental fragility of Drawing’. Ibid., 44.
 
11
 
Ed Krčma, ‘Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age’,
Tate Papers
, Autumn 2010, n.p.
12
 
 Newman, ‘The Marks, Traces and Gestures of Drawing’, 105.
 
13
 
De Zegher, ‘The Stage of Drawing’, 267.
 
14
 
Bryson, ‘A Walk for a Walk’s Sake’, 149.
 

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