Tuning into Drawings / by Jeannine Cook

A remark that was made by Andrew Lambirth in the Spectator magazine in mid-April has stayed with me. Writing about a recent exhibit at Tate Modern, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, he wrote, "One of the chief pleasures and revelations of this show is the drawings. The five works here, including 'Study for the Liver in the Cock's Comb', are rich enough to merit a couple of hours' study, and yet most people only glance at them en route to the paintings." (my emphasis).

The Plough and the Song, 1947, Arshile Gorky. (Image courtesy of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College.)

The Plough and the Song, 1947, Arshile Gorky. (Image courtesy of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College.)

These cursory glances at drawings en route to paintings in exhibitions make me sad. For many a long year, particularly in the United States, the average person has somehow retained the impression that drawings are very much a second class affair, unworthy of much attention and still less worth acquisition. Since drawing as a medium fell out of fashion during the time when abstract art reigned supreme, it is somewhat understandable. Yet drawing permits a depth of understanding, appreciation and - yes - delight in a viewer willing to pause and really look.

Drawings seldom are as commanding as a painting; their presence is more discreet, more intimate. Yet a drawing is not only a pathway to understanding the artist's paintings, it is also a porthole allowing one to see the artist's inner workings and concerns in the most direct and unadorned fashion. Drawing also allows such an enormous variety of approaches and methods that it makes painting - in oil, acrylic, watercolour, encaustic or egg tempera - seem positively staid. Take Gorky's drawings, with their extraordinary inventiveness of form and use of colour - many of them were the result of numerous repetitions and permutations based on drawings done in the fields and meadows of Virginia on his in-laws' farm. At the other extreme is the delicacy of a silverpoint drawing done by someone such as Koo Schadler, who works in classical media today.

There are - happily - more and more exhibitions of drawings, master drawings for the most part. The public which appreciates drawings is a minority, but a very appreciative and passionate one. Ideally, the task of every artist today is to convey to their supporters and collectors how important drawing is in the artistic process, whether it is a working drawing or a finished one which stands alone. If a viewer understands that a drawing is an "open sesame" to understanding that artist and his or her work, then the whole artistic experience is enriched.

That a drawing merits more than a glance - that's the goal! For each artist and then for each viewer.