Curator’s Essay

Here’s the Thing

One of the first artworks that Kramarsky purchased was a Jasper Johns flag drawing, bought in 1958 at the Leo Castelli gallery. It cost $175 (two months rent at the time). It is also the only artwork by a living artist that Kramarsky ever sold. Six years after the purchase, the Johns drawing began to disintegrate in its frame. Now with a family to support, Kramarsky could not afford the $1,500 conservation estimate, and he reluctantly parted with the work. Johns later informed Kramarsky that the drawing was made on shoe box tissue paper!

Despite this revelation, and despite the drawing’s deterioration, Kramarsky has never shied away from collecting art made from unusual, even temporal, materials. A good example is Christine Hiebert’s Untitled (t.02.3), composed of blue painter’s tape. Hiebert cut the tape to different sizes and intuitively stretched and layered the pieces to create a dynamic composition of form, movement, and color. The tape, typically used to enforce a straight edge, is unexpectedly animated—it twists and curves, it has bumps and buckles. Untitled (t.02.3) appears quick and improvisational but it is carefully executed, each piece of tape removed and re-adhered countless times. Hiebert’s outcome can never be anticipated, even by her.

The drawings of Brice Marden and Joan Waltemath could easily be discussed with the other artworks in the grid section of this essay. Marden’s graphite drawing Untitled is arguably the most reductive work in the exhibition. Four faint lines on a large sheet of paper form a square; a fifth line divides the square in half. The only color is the natural creamy shade of the paper itself. Careful examination reveals that the finely textured paper is rendered smooth and slightly darker inside the square by Marden’s thin application of clear wax. Equally understated is Waltemath’s men/many. With subtle elegance, she combines six different media—graphite, gouache, egg tempera, casein, colored pencil, and oil—into a single drawing. Waltemath employs exponential number series and harmonic ratios to compose her mathematically-based grid drawings. (Numerical notations in the margins reveal her computations, although their formulas need not be deciphered to appreciate the work.) Waltemath’s vertically stacked modular elements create an impression of architecture, but her soft hues and sensitive blend of materials suggest an expansive, breathing entity more than an inert structure. Waltemath plays with semantics in her title (the “man” in “many” is pronounced as the plural “men”), and indeed the drawing is based on proportions of the human torso.

Both Marden’s and Waltemath’s works are intentionally displayed with their ragged and folded edges visible. Kramarsky believes that all drawings should be seen with their edges and therefore never conceals them under mats or other framing devices. Edges reveal important characteristics about the paper—its size, thickness, and weight—as well as the history of its manufacture—whether it was torn from a standard sketchbook or meticulously handmade. Importantly, edges also convey how an artist chose to situate a composition within the paper’s borders. Small rips, tears, and smudges are testament to human handling; they provide visual and visceral connections to an artist and his or her chosen medium.

Graphite is the most common of all drawing materials, yet it is Terry Winters’s forceful handling of the medium that gives VISAN #46 its visual punch. Winters worked and re-worked the drawing; its surface is rippled and reflective from the heavy application of graphite (the carbon in graphite lends a metallic luster). It is an artwork of extreme physicality and mysterious imagery. Two ambiguous forms hover in the blackness; whether they recall cosmic bodies in deep space or infinitesimal cellular organisms is open for interpretation.

Lynne Woods Turner’s Untitled began with a geometric framework of concentric circles, rendered almost imperceptibly in graphite. After an extended period of observation, Turner returned to the drawing to emphasize the formal relationships she saw using tea, pencils, and erasers as her tools. Horizontal waves stained with tea follow the crests and dips of the interlocking circles, their darker shades complementing the creamy hue of the paper. Turner’s fluid lines, spherical forms, and tonal palette coalesce in an elegant, serene arrangement. Working outdoors in the woods of Maine, Tad Mike used only the natural materials around him to compose the drawing Bonyon Preserve, Westport Island, Maine, September 29, 2007 VII. He made his ink from crushed walnuts and used a branch of hemlock needles as his brush. Mike’s calligraphic lines and fortuitous splashes create a drawing with organic, spontaneous appeal. It captures a sense of place and articulates the union between an artist and his woodland surroundings.

John Fraser celebrates the texture, color, and weight of different papers in Untitled, from the suite Columns III. A center column is collaged from scraps of deconstructed books; glimpses of burgundy cloth and woven threads disclose their former uses as covers and bindings. Like a spine, Fraser’s column fuses two sheets of Japanese paper, their perpendicular arrangement recalling a kimono. The papers, translucent and delicate, billow gracefully from their mounts. Another collage, Esteban Vicente’s Untitled, is the earliest artwork in the exhibition, dating from 1951. It was in that year that Vicente and his colleagues (Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock, among others) exhibited together at the groundbreaking 9th Street Art Exhibition, effectively launching the New York School and the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Vicente’s torn paper collage, with its earthy palette and layered geometry, recalls a sturdy stone wall, yet its diminutive scale also conveys a preciousness of form.

The desire to discover new modes of mark-making led Mark Williams to experiment with unconventional drawing tools. He composed Untitled (0517) with the plastic cap from a deodorant stick. Williams dipped the elliptical-shaped cap in oil paint then pressed and dragged it onto a piece of grey corrugated cardboard. The sliding motion rendered various sized rings and cylinders that rotate from horizontal to vertical alignments. From a single object, Williams made multiple impressions that, although dissimilar in scale and orientation, still bear a strong relationship to one another.

Composer John Cage’s River Rock and Smoke 4/13/90, #12 is a watercolor on paper “prepared” with smoke: Cage soaked the paper and used it to smother the flames of a fire. The ethereal wisps of smoke are anchored by a single black stroke—Cage’s circular tracing of a river stone. The four-foot vertical composition is reminiscent of the romantic landscapes of traditional Chinese scroll paintings. The light and spaciousness articulated by Cage in River Rock directly contrasts with Joseph Zito’s thick tar drawing My Weight. Zito’s stenciled letters, imprinted in reverse and upside down, read “My/Weight/180 lbs/in/aluminum/and/copper/May 1991/J Zito.” The two rectangles recall a spare minimalist form while the black tar reinforces the “weight” of the drawing. Zito’s solemn composition, its unusual medium, and its factual presentation call to mind a tombstone epitaph.