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Letter From SEGOVIA

In January, a major exhibition of art from the Wynn Kramarsky Collection, New York, New Drawings: 1946-2007, opened at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente in Segovia, Spain. As the exhibition nears its closing date in May, the Rail asked Brooklyn-based artist Karen Schiff, whose work appears in the exhibition, to reflect on her impressions of the show.

Colloquially, an intercambio is a conversation in which native speakers of Spanish and English practice their non-native languages, stretching beyond their cultures and habits. Metaphorically, an exhibition could be described as an intercambio when artworks made outside the gallery engage with the “foreign” exhibition space. The intercambio gets more complex when the venue is literally foreign: how will works “speak” in unfamiliar, far-flung spaces? In the case of New York, New Drawings: 1946-2007, the exchange benefits the 117 artworks from Wynn Kramarsky’s modern and contemporary collection as well as their temporary home. New York’s minimalist aesthetic takes on edgy new life at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, in medieval Segovia, through a skillfully elegant installation that sets the artworks into deep conversation with their architectural contexts.

Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente

The exhibition opens with an overture to its genealogy of international exchange: a small collage by Esteban Vicente from the Kramarsky collection hangs in an alcove before the first gallery. Vicente, the border-crosser for whom the Museo is named, was born in Segovia in 1903. He absorbed European Cubism, moved to New York to work with the Abstract Expressionists, and died in the Hamptons in 2001. Intercambio is suggested not just through the collage, which reveals prior contact between Kramarsky and Vicente, but also through its pairing with a David Smith drawing of a similar scale, DS 12-1-60 (1960). Smith’s energetic shapes, drawn and painted on cardboard, provide an American counterpoint to the Spaniard’s contemplative composition of ragged-edged paper rectangles. This quiet conversation sets the stage for louder ones inside the gallery just beyond: thick black oil-stick drawings by Richard Serra hang near the dynamic brushwork of Barnett Newman, the layered tracery of Cy Twombly, and two expansive Jasper Johns works.

Many groupings of drawings respond overtly to the characteristics of the exhibition space. In the second gallery, where an atrium cuts through the ceiling and conjures the atmosphere of an underground cave, the drawings explore dirt and stars. Dark hives by Terry Winters appear near Robert Smithson’s studies for earthworks such as Asphalt Spiral (1971). Facing these hang Nancy Holt’s schematic plans for stone structures built in relation to the sun’s movements. From its commanding position on the wall opposite the door, Russell Crotty’s large, circular Hale Bopp Over Acid Canyon (1999) combines geology and astronomy to generate a centrifugal force of coherence in the room.

The corridor dividing these two galleries contains smaller works investigating divisions of space, from Agnes Martin’s bands of line and color to Frank Stella’s Study for Valle de los Caídos (1966). Though these pieces generally echo the right angles of the books laid out on a sideboard nearby, not every drawing in the group obeys this rule. In Carl Andre’s untitled work from 1960, three small, separate panels of cardboard are each painted half carmine and half black, and the edge between the two colors wiggles diagonally across the field, differently on each panel. These organic divisions create a series of mountain-like silhouettes; the arresting depth of these compositions injects illusionistic space into the row of meticulously mathematical drawings.

Upstairs, the third gallery maintains a monumental air, but the theme is more architectural than in the similarly proportioned gallery directly below. A 1982 installation drawing by Fred Sandback hangs next to a large double panel by Robert Mangold (1993): in both pieces, geometric shapes draw spaces together, articulating zones of tension within existing fields. Two Annabel Daou collages of playing-card-sized pieces of white paper, piled into three-dimensional grids (2003), stand as gentle sentries across from Brice Marden’s graphite squares (Not Titled, 1970) and multicolored meanderings (Masking Drawing No. 20, 1983-86).

Around the corner, a long corridor contains drawings featuring the written word; I found this perhaps the most thought-provoking arrangement in the museum. Most frequently, language seems to correspond neatly to another reality, as in Sol LeWitt’s self-referential instructions inscribed in The Location of Geometric Figures: A Blue Square, Red Circle, Yellow Triangle and Black Parallelogram (1976) or Ann Ledy’s Untitled (1990), which is a dense page of notes and quotations gleaned from her readings on art, language, and philosophy. Many drawings here use language conventionally, but the letters S, E, and X in Ed Ruscha’s Gray Sex (1979) appear as disconnected fragments of negative space. When writing itself requires assembly, how effective can it be? That question intensifies in the face of one resplendent square of white, Robert Ryman’s Core XII (1995), which hangs in the middle of the dozen letter-filled drawings, alone on a slightly protruding wall. At first this piece appears to have no writing; upon closer inspection, the letters and numbers of Ryman’s signature and the date become faintly visible as they crawl up one side of the painted corrugated cardboard. These characters serve so strongly as formal elements that they call into question the role of writing in the rest of these drawings, as if to suggest that any attempt at verbal expression is fruitless. The luminosity of this piece—with its empty, gleaming, horizontal lines—certainly seems to burn up all of the language nearby. At the end of this corridor, on a wall perpendicular to the other text-based works in the hallway, Joseph Zito’s My Weight...(1991) also calls language into question: his stenciled text reads first backwards, then backwards and upside-down, as if it were a funny mirror reflecting (on) the works in the rest of the corridor.

In the fourth gallery, the open atrium from below now cuts into the floor. Because it is impossible to step back, the installation team mounted small, delicate works here, many of which feature repeated marks and subtle textures. Richard Tuttle’s compositions, from 1971 and 1976, begin the tour, yet this room boasts a higher percentage of works by artists from beyond the mainstream: Edda Renouf’s exquisitely rich drawings from 1975, with their tiny, careful incisions and evocative atmospheres; Mary McDonnell’s scores of hand-drawn horizontal lines, in reddish inks on beige Japanese papers; Jill Baroff’s thin layers of gampi paper. In the far half of the room, in an older section of the building with a slate floor and a small, sunken window framed in rough-hewn granite, the drawings all contain grey and black quadrilaterals. An inky study by Eva Hesse (1966) appears near an array of five differently-tinted grey squares by James Howell (1994), and two painstaking geometric compositions by Bronlyn Jones, from 1999 and 2005, share a wall with the window. Elena del Rivero’s blacked-out Letter to the Mother (1993) leads into one of her brighter, gold compositions from 1996, in which rectangles are also painted over writing; this progression restores us to the light of the rest of the Museo.

The highest gallery in the building contains some of the most airy, even wispy work, such as William Anastasi’s delicate No Breath, No Bother (2005) and Trisha Brown’s tentative contour drawing of her own bare feet crossed at the ankles (1995). Many drawings in this gallery contain elements of chance, as if here, far from the ground floor, drawing were controlled by forces that are not subject to ordinary, earth-bound laws. The Spanish word for chance, casualidad, implies a pleasantly casual offhandedness that suits the spirit of these works. One of Anastasi’s drawings, both of which were made with the pen or pencil dangling on a string while the artist sat atop a ladder, appears next to Lucio Pozzi’s Blind Drawing #8 (2007). Across the room, Teo González’s Drawing 176 (2,500 Black on White Direct 50 Dot Gauge) (2004) takes casualidad in another direction which is anything but blind: González carefully applies ink to paper and lets the liquid itself respond unpredictably. Other pieces in this room strive to capture space, which is inevitably intractable: Christine Hiebert’s exploratory lines, in charcoal or in blue tape, stretch out to inhabit the page, while expanding flower forms by Anne Chu and Ann Ledy project space into the room.

Anomalous construction features in the Museo provide intriguing opportunities for the drawings to converse directly with their environment. Smoke drawings by John Cage and Kristin Holder hang in a dimly-lit passageway, and Erik Saxon’s bright blue sketch sings a high note in a tiny, isolated corner. My favorite installation decision appears on a back landing by a corner stairway: the many vertical paper folds that produce Bruce Conner’s two drawings of inkblot emblems are echoed in the accordion “folds” of the stairway and in the vertical “fold” where the two walls meet between the drawings.

The catalogue for New York, New Drawings offers an alternative intercambio: 27 of the 71 artists in the show, along with one poet, write about other artists’ drawings. The results—also published in Spanish as Nueva York: El Papel de las Últimas Vanguardias—range from poems and quotations to technical explanations and probing meditations. Some artists’ writings are also, in fact, new works of visual art. These are perhaps the logical extension of the intercambio idea: once “separate” people (or media) speak with each other long enough, it becomes hard to tell where one’s language leaves off and the other’s begins. So in the visual/verbal commentaries in the catalogue, the habitual distinctions between words and images no longer pertain; the partners have blended. Likewise, the artworks in this exhibition have blended so intimately with their surrounding architecture that it is hard to imagine them making as much sense in any other installation.

Having opened with a collage by Esteban Vicente, New York, New Drawings also concludes with several pieces by the host artist: large drawings and collages from the museum’s permanent collection of Vicente’s work hang on the building’s highest landing. Vicente’s pieces share a judiciously subtle touch with many of the drawings in the rest of the exhibition, yet they maintain a rougher surface, a materiality that reveals the artist’s Iberian roots. In Segovia, evidence of this worn, yet raw, texture lies no further away than the sun-baked cobblestones outside the sleek museum’s front door.

Further information about the exhibition may be found at


Karen Schiff


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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