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Thoughts on Drawing, 1970

Robert Motherwell,<em> Untitled</em>, 1976. Ink on paper, 7 x 10 in. Janie C. Lee Collection. © 2023 Dedalus Foundation Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Motherwell, Untitled, 1976. Ink on paper, 7 x 10 in. Janie C. Lee Collection. © 2023 Dedalus Foundation Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

One day in the 1930’s Picasso suddenly said to his longtime retainer and buffer to the world, the writer Jaime Sabartès, “What is art? Did I ever ask you that before?” and before Sabartès could grope for an answer “as if he were questioning himself,” Picasso said, “And what is not?” In a parallel manner, the instant one tries to define drawing, one finds that no one has been able to, that one is led to the same question quite rapidly, “What is not?” Even the celebrated remark of Ingres, that haunted Matisse, “Drawing is the probity of art,” doesn’t necessarily mean that drawing is different from painting. On the contrary, Constable, and the English of the Romantic period in general, seemed not to have entered real discussion with their French con- temporaries, so convinced were the latter that painting and drawing are “form,” in the sense of clear contour and solid modeling. Certainly in present-day America, if one looks at a group exhibition like the present one, or Una Johnson’s two volumes on 20th century drawing, many of the works could equally well be represented in a painting show or a watercolor show. Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel in one’s eyeball that drawing is not identical with painting—that the Venetians left fewer drawings than the Florentines because they were more exclusively painters, that Rothko, for example, in 25 years of intimacy, never showed me a drawing, he was so sheerly a painter. From the opposite side, El Greco, who was trained in Venice, is reported to have said of Michelangelo that he is a great artist, but not a painter, meaning obviously that the painting was that of a draughtsman, sculptor and (above all, to my mind) architect.

One could suggest two propositions: (a) drawing is that visual expression that painting is not, or alternately, (b) drawing is visual expression to which color is not essential.

But Helen Frankenthaler continually asserts, “You draw with color.” (But this could be a definition of painting!) Cézanne certainly worked that way; Michelangelo equally certainly did not. And Matisse, a master of black and white drawing, clearly thinks of black and white as hues, as intense as English vermilion or French ultramarine blue.

Baudelaire, who drew the best of all poets (save for Victor Hugo), has a profound observation: “The draughtsmanship of colorists is like that of nature: their figures are naturally bound by a harmonious collision of masses.” And Goya adds, “Where do they find lines in nature? As for me, I can distinguish only luminous and dark bodies; planes that approach and recede; reliefs and concavities. My eye never perceives lines and details . . . and my brush cannot see more or better than I.” But the truth is that Goya’s engravings are filled with lines.

Pragmatically, one sometimes thinks that drawing in essence could be defined as that which burin engraving is limited to, i.e., what a certain kind of chisel can cut out of a metal plate, just as writing began with a sharp point drawing in a coat of black wax, where shadows, if they exist, can only be made with lines, in short, line drawing. From this point of view, the brush is the opposite of drawing. But then, without even allowing the Orient to complicate the question, what does one call that beautiful sepia wash by John Constable in the Victoria and Albert called Trees and Water on the Stour?

I happen to like the line drawings of very small children, better, in fact, than the work of anyone except masters. The closest thing to it, when children use pencils (colored or not), is the quill strokes of Rembrandt, the more spontaneous and less “spelled out” drawings by Picasso for Guernica, and a few stick drawings on paper by Pollock. If one assumes that a baby is born wholly integrated with its feelings and that separation from them is the result of intruding outside forces, then for an adult to reintegrate himself with an equivalent lack of division and alienation in his expressions is so rare that we call it, as well we might, “genius.” Drawing is faster than painting, perhaps the only medium as fast as the mind itself: When I said “line drawing,” I should have said “fine line drawing,” for when small children use their imagery in what I imagine is a modern medium, finger painting, I find the imagery as felt as ever, but the medium repulsive, like drawing in a wide-mouthed jar of vaseline.

Given Oriental art, which is always done with a brush, one cannot define drawing as line, much as I like it, and different as I think its feel is in one’s gut, compared with masses of color. But dropping the word “line” perhaps one can say—certainly I act on it—that drawing is the dividing of a plane surface (parallel to Denis’ definition of painting as “essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order”). I personally like that dividing to be as decisive and fast as the cracking of an Argentinian’s bullwhip, and generally make a drawing in seconds, whether geometric or calligraphic. (Most drawing is not the division of extension, but a blueprint of 3-dimensional forms.)

I like the 17th century collector of Rembrandt’s drawings who called them Rembrandt’s “pensées,” his “thoughts.” The quotation I previously made from Baudelaire, continues: “Pure draughtsmen are philosophers and dialecticians. Colorists are epic poets.

If one leaves out the word “epic”—Baudelaire must have been thinking of Rubens and Delacroix—one can agree. Painting can overcome one with its sensuousness, like the soft warm skin of a woman, in a way that drawing cannot. But drawing can be as clear-cut as one’s father’s precepts. Drawing satisfies our sense of definition, even if we cannot define “drawing” itself. Drawing is a racing yacht, cutting through the ocean. Painting is the ocean itself.

This text was originally published in the exhibition catalogue Drawing Society National Exhibition—1970. New York: American Federation of Arts for the Drawing Society, 1970.


Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was one of the leading American artists of the twentieth century.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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