Each year, I attend the Master Drawings fair I discover artists I had not known before. And I find them completely worth knowing for the subtlety of their hand, the finesse of their depictions, what they choose to turn their attention to, and their clear devotion to the subjects they take up. I find a kind of earnest seeing and translation in this work. And while the fair features paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures from the 14th to the 21st centuries, this time I focused most on the drawings and watercolors, and found some especially lovely ones.
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One of the first galleries I visited was Cade Tompkins Projects which was ensconced in the depths of the Pierre Hotel, which I only found by having the maître d’ guide me there. It was worth the initial disorientation to find Allison Bianco’s work “Gaspee Down the Line” (2020) which depicts a fantastical beach scene with waves pitched up to look like watery pinnacles and extravagant, prodigal visual elements that I wouldn’t think would belong in such a vista. Bianco’s placed a line of chartreuse like an errant bolt of lightning, a neon pink hill in the distance and few bananas tossed in the air as a kind of inside joke that has something to do with the artist and her siblings playing a prank on their mother.
Dean Richardson’s “Looking for Crazy Horse 5” is part of a series of works portraying Indigenous people, most of which place individuals in a landscape, but here Richardson hones in on one key figure, a Lakota leader of the Oglala band in the 19th century known for his bravery in fighting to preserve his people’s lives and livelihoods in the face of military colonization. I like that the washy colors and indeterminate figuration make the person inscrutable. It would have been a cliché move to give him a determinedly heroic presentation, but here I see a figure who is difficult to ascertain, shrouded by legend and myth and the passage of time.
At Agnews gallery I immediately gravitated towards a very striking portrait of a Black man by Glyn Warren Philpot, a British portraitist and sculptor who operated in London and made a successful career as a society portrait painter around the turn of the 20th century. I can feel the architecture of this face and love the spendthrift use of white chalk to highlight the cheekbones and forehead. There is something deeply admiring about this profile.
At Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, I was surprised to find a work by Emil Nolde, a German painter, one of the first expressionists, a member of the the group Die Brücke (The Bridge), and someone who I feel I haven’t seen enough of yet. Nolde was known for using garish colors, and here he mutes that tendency with just splashes of bright orange on the lips and at the corner of one eye. But what’s captivating is the structure of the face. He gets it in just a few lines: how that particular face works and why it’s one that others would want to gaze on.
There are very few artists who come close to having Egon Schiele’s facility with a line. In his hands the line was fastidiously economical, nothing wasted. Here in “Portrait of a Child (Anton Peschka, Jr.)” (1918), the softness of the eyes and the trust in that return of the gaze is a kind of beauty that many photographers and parents attempt to capture at that very tender age in a child’s life. Schiele’s ability to render the subtleties of the human form make him someone I will never not seek out when I have the opportunity.
While just about to leave Stephen Ongpin, I noticed an odd self-portrait by Austin Osman Spare propped on a chair. What seems to dance above his head is an amalgamation of sprouted leaves and fairy beings with the tapered edges of a natural fire. The portrait is odd and melancholy and reading up on Spare, I found that he life was even more so. At age 17, Spare became one of the youngest artists to exhibit at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and being called a boy genius by the leading painters of the day won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, but left without completing his degree. He self-published books, founded magazines, and became well enough known as a draftsman that Adolf Hitler invited him to paint his portrait. He refused and in a cruel turn of fate during World War II, his home and studio was destroyed by a German bomb, thus he lost hundreds of his works and was also severely injured. Now having experienced his work I will not soon forget his name.
At Mireille Mosler, which has become one of my favorite galleries to visit during the fair, I encountered Jan Toorop’s “Contemplation (Nirvana)” (1895), which presents a very strange scene that includes an androgynous figure with their doppelganger behind them, suited in medieval armor. Initially I saw the drawing online and thought that it resembles symbolist painting with its coded references, but even more intriguing was the discovery I made in person. It seems that the armored figure may actually be pushing the sword into the back of the central figure who is nonetheless unbothered by this aggression.
At Nicholas Hall I found a small drawing that was all swirling motion, making me think of the Italian Futurists, such as Giacomo Balla, and Duchamp’s brilliant deconstruction of human movement “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” (1912). The background literature tells me that this style of blocky figuration with no facial features was typical of draftsmanship in 16th century Italy which was influenced by the cubic system of drawing developed by Albrecht Dürer in his studies and illustrations of human proportion. Though faceless, there is still something uniquely elegant about this composition.
Lastly, at Graham Shay I found some abstract work that caught and held my eye. Sal Sirugo was in the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement, living in the same building as Grace Hartigan, and stretching canvases for Lee Krasner. But he went in his own direction experimenting with Chinese ink to make landscapes and worlds that existed within an image the size of a postcard. And his close, careful, subtle observation is representative of precisely why I continue to gravitate to the Master Drawings fair.
Master Drawings New York 2022 continues at several locations in Manhattan through January 29.