Ruth Fine, former curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art, and Marjorie Shelley, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, will discuss drawings on paper in their upcoming lecture, “Appreciating Paper: Art’s Best Supporting Actor”, on Thursday, August 31 at 4:30 pm in Kresge Auditorium. Juliette Dankens ’18 recently interviewed Fine about her work with drawings.
When you look at a collection of drawings, what attracts you to a specific drawing? Do you have a favorite drawing and why?
RF: There are so many different things that attract me to any group of drawings, indeed to any individual drawing. If you are asking me if I have a favorite in the Why Draw exhibition at Bowdoin, definitely not. I put together a list of images to show during my introductory remarks during the upcoming program; they range from the late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth-century pen and ink drawing titled Alpine Landscape by an artist whose name we do not know to an abstraction by the twentieth century artist Norman Lewis, drawn in oil paint, a medium more generally associated with works on canvas than paper. I narrowed my selection of “favorites” down to twenty works, but that was very difficult as many more are of great interest to me.
The great majority of drawings in Why Draw? are works on paper. How does a medium inform an artist’s work or vision? Or does the artist’s vision inform his choice of medium?
RF: The interaction of medium and image varies from artist to artist, and sometimes from drawing to drawing within an artist’s work. What has always made me committed to studying drawings is that they often are the earliest expressions of artists’ ideas, although artists also make drawings after paintings rather than, or in addition to, drawings for paintings. But either way drawings are marked by a sense of discovery that is visible in the works themselves.
Many artists are their most experimental when working on paper, as even the best papers tend to be smaller, lighter, and less costly than the materials used for paintings, sculpture, environments, etc. Often a thought comes to an artist when he or she is out of the studio, and it is generally possible for them to find some paper and get these ideas down. There is a wonderful book edited by Winifried Nerdinger called Dinner for Architects: A Collection of Napkin Sketches, which include sketches made for a special dinner celebrating the opening of the Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Munich. The source of the idea was in the many sketches on napkins by architects that were known to exist.
How would you describe watercolor as a tool for drawing as opposed to a painting medium, aside from its use of paper as a support?
RF: Regarding watercolor, there are so many ways to use it, and so many kinds of both transparent and opaque watercolors, that I don’t think there is a meaningful way to define its use on paper as distinct from as a “painting” medium. One of the hallmarks of the last century has been to break down categories, certainly in respect to art, but more generally as well. I hope in our discussion of the Why Draw? exhibition, that the broadest possible readings of the drawings on view, and of works on paper in general, will be among the conceptual frames of reference.
Over many years, drawing transformed from serving as preparatory tools for paintings, sculptures, and other works of art into works of art themselves. Can you point to a particular period of time, or a significant artist, associated with this shift? Or was it a natural progression?
I don’t think I can point to a period of time or a particular artist responsible for the shift in how drawings are viewed. In my lifetime alone, I have seen drawing come to be accepted as a major medium of independent expression, which was far less so when I was in art school in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
But independent works on paper go back hundreds of years. Think of the eighteenth century French pastel portraits and the fact that they are often referred to as “pastel paintings.” If we want really to think about the origins of drawing, we must go back to the cave artists whose drawings surely were independent works, not in preparation for anything grander.
Do you see the identity of drawing changing in the future?
I think the identity of virtually everything is in flux right now, so surely drawing will change as well. It is changing: think of the role of digital media. We have no way to know what will happen in the future, but I think we can be sure that something will to expand our understanding of drawing’s possibilities.
So, why draw?
RF: Why draw? Every artist probably would give you a personally nuanced answer. But speaking broadly, I think drawing is a means of thinking that is basic to the visual arts. Maybe drawing is basic to human visual experience. Given the opportunity, I think all of us want to draw as children, and do so if provided with the tools. In that sense drawing is a means of self-expression. Some of us develop the practice as part of a profession and others do not. But most of us at one time or another make an image as a way to explain something we want to put across to others. Artists do it with complex sophistication based on a lifetime of thought and practical experience.