Art Review | 'Compass in Hand'
MoMA Pushes the Envelope in Works on Paper

The Museum of Modern Art is deeply divided. It wants to run wild and kick up its heels, but it can’t imagine a world without fences. It wants to open up to new work, young art and different ways of being a museum, but it often ends up doing things halfway, hedging its bets. That way lies mediocrity of a most tortured sort.
“Compass in Hand: Selections From the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection” conveys this ambivalence in all its amazing messiness. The show might almost be parenthetically titled “museum on a couch,” so clearly does the Modern seem to flop down, stare at the ceiling and mull things over, in a stream-of-consciousness mode.
This exhibition is the first attempt to make sense of the largest gift of drawings the Modern has ever received: a collection of 2,500 drawings by 650 artists given to the museum in a single lump in May of 2005. The actual exhibition contains only 354 works by 177 artists, but it is still the largest exhibition of drawings ever mounted at the Modern. It has been selected and installed by Christian Rattemeyer, associate curator in the museum’s department of drawings, working with Connie Butler, its chief curator.
Over the course of this show the Modern considers life without the comforts of an established canon, but it still clings stubbornly to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Either way, it also expands that canon with the work of overlooked women, among them Jo Baer, Ree Morton and Adrian Piper in her abstract phase. It is curious about the new and often quite supportive, but it has trouble venturing outside the accepted Chelsea gene pool — except in the area of outsider art, which is becoming one of the Modern’s strengths.
A near-fatal attraction to drawings by famous artists who don’t make especially good drawings is indicated. So is an approach-avoidance relationship to a flexible, imaginative use of daring connoisseurship. Driving home the point is the show’s especially plodding organization, with works arranged primarily according to styles, nationalities and even local geography. Why devote a gallery to artists who live in or near Los Angeles? This means that once more we see Mike Kelley, Jason Rhodes, Raymond Pettibon and Paul McCarthy grouped together, although here their fairly noisy efforts are upstaged by Frances Stark’s imposing patchwork of typewritten patterns.
The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection was assembled, starting in March 2003, by Harvey S. Shipley Miller, the foundation’s sole trustee, working with Gary Garrells, at the time the chief curator of MoMA’s department of drawing. Mr. Miller’s original idea was a yearlong shopping spree during which he and Mr. Garrells would amass, in his words, “a cross section of a moment in time” as reflected in drawing. The collection would emphasize young, unknown artists and be given to the museum.
The project aroused plenty of art world skepticism about the speed of assembly and Mr. Miller’s relative inexperience with contemporary drawings. It had a stuntlike quality: collection-building as performance art. The average rate of acquisition was an exhausting four to five drawings every day, five days a week.
The project changed. One year expanded to two. The cross section of a moment in time grew to several decades. The collection became an occasion to fill gaps in the Modern’s collection. A group of 101 Minimalist and conceptualist drawings from the late 1960s and early ’70s formed by the New York collectors Eileen and Michael Cohen, was snapped up. Older artists became part of the moment, as indicated by the recent works of Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly that greet you in the show’s opening gallery. So did Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986. His drawings serve here as precedents to validate the nervous lines of Matthew Barney and Chloe Piene; together or alone, none of these three artists make a strong impression here.
Still, despite the gap-filling, an astounding 340 of the 650 Rothschild artists are new to the Modern, which undermines its unwritten policy of not accepting gifts of work by artists who are not already represented in its collection. But — more ambivalence — emerging artists are not the point of this exhibition; only 28 of the 177 artists represented here are newbies. It would have been more in the spirit of Mr. Miller’s original intent to show all the newbie artists, or all the works from after 2000, skying them salon style up the walls and, if need be, even spilling over into the atrium gallery outside, onto the walls that the Kippenberger retrospective isn’t using. It is these works, found mostly in the show’s second half, that provide the most juice.
As the best parts of this exhibition demonstrate, drawing remains art’s most universal and forgiving medium. Its ability to absorb new ideas and collaborate with other mediums is evident in installations like Kelley Walker’s digital layering of bright cabochon shapes and news images of disasters, which form a kind of wallpaper for further works, or Jim Lambie’s relatively low-tech wall piece, where appropriated images of eyes held in place by black tape form networks of alien, nodelike clusters that challenge and deflect our gaze with the horrors of mascara gone mad.
Yet the show also proves the enduring ease and intimacy of paper and pencil, pen or brush. Time and time again this basic combination is reinvented by the urgency of the individual. This is evident in the quietly insistent pencil portraits of Paul P., which have never impressed me until now; the fanciful creatures depicted by Ele D’Artagnan, an Italian self-taught artist who appeared in some of Fellini’s movies; and the lurid image of Hannah Wilke’s ravaged right hand, depicted by her left during her long fight with cancer.
Other standouts include Rosemarie Trockel’s rendering of a Jacqueline Kennedy-like beauty with horns; a stunning early drawing made of soot by Lee Bontecou; Franz West’s postcard-size depictions of the vaudeville stage; and the art-and-artist-filled collage drawings on which Lucy McKenzie and Paulina Olowska collaborated.
There’s a quiet innovation in both the mutant creatures that Christian Holstad makes by erasing and redrawing newspaper images and his discreetly homoerotic collages. For something less discreet, consider the sleekly ribald drawings of Tom of Finland, who turns the tables on Alberto Vargas and his girls.
This show’s dead zones reflect different kinds of inattention and conventional thinking, most of it in line with the popularity charts of international biennales. It contains poor drawings by artists who supposedly specialize in the medium but frequently succumb to generic rendering, most prominently William Kentridge.
There are undistinguished efforts from well-known artists whose best work has nothing to do with drawing — for instance, Anish Kapoor. There are also weak drawings by artists who excel at the medium, including Robert Gober and James Castle. Meanwhile, there is no room at all in the galleries for less fashionable high-powered draftsmen like Jim Nutt or Erwin Pfrang, whose work appears only in the catalogue raisonné this time around.
There are plenty of other artists in the catalog, both familiar and not, whose work looks as or more interesting than many drawings in the show. If they are included in the next excavation of this extraordinary deluge of drawings, we’ll know that the Modern is a few steps closer to getting over itself.
“Compass in Hand: Selections From the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection” continues through July 27 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400,

MoMA Pushes the Envelope in Works on Paper"
APRIL 24, 2009