Drawing, from a Starting Point of Zero
The curator of Degree Zero traces a revolutionary concept that inspired postwar artists.
May 21, 2021
Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury is on view at MoMA through June 5.
Otto Piene. Untitled (Smoke Drawing). 1959
Norman Lewis. The Messenger. 1952
In the 1950s, at a postwar moment when national identity was particularly freighted, a complex conversation around calligraphic drawing arose at the nexus of American, European, and Asian art. A 1954 exhibition of Japanese calligraphy at MoMA, which featured works by artists such as Morita Yasuji and Osawa Gakyū, reflected an interest in what the press release called “this new abstract calligraphy,” which “seeks primarily to exploit the pictorial values of the written symbol, making legibility incidental.” Meanwhile, American artists like Franz Kline, David Smith, and Norman Lewis were heavily influenced by Japanese calligraphy—though Kline would later deny it, despite his extensive engagement with the Japanese Bokujinkai circle, or “group of people of the ink.” Presumably Japan, its position weakened after its wartime defeat, was not a suitable interlocutor for the virile Abstract Expressionist. But European artists happily took up the mantle; Pierre Alechinsky even traveled to Japan to make the film Calligraphie japonaise in 1956.
If calligraphy was one graphism that appeared in postwar drawing, topography was another, as artists surveyed new physical and psychological landscapes. Dubuffet incorporated figures and language into the whorls of an inky terrain, while Louise Bourgeois zoomed into a forest of follicles until they read like mountains or blades of grass. Jay DeFeo mapped the crumbling walls of Florence’s churches, while Sari Dienes recorded, through rubbing, the peaks and valleys of a lower Manhattan gravestone. Dorothy Dehner charted the New City she found following her divorce from David Smith and her return to New York from an isolated Bolton Landing, while Beauford Delaney harnessed the electric energy of his adopted Paris. Ellsworth Kelly captured the play of shadows on a staircase in the South of France, while Georgia O’Keeffe found forms in the aerial view of a landscape from an airplane window.
Louise Bourgeois. Untitled. 1949
Finally, drawing also took a choreographic turn during this period, expanding to encompass performative practices ranging from the aleatory to the expressionist. Merce Cunningham took pen to graph paper to plot the randomly derived movement possibilities of his Suite By Chance, while Gunter Brus—before enacting the violent feats of Viennese Actionism on his own body—recorded his aggressive kinetics in gouache on paper. In his 48-sheet scroll A Trip from Here to There, Beat polymath Brion Gysin engaged calligraphy, topography, and choreography all at once; starting from zero, the work dances a journey across Morocco in a pure, language-like line.
A Rashid Johnson Sketchbook
The artist shares a never-before-seen drawing project and talks about his “existential line-making.”
Rashid Johnson, Samantha Friedman
Feb 8, 2021
A Curator’s Guide to Degree Zero Exhibition Highlights
Take a close look at 10 essential works from the exhibition, selected by curator Samantha Friedman.
Nov 17, 2020