When MoMA mounted its first 'Drawing Now' show back in 1976, the inclusion of works by artists such as Mel Bochner, Richard Serra and Brice Marden signalled a recognition that drawing had become, as Serra later put it, 'a verb'. What he meant was that in the post-Minimalist environment of the 1970s drawing was enjoying freedom from its historical obligations to depict, study or express, and that the act of drawing in itself, as an evidentiary process of thinking through, was in ascendance. Like they say, that was then, this is now. As Laura Hoptman, the curator of 'Drawing Now: Eight Propositions', argues in her catalogue essay, in the last decade or so drawing has been progressively transliterated back into a noun. Her contention is that, contrary to its function as ancillary to action or thought for artists of Serra's generation, drawing in the 1990s reclaimed its narrative imagination and historical memory, coming to resemble more closely its pre-20th-century identity as a self-contained, finished thing. A younger generation of artists, she argues, is comfortable in its technical mastery and the manipulation of subject matter as filtered by broader visual culture.
The historical dichotomy being offered is perhaps unnecessarily tidy, bypassing those artists whose once seemingly retrogressive graphic work bucked prevailing trends during the process-oriented era. Nor does it adequately acknowledge that, without the strategic precedents established by various strains of Conceptualism, Minimalism and Pop, very little of the work here would exist. Hoptman is right on target, however, when she notes the recent explosive flowering of the medium, its pockets of richness and pleasure and its concentrations of talent - what she humourously quotes a distraught Benjamin Buchloh as calling the 'incessant and ever-expanding deployment of draughtsmanship'. But this generous, qualitatively uneven, sampler, in which 26 youngish artists from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa are represented, is not just a showcase for clever work with pen and pencil. By tracking the ways that genres, styles and disciplines have been stretched, alloyed and reimagined of late, the show handily sketches out one convincing perspective on the current state of contemporary art, with a rare coherence for a large international survey.
Akin to the distinctions devised by the 18th-century connoisseur, the exhibition is loosely apportioned along thematic lines that make sense of the range of scale, technique, material and imagery on view. Instead of pastorals, seascapes or grotesques, however, there are groupings such as 'Science and Artifice', 'Fashion and Likeness' or 'Comics and Subcultures'; taxonomies fluid enough to encourage alternative connections to form.
In a section entitled 'Mental Maps', for example, Mark Manders' graphically prosaic Self-Portrait as a Building/Provisional Floor Plan (1994) charts the domestic co-ordinates of any number of personal bugbears lurking in the artist's innermost psychological recesses, but Manders' work would be equally at home alongside Toba Khedoori's preternaturally transfixing, billboard-sized renderings of household interiors, found in an area dedicated to the influence of professional architectural draughtsmanship. Likewise, in a section titled 'Drawing Happiness' - which is anything but cheery - British artist Paul Noble's realist pencil murals illustrate dystopic 'new towns' in varying stages of decay and desolation. Seen in aerial overview, these dense Piranesian ruins also function as characters in an obscure alphabet, the entropic details of social breakdown hypothetically readable as a syntactic panorama. In operating within a view of architecture as both metaphor and text, these artists are in good company. Their diagrammed infrastructural failures and fearful utopias share common ground with Neo Rauch's heroically drab, Eastern-bloc Surrealism, as well as David Thorpe's Wagnerian Futurist visions, which ought to win the prize for weirdest illustrational hybrid. His coloured paper collages of austere cantilevered mountain eyries suggest everything from post-apocalyptic sci-fi Edens to neo-fascist Alpine fantasies and countless Hollywood government conspiracy movies.
Nowhere is the inclination to encroach on to the turf of other disciplines clearer than in the section devoted to science, where sculptor Jennifer Pastor's Düreresque ink studies of botanical specimens and arabesque 'flow charts' of bronco-busting cowboys - traced with the kinetic linear grace of a flung lasso - are paired with Russell Crotty's hushed astronomical illustrations. Pastor, unlike her 16th-century predecessors, does not draw from life, preferring second-hand sources such as magazine photos or commercial decorations from which to derive her naturalistic studies. In contrast, Crotty (who at 46 is the old man of the exhibition) makes minutely accurate star charts and cosmological atlases without photographic aids or any 21st-century tools. Produced via direct observation from a seaside California perch, they are rendered in a decidedly homespun manner in cross-hatched pen and ink and bound in handmade volumes, having something of the lush and luminous delicacy of Galileo's own lunar sketches.
What makes this generation's work so allusive is the degree to which the image-saturated world, André Malraux's 'museum without walls', has actually come to pass. For Malraux, however, it was a one-way street, from producer to consumer, whereas the contemporary reality, in which everyone (knowingly or not) borrows from everyone else's cultural reservoir while enriching their own, is infinitely more complex. So when Jockum Nordström makes narrative tableaux with torn paper that recall Romare Bearden's flattened urban scenes while hinting at both the folkloric and Modernist conventions of his native Norway; or Shahzia Sikander channels the ghosts of her Mughal and Persian forbearers in painstaking miniature paintings that are as up-to-the-minute as today's headlines is it symptomatic of the homogenizing effects of a mix-and-match cultural supermarket, or the germ of hybrids that will renew tradition rather than strip-mine it? I would like to think the latter, although the antithesis may be a false one. The fact is that drawing and human culture are synonymous, and since at least the last Ice Age both have been restive, mutable and mobile. Rather than fear the 'incessant deployment' of drawing as a noun, we should perhaps be reassured to know it has been both noun and verb from day one.
First published in Issue 73