No one would ever call the Whitney Biennial—that provocative, gleefully bipolar, often thrilling fun house of a museum show—traditional. In fact, its curators would probably take offense if someone did. But this year, a funny thing happened on the biennial's march to art-history notoriety. Alongside the de rigueur sprawl of so-hip-it-hurts conceptual art was something unexpectedly traditional: namely, walls upon walls of...drawings. There in one room were Amy Cutler's finely wrought, unsettling tableaux of frayed-looking women stitching tiger skins and ferrying horses on their backs. There in another were Ernesto Caivano's almost mathematical black-and-white abstract landscapes. There were watercolors and works in graphite by barely-out-of-art-school talents like Hernan Bas and Zak Smith and Banks Violette and Robyn O'Neil, as well as pieces by such contemporary masters as David Hockney and Raymond Pettibon, who won the biennial's $100,000 Bucksbaum Award.
The Whitney Museum of Modern Art isn't the only one having a drawing moment. In the last two years, a number of other museums and galleries have mounted major exhibitions of drawings and works on paper: The UCLA Armand Hammer Museum's energetic "International Paper" show highlighted 22 emerging artists from around the world; "Pencil: Drawings from the Collection" at the Museum of Modern Art included pieces by Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly, and Jasper Johns; the Matthew Marks Gallery featured Lucian Freud's early works on paper. In June the Drawing Center, the influential nonprofit gallery in New York, was one of four organizations chosen to occupy a highly coveted space at the new World Trade Center site's cultural complex. After the paint-soaked eighties and the photography- and video-crazed nineties, it suddenly appears that drawing—that humblest of mediums—has found its way back into the spotlight.
But as significant as the recent spate of big museum and gallery shows is, perhaps the most irrefutable proof of the current drawing renaissance can be seen in the works of a younger generation of artists. This group has embraced the art form with fervor; indeed, some of the most promising and discussed artists today either primarily or exclusively use ink and paper, a medium that a mere few years ago seemed too mousy, too undistinguished, to ever generate much excitement among artists or collectors. A few of these twenty- and thirtysomethings spent the last decade feeling like anachronisms.
"In art school in Hamburg [Germany], I was the only one who drew," says Nina Lola Bachhuber, a 33-year-old German who lives in New York and whose mysterious portraits and abstractions were shown at the Hammer. "Everyone else did photography and video. Drawing was considered old-fashioned, and anyone who did it was thought to be out of it." Amy Cutler, 30, was actually discouraged from working on paper by her professors. "Some of them even tried to advise me to mount the paper on canvas to make it more 'substantial,' " she recalls.
Nowadays, though, the medium's low-tech origins and inherent modesty make it an exciting alternative to the excesses and artistic posturing of the previous two decades. "With a drawing, you have a direct relationship with the artist," says Richard Heller, the eponymous owner of a Santa Monica, California, gallery focusing on the form. "The ideas always seem so fresh."
That very directness may help explain why many people find drawing so intoxicating, agrees Claudine Isé, a curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus. "Drawing never really went away," says Isé, who cocurated the Hammer's exhibition. "It's such a timeless medium that you can't ever truly eclipse it. It's being rediscovered now in part because it fosters an intimate relationship between the artist and viewer."
Really, who doesn't have an intimate relationship with drawing? Who hasn't doodled on a scrap of paper while on the phone, sketched an absentminded portrait of a friend, or drawn a crude map on a matchbook? Drawing is the most democratic, the most familiar, of artistic techniques, in part because we've all experienced it firsthand.
A drawing is generous in a way few other art forms are; it invites us to engage not only with it but also with the artist who created it. And for art lovers, there are few greater thrills than admiring the line of a great draftsman (be he Leonardo da Vinci or Pettibon), knowing that the image has been made with just a stub of a pencil or an ink-dipped brush. If some of today's photography and digital art can feel artificial, drawing is artisanal—its power rests in its purity.
"With drawings, you can't lie," Bachhuber says. "I like that. Even today, if I look at someone else's drawings and the person really knows how to draw, I know they're a good artist. You can't manipulate a drawing. There's no technology. It is what it is, and there's no hiding."
This is not to say, however, that drawing—and, perhaps more significantly, the very definition of drawing—hasn't changed radically since Da Vinci's days. Now a drawing can mean everything from a traditional pencil or pen-and-ink sketch to a comic strip to a painting. "Defining what a drawing is can be tricky," Isé says. "People define the term in different ways. At the Hammer, if it was on paper, we considered it a drawing. Or if it was a drawing painted on a wall, we considered that a drawing. We wanted to keep things open." (Everyone, it seems, has a distinct definition, however; Cutler, who is among the better known of the young drawers, doesn't even consider herself one. "I work on paper, but I use paint, so I consider myself a painter," she explains.) Generally, though, a drawing is described as a work on paper created directly by the artist's hand. While the materials may vary wildly (Christine Hiebert, a Brooklyn-based artist, makes some works with blue construction tape), drawing has remained remarkably unchanged in its construction and execution despite centuries of technological developments. A digital photographer today might find little in common with a daguerreotypist from the 19th century; a modern drawer, subject matter aside, would likely sense an immediate kinship with any predecessor.
But although no two artists or curators are likely to define drawing in the same way, what everyone does agree on is drawing's current cachet among collectors. "I've always thought drawing was a great purchase, particularly for younger or new collectors," Heller says. "And it's still quite affordable; I don't think drawing has yet 'corrected' in value the way photography has. With a drawing, you're getting an original work, not a multiple." Seven years ago, when Heller first began showing Canadian artist Marcel Dzama's eccentric, witty works on paper, they were priced at twenty dollars. "But he was barely making any money, so he asked if we could raise the price to forty dollars." Heller laughs. "Now they're a thousand dollars apiece." And while such a dizzying price hike is remarkable in any medium, Dzama's work remains very reasonable and—thanks to what Heller calls the artist's prolificacy—available.
His work's warp-speed appreciation aside, Dzama is known for his sinister, giggly iconography (smoking women, angry tree trunks, blobbish beasts) and his moss-and-brown palette, which he achieves by mixing root beer with gouache. And although there are as many styles among this new generation as there are artists themselves, Dzama's absurdist, comic irreverence is also representative of one of the more popular aesthetics in drawing today. Dzama has become to a segment of the drawing world what Takashi Murakami is to art inspired by manga (Japanese comics) or, perhaps more aptly, what his sometime collaborator Dave Eggers is to contemporary fiction—the inventor of a new artistic language. And his style is just one of many (see "A Guide to the Artists").
Perhaps it's this infinite diversity that truly distinguishes drawing from other mediums; that, and its timelessness. Through new technology, new aesthetics, and new artistic movements, there have been and always will be artists who discover drawing and, in making it their own, remind us of the artists who came before. Art looking forward while also looking back: What could be more traditional than that?
Richard Heller Gallery 2525 Michigan Ave., B-5A, Santa Monica, CA; 310-453-9191; www.richardhellergallery.com
David Zwirner Gallery 525 W. 19th St., New York; 212-727-2070; www.davidzwirner.com
The Drawing Center 35 Wooster St., New York; 212-219-2166; www.drawingcenter.org
White Columns 320 W. 13th St., New York; 212-924-4212; www.whitecolumns.org
Pierogi 177 N. Ninth St., Brooklyn; 718-599-2144; www.pierogi2000.com
A GUIDE TO THE ARTISTS
Drawing definitely has cachet. A suite of ten large-scale drawings by 2002 Turner Prize winner Keith Tyson sold at this year's New York Armory Show for $200,000. But that price is an over-the-top exception. You can buy a work by a respected midcareer artist or a promising newcomer for less than $10,000—often for much less. Below, 13 artists to watch.
THE CULTURAL PROVOCATEUR
Iona Rozeal Brown
Brown's drawings of traditional ukiyo-e lovelies in hip-hop gear and blackface provide sly commentary on cultural appropriation in art and street culture. www.gfineartdc.com
Caivano creates almost mathematical black-and-white landscapes. www.richardhellergallery.com
Allusive, witty, and rich with metaphorical zingers, Cutler's fantastical gouaches depict covens of women grimly toiling at the absurdist tasks seen only in dreams. www.tonkonow.com
Gibbs's skyscrapers are as precise as architectural renderings yet as blurred as shaky black-and-white photographs. www.paulmorrisgallery.com
Ji makes fabulously detailed scrolls using Chinese brush-and-ink techniques to examine China's social conditions. www.pierogi2000.com
Cheol Yu Kim
Kim's watercolors are dense with shapes that suggest both futuristic machinery and insects. New York's Drawing Center will hold his first solo show in 2005. www.whitecolumns.org ("Curated Artists' Registry")
THE ENFANT TERRIBLE
His impressive, brightly colored landscapes teem with dizzying detail; at 24 Lowe is the Saul Steinberg of the MTV generation. www.juliafriedman.com
The Sweden-based Nordström makes faux-naïf drawings and collages incorporating elements from folk and outsider art, surrealism, comics, and African-American crazy quilts. www.davidzwirner.com
THE ART HISTORIAN
In her spiky narratively driven tableaux, Ohsawa, an exacting, sophisticated draftsman, weds a manga aesthetic to motifs from traditional Japanese textiles and ukiyo-e. www.naoprojectgallery.info
THE CARTOONIST AS SOCIOLOGIST
The drawings of Tomine, who creates the popular "Optic Nerve" comic book series and does illustrations for The New Yorker, are casual yet profound expressions of angst. www.comicartcollective.com