Laura Gascoigne: Redrawing Drawing – July 2019

Laura Gascoigne
July/August 2019

It’s hard to know where to start with Ingres’s definition when nobody knows any more what probity means. And yet drawing is enjoying a resurgence. What is going on?

When David Hockney breezed into the Royal College from Bradford in 1959, he announced his arrival not with naïve etchings of naughty gay boys but with a drop-dead academic pencil drawing of the college skeleton. It proved to be an ironic last hurrah. Almost immediately after, the idea of drawing as an end in itself went down the drain with the rest of the academic wastewater. But ever since, like Incy Wincy Spider, it has been climbing back up.

The first sign that it was still alive and kicking was the launch in 1973 of The Cleveland International Drawing Biennale. By the time that ran out of puff in 1996 Anita Taylor had picked up the baton with the Rexel Derwent Open Drawing Exhibition (1994), subsequently the Cheltenham Open Drawing exhibition (1996), the Jerwood Drawing Prize (2001) and as of last year, the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. Then came the Guild of St George’s jolly populist Campaign for Drawing, aka The Big Draw, and the Prince’s, now the Royal, Drawing School, both launched in 2000. Dedicated exhibition spaces opened in London in The Drawing Room (2002) and The Drawing Gallery (2004), and a smattering of public exhibitions with sexy titles promoting ‘new drawing practices’ followed: Tate Britain’s The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act (2004), Hayward Touring Exhibition The End of the Line: Attitudes to Drawing (2009) and Tate Liverpool’s Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change (2012). Now, shazam! the DRAW Art Fair has made its debut at the Saatchi Gallery.

In the meantime, definitions of drawing have been flapping about like loose sheets on an unmanned vessel as curators have gone overboard with attempts to rebrand it. Announcing its exhibition Drawing in Progress in 2010, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art – call me mima – claimed the key to the show’s success was “the way in which the advisory panel refused to define the term ‘drawing’ in the traditional way… forcing a reassessment of all the criteria under which we might produce, view, or discuss drawing.” That was telling them.

In the 20 years since I’ve been keeping tabs, the reassessment has progressed in leaps and bounds: Richard Long’s 1967 drawing with feet on grass in a Wiltshire field now seems positively plodding after James Capper’s use of the ripper teeth of a mechanical digger to take a line for a walk round an Oxford housing estate in 2011. But mostly there’s been masses of drawings on gallery walls, aka ‘interventions in the space’. A leading exponent of this new drawing practice is Austrian artist Otto Zitko, who in 2010 covered three floors of the Arnolfini in an “all-enveloping drawing intervention in situ”. Zitko had previous, having already “improvised across the walls of cultural institutions around the world”. His “expansive abstract drawings”, the publicity told us, “seem to emerge from an unbounded desire to cover every surface – a primal urge to contain the whole of reality within a subjective cocoon or unbroken lines”. Good luck to him. 

Wall drawings used to be known as ‘muriels’ back in the day when decorating walls was considered a girly activity, before abstract painters like Blinky Palermo got in on the act in the late 1960s and made it macho. But Blinky’s murals were never as expansive as the 69ft wall drawing on the ICA’s concourse wall that won Toby Paterson the Becks Futures Award in 2002 – since when expansive abstract drawing has become a staple of gallery stairwells from Pallant House to Tate Britain. 

Why stop at walls? For her 2011 Raumzeichnung (‘Drawing in Space’) exhibition at the Sumarria Lunn Gallery, Berlin-based Polish artist Monica Grzymala contrived to “rearticulate the entire space” with sticky tape designed to “depart from the gallery walls” before eventually succumbing “to the will of gravity, the deterioration echoing humanity like some gigantic vanitas”. Never one to pass up the chance of a gigantic vanitas, Anthony Gormley was an early adopter of 3-D drawing or what he calls “activating the space”. (If he would only activate the space between his ears he might finally produce something worth looking at, though on past form we can fairly assume that his autumn show at his Royal Academy will be the usual waste of.)

Is change in the air? The DRAW art fair in May was largely works on paper, a substantial number of them in humble pencil. And on the evidence of the last Trinity Buoy Art Prize the standard of, whisper it, draughtsmanship is going up, partly thanks to an infusion of young blood from the Royal Drawing School. Yes, the heir to all those Leonardos currently on show at the Queen’s Galley has been doing his bit towards, as the jammy say, ‘giving something back’. DRAW was dominated by the usual array of approved contemporary drawing styles – obsessive, outsider arty, pop arty, cartoonish, illustrational, Twomblyish – but with the best examples the style was less important than the content. As with writing, it helps if you have something to say. Still, no contemporary artist came close to the throwaway line of Jean Cocteau, whose full-frontal nude pencil drawing of a chef with his toque still on his head and his trousers round his ankles made Warhol’s nude hunk on the same stand look flaccid. It would have knocked Hockney’s pretty boys into a cocked hat too.

All the signs are that we’re inching forward; now it’s public galleries that need to catch up. The British Museum hasn’t done the cause of graphic probity any favours by bigging up Damien Hirst’s beermat portraits of his former Svengali Frank Dunphy, dashed off during breakfast business meetings at The Wolseley and kindly donated under the cultural gifts scheme, thus saving Dunphy £90,000 in tax. The example released for publicity purposes, titled ‘Frank Eggs-ellent Dunphy’ – boom boom – shows the subject as a Dumpty in an eggcup. “Damien Hirst raised money-making and commercialisation of his art to a new level,” explained the BM’s curator of prints and drawings Hugo Chapman, stopping short of calling it an art form. The drawings he described as “very immediate… drawn with great energy… Damien can draw, there’s no doubt about that.” If there wasn’t any doubt, would it need saying? As a draughtsman Hirst is in a GCSE class of his own.

In his introduction to the catalogue for DRAW, the fair’s French founder Laurent Boudier quoted Ingres without defining either of his terms. So why is drawing the probity of art? Because it shows artists up. Hirst may have hidden his drawings under the table at The Wolseley, but there’ll be nowhere to hide in Room 90 at the BM. As Wyndham Lewis wrote in The Role of the Line in Art: “It is more difficult upon a piece of white paper, your means of expression reduced to a few lines, to deceive the expert spectator than it is with a lot of oil paint upon a canvas.”

But where, I hear you wail, are today’s expert spectators? Despair not. Given regular exposure to good drawing, spectators will acquire expertise.