By Tanya Silverman
Girl Seated on Rail Fence. By Winslow Homer. Circa 1878. Graphite with opaque white washes on beige, medium-weight, slightly textured wove paper. Taken from Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Out of the storage boxes and onto the study tables came over 3,000 original, rarely seen drawings that curator Karen Sherry examined. She spent two years sifting through the collection for the fruition of 110 selections suited for Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum.
“It was relatively easy to get the list down to about 500, then a little harder to get it down to 200,” Sherry recalls to BTR. “The final cuts there were the most painful ones, but that means there’s room for a future curator.”
Fine Lines features works from 1768-1945 that were drawn out of assorted media like pen and ink, crayon, charcoal, graphite, and paste. Its catalogue was organized into six themes: Recording Anatomy, Portraying Personalities, Fashioning Character, Telling Tales, Exploring Nature, and Observing the Built Environment.
Traditionally, museums would not put drawings on display as frequently as other forms of art. Their physical fragility and sensitivity to light makes them difficult to manage. Additionally, paintings, sculptures, glass installations, and other artistic mediums were considered to be more complete.
As such, Sherry cultivated a variety of works from “quick sketches to preparatory work to more finished studies” in order to show “the range of approaches” as well as particular pieces that artists executed–whether it was a highly detailed, finished forest landscape or a sketchy blueprint meant for a sculpture of a curvaceous ballerina.
Fine Lines was first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in Spring 2013. The opening occurred after Sherry’s decision to leave Brooklyn for Maine to become the Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum. She felt somewhat guilty about the move.
The Three Sisters. By Louis Bouche. 1918. Graphite on cream, moderately thick, moderately textured paper. Gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer. Taken from Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“As a curator… you feel somewhat proprietary over an exhibition you’re working on,” she explains. “It becomes kind of like a surrogate child and when you leave, it feels like you’re being a bad parent.”
Fortunately for Sherry, Fine Lines followed her to Maine for its second showcase at the Portland Museum earlier this year. Later this month, the exhibit will open at the Baker Museum in Florida.
As for the drawings themselves, Fine Lines encompasses work from a number of well-established figures like Georgia O’Keefe, Eastman Johnson, Thomas Eakins, and Marsden Hartley. Connotations like “painter,” “printmaker,” or “poet” usually come to mind when we hear these names, so by examining the ways they drew, we can develop a fuller perspective on their work.
For instance, many of us established a respect for Edward Hopper’s skill of shading after observing his paintings. However through his drawings, we can examine rawer, more fundamental instances of his unique talent. In Male Nude–a classroom figure sketch circa 1903-4–we can see Hopper’s proficiency employed using charcoal in how realistically he darkens the shadow the left side of the model’s face.
Winslow Homer is recognized principally for his painted landscapes and marine scenes. Fine Lines, meanwhile, offers us the chance to see what it was like for the artist to execute quick graphite sketches of subjects like rural children in upstate New York.
Sherry included drawings by sculptors like William Zorach and Elie Nadelman. She remarks that it becomes “especially interesting” to witness the ways artists work with two dimensions when they are typically identified for their craft with three.
Dozens of drawings in their finished form were picked for Fine Lines, such as Louis Bouche’s The Three Sisters. Even the minutest aspects of the women’s outfits, from skirt pleats to lacey collars, appear intricately developed. Bouche carefully accented their spatial surroundings as well, like curling tiny swirl patterns on curtains hanging in the background. The scope of shapes in this triple portrait portrays Bouche’s interest in Cubism.
Composition with Four Figures. By Max Weber. 1910. Charcoal and pastel on moderately thick, moderately textured laid paper. Dick S. Ramsay Fund. Taken from Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Another finished figurative Cubist drawing Sherry picked for Fine Lines is Max Weber’s Composition with Four Figures from 1910. Sherry alludes to its significance to art history, considering it a “very germane” choice in an effort to showcase drawings that “survey the 18th century to the mid 20th century.”
Cubism, she expands, was then just developing, following the techniques of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. During that era, “many American artists–including Weber as one of the earliest–went to Paris, spent time absorbing the latest currents of avant-garde art, and then incorporated some of those stylistic idioms into their own practice.”
Observers can also gain perspective on architectural history through Fine Lines by looking through its Built Environment section. While Sherry cultivated the exhibit during a time when Brooklyn has–for years–been established as a cultural metropolis, there’s a throwback to the borough’s 1863 state with James L. Dick’s Farmhouse in Brooklyn. The structure is shown in slight decay and subtle disarray, detailed by faint (almost ghostly) outlines of live chickens in front.
Sherry writes in the Fine Lines catalog that Farmhouse in Brooklyn was drawn during a time when the area was industrializing. The artist was conveying a sense of nostalgia for the rural past.
Later drawings from the early 20th century illustrate urban NYC street scenes or stacking skyscrapers. Abraham Walkowitz’s Improvisations of New York from 1914 is a drawing that stands out amongst the section. Using ink, he drew on a vertical white slate a short, concentrated cluster of busy life at its bottom, ascending through a jumbling network of swirls and strokes that pack to the top.
Sherry addresses the fact that with Walkowitz’s abstract style, the work almost becomes timeless, “because he’s not depicting a building, a street, or urban scene in a realistic manner,” or “documenting a particular time the way a specific place looked. Instead, he’s giving us a sense of his own emotional or bodily reaction to the city and that general energy of pulsating life still feels very current today.”
The vibrant, vivid essence of NYC’s zany energy still shines through the piece today, an entire century later.
Drawings, whether examined as a whole or as individual subjects, are incredibly diverse. Even through all the themes, times, subjects, and intentions, what makes drawings so unique is their immediacy.
In Sherry’s eyes, they will always be one of the few forms of art that portrays the “sense of a direct transcription of what’s going on in the artist’s head.”