MoMA’s Compass in Hand Makes Us Ask: “What is Drawing?”


When Compass in Hand opens today at MoMA it will introduce the public to a vast selection of works on paper from the 2,500 piece collection. Formed by the foundation’s sole trustee Harvey Shipley Miller in only two years (during which Miller presumably slept for no more than two hours a night), it features works that date from the ’30s to the present with an emphasis on the past two decades. There are big names like Jeff Koons, Elizabeth Peyton and Donald Judd, but the show also includes a fair share of up and comers as well as outsider artists like Henry Darger and James Castle.

Associate Curator of Drawings Christian Rattemeyer has organized things thoughtfully, often grouping works by geographical location, media or historical period to shed light on the evolution and character of modern and contemporary drawing. In its diversity, the exhibit highlights the multiplicity of functions that drawing has served throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century. From the existential questions posed by the work of artists like Laurence Weiner and Robert Barry to the hedonistic abandon of Paul P., Compass in Hand confronts its viewers with the sometimes uncomfortably wide parameters of a term like “drawing.”

Which is where we hit a bit of a speed bump. How wide can these parameters grow before they threaten the very essence of drawing? At times, the exhibit asks its audience to be so liberal with definitions that the primacy and urgency of drawing gets lost behind all of the bells and whistles. This is particularly true with the inclusion of contemporary assemblage, collage and installation. Example: Nate Lowman’s Untitled (History of the S.U.V – No Blond Jokes) is many things — provocative, reflective of the times, hip. But, it has very little to do with drawing. While there is no question that Untitled is an arrangement of works on paper, it does not concern itself with line, form or any other elements that make drawing fundamental. It is all showmanship without the undercurrent of humility and practicality that characterizes good drawing.

Drawing is the most basic form of visual communication, the immediate result of an artist capturing what she sees. This, of course, can mean many different things. We see real examples of drawing in the figurative work of Elizabeth Peyton and the conceptual work of Dan Flavin. Yet, these examples are still united by a common interest in form, line and the elemental simplicity of translating what you see or think to paper. It is difficult to peddle collage and assemblage as drawing when the artist’s relationship to the image she creates is so radically different. Compass in Hand is a must-see for its scale alone, however it does very little to address, defend, or even acknowledge the questions that it raises. But perhaps that’s just the state of drawing today.

Do you guys have any thoughts on the matter?