Drawing a Line in the Sand

February 2 – March 31, 2012
at Peter Blum SoHo

Drawing the Line in the Sand at Peter Blum Soho

The Drawing Center - The Bottom Line
March 13, 2012

Peter Blum SoHo’s current group show, Drawing a Line in the Sand, brings together an elegant array of works on paper, mylar, Bristol board and canvas. The distinctly formalist selection, on view through the end of the month, was all produced following critic Clement Greenberg’s famous 1960 declaration that a painting’s value stems from its purely formal qualities. Viewed in terms of formalism and its legacy, the exhibition skillfully balances a half-century span of diverse relationships to materiality, ranging from understatement to conspicuous embrace. In pencil, pen, ink, paint and silverpoint, the pieces are alternately whimsical and seductive, witty and occasionally heavy-handed.


The show’s title playfully grounds our experience of the work by evoking the childhood memory of drawing a straight but imperfect line in the sand—an association encouraged by a corresponding photo image in the press release. At the same time, it’s as if the figurative meaning of ‘drawing a line in the sand’ announces the intent to draw a boundary or underscore an ultimatum of some kind. Indeed, the title of Drawing a Line in the Sand, while it describes a common form of material play, also distinguishes—or signals a separation—between the pursuit of “pure” form championed by Greenberg and the delicate explosion of formalism elaborated in this show.[1]


The first and earliest produced work in the show is Untitled (1961), a panel of brushstrokes by Robert Ryman. Pure painting, it emphasizes the formal departures of the intricate drawings that follow. In another sense, however, Untitled anchors the show in an almost crafty, small-scale strain of Minimalism. Ryman’s square of monochrome strokes is only 12 x 12 inches, and smartly paired with Grey Drawing #8 (1962), 11 x 11 inches. In contrast to Untitled, Grey Drawing #8 pursues an impulse towards intimacy across a rich blanket of pastel, finely etched pencil markings, squiggles and mini graphs. Across the room, Sol LeWitt’s Parallel straight pencil lines of random length from left side (1972) almost disappears it’s so deadpan. (Up-close, this LeWitt is in fact sublime, a sunset, moonlight, or sky through slatted blinds, a cheeky reference to any number of timeless painted scenic imagery.)


Holding court at the other end of the timeline, January 2011—Like Nothing Else (2011) by Zipora Fried and January I 2011 (2011) by N. Dash embrace in equal measure both the potential laboriousness of material richness and process-driven work. You could swim in Fried’s densely layered, arm-span long lines of graphite on mylar or wear Dash’s creased, graphite-slick map to nowhere. Dash’s drawings are part of a series for which the artist folds and unfolds pieces of paper to slip in her pocket while riding the subway, later “sealing” them with graphite and indigo pigment back at the studio.


Art school, or an ever-looming press release, might account for the slight air of predictability about Fried and Dash’s drawings, and their clever titles. It’s certainly not hard to imagine: a New York-based artist pockets a particular brand of Minimalism in her fashionable new blue jeans and then pulls it out over a 21st century commute to Brooklyn—Commuter Works, as Dash calls her larger collection of drawings, are what one might expect to encounter sensitively pinned to the wall of a Manhattan gallery as a result.


At the same time, much of the work in the show, with its idiosyncratic inquiry into medium specificity, must be encountered to be experienced. To rely on an image of Dash’s drawings would be to deny their essential floppiness out right. Similarly, Léonie Guyer’s drawings vibrate when approached. Imperceptible only moments before, the perfect outline of Guyer’s Untitled (2010) shimmers above a cream colored ground. Old French paper never appeared less precious. The deckled edges come alive around the little figure, flexing in solidarity with the found paper’s incidental folds. Is it a strongman, a little Cycladic teapot, a ram’s head?


The finely tuned spatial awareness and humor of Guyer’s work bring to mind Fred Sandback’s colored string pieces, Alexander Calder’s wire circus, Agnes Martin’s landscapes and Brice Marden’s glowing grounds. Yet the artist’s menagerie is, well, like nothing else. In an interview on her work in the show for biennaleart.tv, Guyer explains that the figures in her drawings are made by laying a graphite line over a colored pencil line. She says, “The vibration between the two lines, to me, makes it come alive.”


Guyer could have been describing the lines of thought in Drawing a Line in the Sand when she spoke of this artful overlapping in her work. On the one hand, we’re back at the beach, playing in the sand. At the same time, this smart, lighthearted show demonstrates that the mid-20th century line between form in art and certain forms of thought, feeling, figuration and fun have gradually washed away, to greater and lesser effect. An in-person visit remains the most sure way to detect this slippage, a celebration of impermanence and mutability distinct from dogma. Indeed, this is a show to go and see. Louise Bourgeois’ sore drops of blood done in ballpoint, John Zurier’s Indian paper so thick it could have been handmade out of paper-towels, Robert Zandvliet’s sense of transparency and Mireille Gros’ pilling hearts, come alive in the gallery space between viewer, figure and ground.


-Helen Miller, Contributor

March 13, 2012


[1] There’s even more at play in the title Drawing a Line in the Sand, since the distinction being made between formalism, typified in painting, and the legacy of formalism, less specifically tied to one medium or another, is being made, for the most part, in the democratic, ephemeral realm of drawing (although these drawings have been made mostly by painters and sculptors, however broadly defined, it should be noted).