Rough drafts & desperate beauty

Nov 8, 2006 at 12:00 am

No matter what's driving it — the pursuit of truth or beauty, noble intellectual fervor, rage at social injustice, a ravenous ego, good old lust or, the lowest of all, greed — the moment of conception of anything, of a work of art, a building or even a living being, is monumental. It's when raw energy is first translated into a physical action, a first sketch, a rough draft or rudimentary plan.

Cranbrook Art Museum's recently closed exhibition Artists at Work showcased highlights from Gil and Lila Silverman's collection of nearly 800 notes and sketches by leading artists of pop art, op art, conceptual art and earth art from 1930 to the present. The show gathered an exciting range of edgy works at their moment of conception. Whether scribbled on napkins or restaurant placemats, or torn from spiral notebooks, each of the drawings, dashed off by significant contemporary artists, has an aura of immediacy, speed and improvisation, as if the artist were trying to catch the electricity of thinking before it dissipates.

The Silvermans' interest in what they call "instruction drawings," dates back to the 1970s. Traveling to the World's Fair in Osaka, Japan, they came upon workers installing a piece by famed artist Sol LeWitt. Gil Silverman realized LeWitt had probably never been there and had likely written and drawn instructions for the piece — and that excited Silverman. He contacted LeWitt and bought the instructions, rather than the artwork itself.

That was the beginning of the collection, which now includes notes and sketches for sculpture by such masters as Donald Judd, Picasso, Naum Gabo and Michael Hall; musical and choreographed scores by John Cage and Merce Cunningham; architectural drawings and plans by Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph; notes and drawings toward conceptual art works by Yoko Ono and Robert Morris; and paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Brenda Goodman, to mention a few of the hundreds of intoxicating pieces, 180 of which were on display. Among the juicier works displayed was Diego Rivera's preliminary watercolor of the Detroit Institute of Arts' auto industry mural, as well as Pablo Picasso's "Etudes de Femme," a revealing series of preliminary sketches that synthesize parts of the female form, suggesting the cubist paintings for which he's so famous.

Gilbert and Lila Silverman have collected art for decades. What characterizes their specific brand of madness — and they agree, collecting is a madness — is the desire to capture the idea behind the work, the spirit. That's why they prefer to purchase works-in-process as opposed to finished masterpieces. Their interest also reflects their family history as real estate developers, a line of work that emphasizes ideas as much as the implementation. From a project's inception, it's extremely important to document conversations and examine drawings and plans for building.

The Silverman's are most celebrated for their internationally renowned collection of Fluxus art, the largest in the world, featuring objects and more conceptual works that emphasize seizing the moment, and seeing "art" in the smallest human gesture and production. The genius of their philosophy, buying works-in-process, is that it allows the Silvermans to have intimacy with the creative act, but it also allows artists to benefit from patronage before a work has materialized. It's a reason why they are so important in the Detroit community.

Another local exhibition, at Oakland University Gallery, highlights the simple and palpable immediacy of drawing. NY Narrative: Works on Paper is curated by former Detroiter and Oakland University grad Rachel Lindhagen for New York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. In her gallery notes, she writes:

In a world of technological advancements, we are quickly losing interest in anything that does not scream visually at us for our attention. Plasma screens, animated billboards, and flashing neon saturate the urban landscape. Complex video installation and highly ambitious sculptures fill galleries and museums. Works on paper are sidelined as obsolete and old-fashioned, or merely the building blocks of masterpieces. We have forgotten the impact of simplicity, the wholeness of drawing and as an elevated art form unto itself.

The eight artists selected for NY Narratives use drawing as a substitute for the written word in personal narratives about ethnic diversity and displacement in post-9/11 New York. Each artist's idiosyncratic hand can be followed and felt in these desperately beautiful drawings. Mary Valverde makes tiny, faint organic marks on paper as if graphing her daily interior life in the urban grid. Carlos Osuna tracks his (presumably) Mexican folk and Japanese pop roots in decorative autobiographical cartoons.

Most touching and outrageous is a video by Rafael Melendez composed of a series of notebook drawings and texts that morph into one another yielding a remarkably coherent philosophical and political assault on nearly everything. In "Everything Happens Everyday," nothing is sacred, and the New York City art world and U.S. government are especially targets of Melendez's ire. The work is accompanied by a soundtrack only a New Yorker could compile — avant-garde, hip stuff.

These two exhibits reveal the fundamental subtext of modern art: a belief in human energy, and the basic, even primitive, instinctual desire to get from Point A to Point B as directly as possible, without a lot of hoopla.


NY Narratives: Works on Paper runs through Nov. 12 at Oakland University Art Gallery (formerly known as Medowbrook Art Gallery), 208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester; 248-370-3005.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]