Using words alone, it is difficult to capture the historical arc and import of “Why Draw? 500 years of Drawings and Watercolors,” a summer exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The show spans the centuries from the Renaissance to the the present day, with something for every taste.
The first room contains the Old Masters, small works on dark papers in brown ink and red chalk. The kind of things that an 18th-century gentleman would have picked up during his Grand Tour of Europe. With these, you have to get in close, take your time, and look carefully.
Elsewhere, the first thing that catches your eye is huge portrait of a young man in a big hat. It’s the musician Pharrell Williams, sketched by Alex Katz in preparation for an oil painting of equal size. This drawing is a cartoon, an ancient technique for transferring an image to a canvas or mural by perforating the lines with a spiked wheel and rubbing powdered pigment through the holes. That Katz used this time-honored method and red chalk sets up a neat curatorial loop connecting this 2014 piece with some of the oldest work in the exhibition.
Taking a walk through the galleries, we see a piece from 18th-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo working in red chalk. He economically sketches a young man — head lowered, eyes half closed, perhaps more mentally than physically tired. Many of these drawings were bequeathed to the college by James Bowdoin III; and here’s a pastel portrait of his sister Elizabeth Temple by John Singleton Copley. The English art critic John Ruskin drew his watercolor Verona at Sunset around 1850, after the development of photography but during the era where an ability to make a fair sketch of a landscape or notable building was considered part of being an educated traveler.
Entering the second room, we find the first piece by a woman, a Mary Cassatt pastel that many would consider to be a painting — though the boundary between drawing and painting has always been porous. About the same time as Ruskin’s Italian city scape, Jervis McEntee carefully recorded a boulder, a rotting log, and the lower trunk of a tree in pencil on pale blue paper. A century later George Bellows captured his wife Emma striding across the page, limbs dynamic, face in shadow. Returning from service in WWII, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence embark on extended bodies of work about the lives of African-Americans. Ab Ex guys like Franz Kline, Philip Guston and sculptor David Smith were drawing in the '50s. In the 1960s, Eva Hesse filled a sheet with bright fields of pink, yellow and “free crazy forms,” while William Anastasi put folded paper and a pencil in his pocket and went about his daily activities, letting marks happen.
If the '60s opened everything up, the '70s spread it all out. Ed Ruscha made drawings with gunpowder. Michelle Stuart made rubbings, not of some historic gravestones, but of the surface of the earth in particular places. Richard Tuttle tore three sheets of paper from a spiral-bound notebook, made a few precise incisions and well-considered marks and wondered if you would define the result as drawing. Nancy Grossman’s Gunhead, begun in the '70s as a lithograph and reworked in the '80s with oilstick, is a welter of expressive marks. Yvonne Jacquette’s aerial view of a nuclear power plant recalls an environmental controversy of the '80s, while Elizabeth Murray’s swirling charcoal with obscured biomorphic forms in chalk hints at conflicts of another kind.
Finally, in our current century, Natalie Frank creates vibrant illustrations for Grimm’s fairytales; William Kentridge uses an old chemistry text as the ground for animation; and Titus Kaphar layers chalk portraits of Trayvon Martin, Michal Brown, and Tamir Rice on a single sheet of tar paper. The exhibition is vast, and you will see something that stops you in your tracks.
In his catalog essay, curator Joachim Homann asks why we continue to draw in this digital era. Perhaps the answer lies in title of an exhibition that Mel Bochner organized in 1966: Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessary Mean to be Viewed as Art. We doodle on envelopes while a recorded voices informs us that our calls are important. We scribble crude maps on grocery receipts so that friends can find where we live. Mark-making records and transmits information without words. Don’t tell me you “can’t draw a stick figure” because, unless you have a disability that interferes with the hand-eye-brain loop — at some point in your life, you did.
A better question might be “Why did you stop drawing?” Start again. A visit to Bowdoin will prime the pump.
Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawing and Watercolors at Bowdoin College | Through September 3 | Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick | Tues-Sat 10 am-5pm (Thu 10 am-8:30 pm); Sun noon-5 pm | http://www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/