Drawing has always played a vital role in American art-making. The traditional practice of drawing from the human figure (which originated in European art academies in the sixteenth century) was an essential component of artistic training from the founding of the first art academies in the United States in the early nineteenth century and is still taught today. Drawn portraits provided a less expensive means than painting of capturing the sitter’s image while imparting an even greater sense of immediacy. Landscapes and sketches from nature lend themselves to interpretation by drawing media, especially when the artist is working outdoors and needs a portable, quick-drying medium. The advent of modernism in the twentieth century led to an increasing exploration of the mark-making possibilities of drawing materials and their potential for creating abstract forms. In recent decades, drawing has increasingly gained status as a lively medium for the creation of independent, often large-scale, works of art.
“America Draws” explored the incredible variety of approaches to drawing used in the United States during the last two and a half centuries, as exemplified by the Museum’s own strong collection. The drawings in this exhibition ranged from a sheet of academic chalk figure studies from the 1780s by John Singleton Copley for his painting The Death of Major Peirson to the thickly layered, mixed-media sheet of abstract sculpture studies by David Smith from 1956. The drawings exhibited here have been made either as preliminary designs for projects carried out in other media or as finished, independent works of art in their own right. They may record direct observations from nature or of everyday activities or depict fanciful inventions of the artist’s imagination. Regardless of their purpose, drawings have long been valued as direct, intimate expressions of the artist’s creative process and personal signature. In addition to drawings from the Museum’s rich resource of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works in the Martha and Maxim Karolik Collection, donated to the Museum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, highlights of the exhibition included Charles Sheeler’s tightly cropped, sensuous study of a nude torso from 1920, a “psychoanalytic” drawing from 1940 by the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, Jim Dine’s heavily worked charcoal study of an enigmatic seated figure from 1975-76, and Elizabeth Murray’s playful charcoal-and-pastel Phone II (1981).
The exhibition was organized thematically rather than chronologically, to better illuminate the different artists’ creative uses of various drawing media and to explore how artists of different times and temperaments express similar ideas. Many of the Museum’s finest American drawings, which are infrequently displayed owing to their fragility and sensitivity to light, were on view in this exhibition.