When it comes to art, artists can be choosy. What they live with or what they like can be as interesting as the art they make—occasionally more so. Often their choices send a bolt of rejuvenating lightning through an overlooked or unknown object. Other times, their choices make you see their own work in new ways. I remember seeing David Hockney, on film, talk about a 17th-century Chinese scroll, and thinking, “This guy is better than I thought.” Sometimes artists’ choices just seem like payback or favors, but there are many cases of an established artist bringing sudden attention to an emerging one, as when Matthew Barney selected Katy Schimert for an artist-pick-artist show some years back. And of course everything they choose—like everything they do—comes back to their own work. It’s what makes artists both the most interesting and the most boring people in the art world.
At the moment, two exhibitions in Soho show artists shedding light on both past and present by choosing art other than their own. For its lamely titled “The Stroke”—I guess to indicate the vaunted painting stroke, although the name ends up sounding simultaneously sexual, medical, and back-scratchy— Exit Art invited nine painters to select other painters as a way of taking a look at this medium’s current state. The results are all over the place and as revealing of the artist-choosers as of the state of painting itself.
At the Drawing Center, two curators—former Drawing Center director Ann Philbin and Jack Shear, a photographer—asked 16 well-known artists (including two artist couples) to let them select drawings from their collections. The resulting exhibition, “Drawn From Artists’ Collections,” contains work by old masters, modern masters, and contemporary artists (including buddies). It is marred by the only-famous-artists-need-apply celebrity worship of its curators, but has spectacular moments. Again, what’s most interesting is what these choices reveal about the artists’ interests, egos, tastes, and pocketbooks.
Lively but mostly unadventurous, “The Stroke” is like a walk through the trenches of painting. All the positions, and then some, are present and accounted for. Abstraction is here in all its guises, be it geometric, biomorphic, expressionistic, or ironic. In lesser numbers, representation holds its own, whether of the surreal, hyperreal, or cartoony kind. Choosing his section without leaving home, Ross Bleckner behaves as if he’s in the Drawing Center’s exhibition, showing only works from his own apparently excellent collection. He even spices things up by slipping in a couple of photographs, including one haunting gem by Bill Jacobson of two young men blurred almost beyond recognition. David Reed curates a five-person ministatement on a type of self-conscious abstraction, of which Reed is a leading practitioner. It includes Pam Fraser’s nicely goofy doodle painting and a vividly colored, Pop-y abstraction from 1962 by the recently deceased Nicholas Krushenick (who deserves a closer look somewhere), and Carl Ostendarp, who looks back-from-the-dead with a meticulously ridiculous painting of a paint spill.
Carroll Dunham makes known his enthusiasm for the art of Alan Turner, whose merging faces and other body parts are a bit like a realist version of Dunham’s own sexually charged, mutating forms. The giant geometric wall painting of Renée Petropoulos, Lari Pittman’s choice, echoes some of Pittman’s claustrophobic, intensely decorative space. But the best—no, check that—the weirdest artist here, selected by Ellen Gallagher, is Pedro Bell, who is 46, from Chicago, and has never had a solo show in New York. Bell, known to funk fans as the album-cover artist for the George Clinton spin-off group Funkadelic, invented a kind of warped black-power, ’60s psychedelic–inspired illustration. His work here, which looks like a game board designed by Peter Saul and Kara Walker, teems with figures, patterns, and twisted, racially tinged narratives. Bell, who says he’s addressing “da masses of the great un-funked,” needs a show or a shrink—maybe both, and soon.
After the romper-room cheerfulness of “The Stroke,” the Drawing Center’s show feels like the grown-up table. It is rich in more ways than one. First of all, it is knee-deep in great drawings. Secondly, it’s permeated with a sense that these artists are successful enough to buy some of the art they have always dreamed of owning. (Jasper Johns dreamed of owning a Degas, a Cézanne, and a Seurat, and now he does.) This means you are constantly pulled between visual pleasure and jealousy. Why is this different from art owned by collectors? Because artists aren’t distant or anonymous; they are very vivid people to us already.
A voyeuristic, on-the-outside-looking-in quality is intensified by the feeling that most of these artists know each other—sometimes quite well. A lot of them show in the same galleries, and many own one another’s work. This is not a good thing. It’s limited and self-congratulatory, and it compromises the show. The curators should have applied the same idea to a broader spectrum of artists in terms of generations and financial success; that approach would have prevented the subtle homogeneity that pervades this show. At points, it’s like a game of “I own you, you own me, but who’s got the best Picasso?” (or Matisse or de Kooning).
Still, it’s a blast seeing who owns what; and there’s a two-for-one bonus in nearly every work. Seeing Käthe Kollwitz’s delicately crude double rendition of a woman’s hand in Jasper Johns’s collection makes Johns’s inclination for the deliberate and the diligent palpable—it also makes the Kollwitz live in a way that it never has for me. And the wispy, smudgy shadow-bather by Seurat that Johns owns is simultaneously all touch and no touch. This experience repeats itself over and over again. Look at the wildly erotic drawing Roy Lichtenstein owns by Joan Miró—cocks and noses coming out of this crisp cloud shape—and you appreciate Lichtenstein’s graphic sense anew. Plus, Lichtenstein’s 1941 Jackson Pollock is so terrific and tortured you’ll think it’s Gorky copying Picasso. And see if Ellsworth Kelly doesn’t win the Battle of the Six Picassos with his 1969 ink-on-cardboard nude that is all body parts and proportional shifts. A lot of the drawings here just take you to another level.
Speaking of another level, Helen Marden gets the most original, or at least the most outrageous, award for her amazing, and amazingly sexual 18th-century Indian drawings of people made of yonis and lingams; if these don’t give you a buzz, there’s not much erotic art that will. And yea! for Ed Ruscha, who collects art from L.A. A similar shout-out for Georg Baselitz, who introduces us to his own find: Carl Fredrik Hill (1849–1911), whose intense, romantic crayon-on-paper landscapes have a touch of the Baselitz about them. What’s so fantastic is that all these artists—whether owning
or choosing—are seeing the world through their own work. These choices may be limited, egotistical, or based on misunderstanding, but in this way artists open things up, keep things in play, and make all art new again.