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Review: Kemper offers important glimpse of inspiration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2012 - Every so often an exhibit comes around that presents the spark of an idea, displaying the preliminary thoughts captured when an artist grabs hold of pencil and paper. Notations: Contemporary Drawing as Idea and Process, at Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, does just this.

With a focus on Minimal, Postminimal and Conceptual art, the exhibit brings together 39 artists from the postwar period to today, their works drawn from the collection of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky. Recognizable pioneers, such as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Carl Andre, are paired with emerging artists, highlighting drawing as visual art’s foundation throughout the decades.

Divided into two sections: “Presentation Drawings and Proposals” and “Repetitive and Serial Systems,” the exhibit highlights drawing as both blueprint and art object. In both categories, the use of space is of particular importance, with much of the surface left white. The most represented medium is graphite, creating a room laced in subtle, grey tones.

“Repetitive and Serial Systems” highlights line and mark-making. Many of these works are subtle, almost fragile pieces, physically light. The standout is Jill O’Bryan’s 40,000 Breaths Breathed Between June 20, 2000 and March 15, 2005, an exquisite and meticulous graphite recording of the artist’s breaths during these five years. The piece exudes the texture of a textile, while underscoring the process -- and nearly divine patience -- of the artist.

The section also contains a strong showing of feminist artists, the common repetition motif reflected in works from Allyson Strafella, Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse. And, of course, Sol Lewitt’s planned guidelines and diagrams are present, testimony to Minimal and Conceptual art’s embracement of the serial system.

In “Presentation Drawings and Proposals,” the artist’s hand becomes an integral motif, individual handwriting often serving minimalism’s purpose. Yellow-hued paper and torn-out sketchbook pages act as canvases for many of the presented works, underscoring the often quick nature of the resulting drawing.

Included is Richard Serra’s preliminary sketch for Tilted Arc, the intensity and boldness of his stroke seeming to match the piece’s history, while Dan Flavin’s installation sketches act as archival notes to later triumphs. The exhibit also calls attention to the artist as faux-mathematician, with measurements, xy diagrams, and grid lines prevalent in many of the works, reminding the viewer that lines and forms, however minimal, are not necessarily arbitrary.

Notations: Contemporary Drawing as Idea and Process is superb. The exhibit is also accessible, fulfilling the space’s purpose of both presenting art and educating on it, a wonderful place to start if the viewer is new to these artistic genres. The intimacy of the chosen pieces creates a deepened appreciation of Minimal, Postminimal, and Conceptual art, celebrating the thought behind drawing’s surface.

Rachel Heidenry holds a B.A. in art history and human rights from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. A former Beacon intern, she recently completed a Fulbright research grant studying mural painting in El Salvador and is currently a fellow at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia.

We asked her to return to St. Louis and give us her take on some of the art exhibits that have opened recently. Heidenry is also the daughter of features editor Donna Korando.

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