Folded Paper and Other Modern “Drawings”

Is a piece of paper folded and then unfolded a “drawing”? A curator at the Morgan Library & Museum thinks so. And the Associate Dean of the Yale School of Art agrees with her.

The “folded paper drawing” in question is by “Conceptual artist” Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). It is one of more than a hundred works (few of them meriting praise in my view) featured in the exhibition Embracing Modernism: Ten Years of Drawings Acquisitions, at the Morgan through May 24. Among other unconventional items included in that show is Gavin Turk’s Rosette, a “drawing” he created by placing a sheet of paper on his van’s exhaust pipe and then starting the engine.

Belonging to the old school that regards drawing as the art or act of representing people, places, or things on a surface chiefly by means of lines (as in Picasso’s Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, also on display at the Morgan), I was moved to ask the curator of the show, Isabelle Dervaux, how she defines “drawing.” Surrounded by eager members of the press, she did not hesitate to reply: “anything on paper.” (As was clear from the aforementioned examples, she literally meant anything.) Then she quickly added, rather testily: “I hate splitting hairs over what a drawing is.”

Hardly splitting hairs, Dervaux’s wall label for the LeWitt piece informs us that he

radically transformed the medium of drawing . . . [in part,] by exploring . . . different ways of producing a drawing—for instance, by tearing or folding paper. Here, he created a grid by folding and unfolding the sheet. “I wanted them to be another kind of drawing,” he said. “They do make lines.”

As for Gavin Turk, Dervaux notes that he was one of the Young British Artists “who gained notoriety in the 1990s” by creating “sculptures and installations that question traditional notions of authorship.” Nonetheless, she calls his exhaust pipe drawing “elegant.” Apparently unwilling to split hairs over the meaning of that word either, she ignores that it generally means a “refined and graceful” style and implies discriminating selectivity on the part of the maker. Having replaced himself as maker with his van’s undiscriminating exhaust fumes, Turk has in fact rendered the notion of “elegance” preposterous.

On the very next day after the press preview for the Morgan show, I happened to attend a panel discussion at the Art Students League on the revival of drawing instruction in art education. In the Q&A following the panel’s presentation, I introduced myself as the author of a new book dealing in part with the concerns discussed by the panel, and cited the example of LeWitt’s “folded paper drawing” at the Morgan as cautionary evidence of the contemporary artworld’s ignorance regarding the discipline of drawing.

Far from being applauded as a significant reminder of the challenges to be overcome, my remark met with a load of invective from one of the panelists—the Associate Dean of the Yale School of Art, Samuel Messer. Assailing me for daring to suggest that LeWitt’s work was not a drawing, he accused me of seeking to “impose” my view of art on others through my book—the title of which I had mentioned. None of his fellow panelists ventured to agree with me on the status of LeWitt’s “drawing” (although two of them later confessed privately to wholehearted agreement). Nor did James McElhinney, who teaches drawing at the League and had organized the panel, utter a word in defense of my position. Nor, finally, was there a peep of comment from any of the dozens of people in the audience.

I sat there in stunned silence, waiting till discussion of other points had ended, and then went up to Messer. He was wrong, I said, to impute an authoritarian motive to me without having read my book, the goal of which is in fact to stimulate intelligent debate. With considerable emotion, Messer proceeded to inform me that LeWitt had worked the way he did because he was a “very devout Jew”—as if that explained why he had eschewed all forms of depiction and was driven to creating “folded paper drawings.”

As it happens, the piety ascribed to LeWitt by Messer is not mentioned in any of several biographical accounts I have read. But even if it were true it would scarcely suffice to legitimate Lewitt’s unconventional approach to “drawing.” As another very different show now at the Morgan attests (Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff), Jewish artists have long found ways to engage in pictorial representation without transgressing the Second Commandment—which most authorities agree was intended to prevent idolatry, rather than to suppress all imagery.

Nor does LeWitt’s wanting folded paper “to be another kind of drawing” (since “they do make lines,” to quote Dervaux’s wall label) make them drawings, properly speaking. Because, unlike drawings, they do not represent something, which is the whole point of drawing—a basic fact that is evidently beyond the ken of both Dervaux and the associate dean of one of America’s most prestigious schools of art.*
*In recent rankings, U.S. News & World Report rated the Yale School of Art first in the United States for its Masters of Fine Arts programs.