At this year’s edition of Master Drawings New York, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see works from artists I would never expect to be represented in this fair. While I appreciate the historicity of works that predate the modern and contemporary periods, and the somberly scholastic approach (though some galleries get very inventive with their frames) many of these Upper East Side participant galleries take to conveying this historicity, I just love work that is expressly, formally innovative. I found this especially in the collection of works shown at Driscoll Babcock, which included Titus Kaphar, Nancy Grossman, and Alex Katz. These very different artists were brought together in a special loan exhibition, Drawn Together: Five Centuries of Drawings from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Typically each year the Master Drawing management team draws these loan exhibitions from a museum connected to an academic institution — a wise move that adds freshness and color to a fair that can otherwise feel cautiously conventional.
In general, there was a good deal more modern work in this year’s showing than I recall seeing in previous years. This development may have to do with the recent drift in the art museum circle towards exhibitions that either include modern or contemporary art or make explicit the connections between earlier work and how we live now.
Some of the highlights of the fair for me, besides the aforementioned Driscoll Babcock exhibition, include a Franz Kline oil on paper piece with his telltale black, calligraphic line, but also errant oil stains, perhaps from being inattentively stored by the artist. The gallerist, Jill Newhouse, told me that those stains actually help to authenticate the piece. Also, in her gallery (and also, like the Kline, nonchalantly displayed on a chair) was an acrylic painting on paper by Adolph Gottlieb. At Mireille Mosler’s space there were several hauntingly lovely pieces by the Belgian symbolist painter Xavier Mellery. The paintings depict a peculiar culture 19th-century culture isolated on the Netherlands island of Marken where all the natives, regardless of social standing, once wore the same traditional costumes.
Lastly there was an intensely dark work of conté crayon on Ingres paper by Georges Seurat titled “La pluie” [The rain] (1882-83) which shows a figure holding an umbrella while the scene around her is filled with an inundation of cross-stitched markings that almost blot out all the light, except for a sliver coming through at the top of the composition. That’s how it felt to me walking through the incessant rain on Saturday. The rain covers everything and almost blots the city out, and then I enter a gallery and there’s a small, illuminated bit of beauty once again.
The 2020 edition of Master Drawings New York (MDNY) continues through Saturday, February 1st, at various galleries on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.