December 7, 2022

In the exhibitions, “Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury” in the Museum of Modern Art is a relatively modest undertaking. After all, it’s just an exhibition of 79 drawings from the museum’s permanent collection, a kind of potpourri, if you will. But it is also an ambitious endeavor – selected and carefully installed by Samantha Friedman, an associate curator of drawings and prints. You will feel a new perspective as soon as you enter the gallery.

The exhibition focuses on the 1950s and seeks to challenge the traditional view of the decade primarily as a time when the Abstract Expressionists emerged and sparked the so-called triumph of American painting. It couldn’t be in a better place as the MoMA was central to creating this blinking view.

“Degree Zero” sums up the 1950s as a time when many artists in different parts of the world approached the arts with an experimental attitude. After World War II, they felt compelled to start over from scratch. The drawings, sketchbooks, and music and dance scores in the show are rather reduced, more or less abstract, and usually black and white. The effect is less severe than sparkling. Diversity helps: Every job seems to be outstanding, crisp and assertive in its own way.

You might get stuck, like me, trying to figure out who made the big, vibrant ink drawing on the first wall of the show. A distinctive black rectangle with two rounded corners on a thick point indicates that a cartoon truck is pulling back into the frame, the bulk of which is reinforced by a dense surface unusual for ink. It is by the mystical concept performance artist James Lee Byars, who was created in 1959 at the beginning of a decade spent in Japan. Suddenly it becomes a partial view of a huge calligraphy that is both funny and dignified at the same time.

Next, gorgeous drawings by Louise Bourgeois, and especially Willys de Castro, predicting stylish sway from organic to geometric and back. Then two smaller, more linear pieces – Jean Dubuffer’s humorous ink “Landscape” from 1951 and Dick Higgins’ 1960s Maplike script for a performance – imply that images, language and gestures undermine pure abstraction and that Jackson Pollock’s vaunted all-over compositions have a lot of company will have. You can think back to the Higgins in the last gallery of the show before “Music for Electric Metronome” (1960) by composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who has a similar cartographic energy.

There are other lesser-known landmarks: drawings that MoMA acquired in the 1950s but rarely exhibited, and others that it has acquired since then, some only recently. A special feature among several works that were added to the collection last year is an untitled pastel from around 1955 by the unique Beauford Delaney. The circling red tones, oranges and lavender merge into a hazy shimmer that is both multi-colored and almost monochrome. It complements the extensive marshaling of yellow and green in his magnificent “Composition 16” (1954-56), a painting that MoMA acquired in 2012.

Only half of the 58 artists on the show are American. The rest come from Europe, South America, Japan and Africa, represented by a single artist, Uche Okeke from Nigeria, an important figure in the development of post-colonial modernism and a master of the line. Two of the six drawings that MoMA acquired in 2015 are here: lively puzzle fields with straight and curled lines titled “Design for Iron Work I” and “Design for Iron Work II”, both 1959, ink on paper, reflecting Okeke’s Igbo legacy as well as his familiarity with western modernity. They are Okeke’s take on Igbo Uli designs, linear configurations usually reserved for body decorations and murals, performed by women.

While Okeke’s drawings show that the museum is playing catch-up and expanding its focus, works acquired in the 1950s and 1960s suggest that it has tried, to its credit, to hedge against developments outside the Euro-American canon in real time pursue poor judgment, changing tastes, and rethinking missions. In the mid-1950s, it acquired calligraphic abstractions from several Japanese artists – including Morita Yasuji and Osawa Gakyu – virtually when they were made.

In contrast, a more nihilistic work made by another Japanese artist in 1954 was not acquired until 2012. This is Saburo Murakami’s “work painted by throwing a ball (Tokyu kaiga)”, a large sheet of white paper that is only disturbed by a single black man. somewhat irregular color ball.

Other unknown works include three small drawings made in 1950-52 by the self-taught Korean artist Joong Seop Lee (1916-1956), who cut and painted foil-backed paper from cigarette packets with teeming images, including a carriage filled with subway passengers read their newspapers attentively. They were given to the museum as a group in 1956 by a one-time donor named Arthur McTaggart, a foreign minister stationed and retired in South Korea.

At the time of McTaggart’s gift, the museum’s interest in art was waning due to the self-taught artist. The most recent revival is evidenced on the same wall by a monumental (six and a half feet high) pencil and watercolor drawing by Martín Ramírez, the great Mexican outsider, acquired in 2010 -like locomotives run between the mouths of two tunnels; Below, railroad tracks descend the remaining length of paper between the shoulders of radiant lines. The repeating lines and crevices conjure up the rhythmic sounds and the passing sights of a speeding train.

The biggest generation is not entirely absent: Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith and Franz Kline are present, but they are only part of the mix. More importantly, significant works by women add to its ranks, notably an untitled hard oil on paper from 1957 by Joan Mitchell and “New City” from 1953 by the long-neglected Dorothy Dehner, who was briefly married to Smith. This wonderful ink and watercolor drawing is one of the stars of the show and features an intricate network – a kind of craquelure made of stone slabs – that spreads out from a core of soft, translucent colors.

Another resident of the 1950s with a rising profile today is Sari Dienes. In 1953 she began rubbing manhole covers, subway grids, and other urban features, sometimes assisted by her friend Jasper Johns. Johns later said that his pictures of American flags and targets he made in 1954 were “things the mind already knows,” which Dienes’ frictions did too, and perhaps first. Dienes’ “grave” from around 1953-54 is the rubbing of a gravestone over a small cloth flag, which MoMA received in 1999 from the artist foundation. Full Disclosure: I initially mistook it for one of David Hammons’ body prints currently on the Drawing Center (through May 23).

Art may be long, but it is also extremely broad and diverse – more than any single narrative can encompass. This smart show gives a new sense of the irrepressible breadth of art in a museum that expands its prospects, including some that were added to the collection more than half a century ago.

Grade zero: drawing in the middle of the century

Until June 5, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400; Timed tickets required.