A Place and an IdeaElizabeth Finch
Locate the place that allows one to enter. Mark the spot and hold it open.
On September 14, 1992, a new exhibition space opened in a fifth-floor suite, number 507A, at 560 Broadway, a graceful loft building at the southeast corner of Prince Street in SoHo. A party marked the occasion. Those in attendance were invited to consult a floor plan outfitted with numbers corresponding to a list of works on display, all of which were drawings. Copies of the plan and list were available to carry about the gallery. No doubt some visitors quickly spotted works by such well-known contemporary artists as William Anastasi, Sol LeWitt, and Fred Sandback. Walter De Maria had the earliest piece in the show, a drawing in pencil and colored pencil from 1964 with the title Nine Mountains and the Sun. It depicts the sun rising above (or setting behind) cone-shaped mountains clustered within a partial circle of blue suggesting the barest sliver of water. In its spareness, this cartoon-like emissary from the realm of landscape constitutes an alternate manifestation of the economy of means that has defined the Minimalist sculptures and Land Art installations for which the artist is best known. On that autumn evening and in the weeks that followed, this drawing could be found next to a window whose shaded, light-filtered form softly embodied the same cycle, night to day, day to night, that De Maria has integrated into his monumental desert-sited artworks.
The new exhibition space, a private, non-commercial venture, was the creation of Wynn Kramarsky, whose collection of postwar drawings is widely acknowledged within its areas of specialization—American abstraction generally and minimal and conceptual art in particular—for its diversity, its chronological breadth (from the fifties to the present), and its spirit of inclusiveness. Should we need proof of what the art historian James Meyer has described as “the essential heterogeneity of the minimal field,” we need only consider this collection.1
A word pairing frequently used by Kramarsky and his staff reflects the collection’s inclusiveness and its chronological span: In addition to the artists referred to, with characteristic irreverence, as “namies,” a neologism signifying well-known artists with considerable art-world cachet, the opening show of the exhibition space, and all its subsequent installations over the years, also included ample representation of “newbies,” or artists at early points in their careers. Within the context of the Kramarsky collection, “namie” and “newbie” constitute a gentle send-up of convention and language-bound bias; it is a pairing that encapsulates obvious differences between artists, such as age, position, and name recognition, with a gesture of pragmatic acknowledgement comparable to a shrug of the shoulders. The similarity of the words serves to put the artists’ differences in perspective, partially neutralizing them in ways that “emerging artist” and its implied opposite—the artist who has miraculously or otherwise “arrived”—simply cannot. In short, at the headquarters of this private collection and when groups of works from the collection are selected for museum exhibitions in United States and Europe, newbies and namies share common ground.
More than half the drawings on view at the debut of the space were recent creations by artists whose names were, as yet, unfamiliar, even to the most dedicated gallery-goers. Just a few steps west of the De Maria was a prominent wall occupied by two large (40 x 60 inch) untitled works from 1992 by David Jeffrey, an artist born in 1956. These were drawings as documents, records of intuitive, material-dependent actions that exemplified what one reviewer later described as the “sense of being in touch.”2 Jeffrey made them by fusing wax and pulverized charcoal across their paper fields, causing these materials to interact, binder embracing carbon black, upon the gentle introduction of heat. In one instance these actions left behind what the artist characterized as a “capillary-like surface” comparable to a splintered patch of dry riverbed.3
A generation separates De Maria and Jeffrey, but the close proximity of their works in the first exhibition of this new enterprise for contemporary drawing—for this was its principal objective from the outset—made manifest an aesthetic and conceptual rapport, a serendipitous, time-bridging correspondence. Both De Maria and Jeffrey have allowed the process of making to register within, and even to constitute, their artworks. Left mostly if not entirely “as is,” their materials demonstrate that the reduction or absence of touch can bring into being quiet but stunning presences. Presence is palpably in evidence in De Maria’s perennially astonishing New York Earth Room (1977)—250 cubic yards of dirt distributed evenly across a SoHo loft so as to embody space as an ongoing act of occupation. Sometimes the sense of being in touch calls for letting be. Yet in tandem with such monumental, site-specific works, whose size, accessibility, and upkeep have necessarily determined their rarity, are any number of drawings executed with equally engaged degrees of site awareness—by which I mean the immediate site of the paper sheet or other chosen support—and intuitively driven sensitivities to materials. These attributes saturate Jeffrey’s drawings, where being resides in gestures that threaten nothingness so as to reveal its opposite, should we be willing to see it, experience it, and hold it in the mind’s eye.
Similar dedication to process characterized the two Anastasi drawings hung during the collection’s first show opposite the spiral staircase leading to the sixth-floor offices. Both displayed involuntarily marks made by the movements of the artist’s pencil-wielding hands, which he held aloft and expectant, elbows bent, while sitting in rumbling subway trains with sheets of paper on his lap. By surrendering himself to the rhythms of subterranean transit, he, like other visual artists who have chosen to work in temporary states of self-imposed blindness, effectively severs the traditional connection between hand and eye so central to the historical conceptualization of drawing. I envy the subway riders who have happened upon one of these drawings being made. Some may turn away, back to their newspaper, their blank stare, their portable music. Some probably know they are seeing art in the making, while others may guess they are witnesses to scientific experimentation. In fact, measurements were taken at the creation of the two works that graced the collection’s debut exhibition: both were dated and timed like seismograph readings.
In another section of the gallery—the small, square room at the entrance—hung an untitled work from 1991 by Cyrilla Mozenter, which consisted of such unlikely art materials as myrtle leaves, allspice, and arnica. The artist affixed these items to paper with beeswax, each addition a pondered response to an emerging whole. Yet the final work embodied an aspect of happenstance, as if the leaves, spices, and herbs—idiosyncratic alternatives to both the drawn line and cut-and-paste collage—had settled on the sheet by force of a passing gust of wind.
Other artists whose drawings appeared in the show utilized geometric forms as found imagery. Recourse to the preexistence, or givenness, of geometry was forthrightly acknowledged in the title A Priori (1992), one of three works on view by Ann Ledy. Geometric antecedents have often been Ledy’s starting point for composite images of layered papers amended with drawings, juxtaposing what the artist has referred to as “universal symbols” with “self-referential marks.”4 Near Ledy’s works were recent drawings by David Lasry, several of which presented the repeated motif of a single, vertically oriented rectangle whose lowermost edge extended past a washy background and into the white of the paper’s bottom margin. Each rectangle resembled a window—the proverbial sign of perspectival illusionism—and then denied this reference by filling the void with seductive permutations of ink.
And geometry, variously expressed, was the defining element of the six LeWitt drawings that occupied the gallery’s easternmost wall. Among these works were two with the title Not Straight Vertical Lines Not Touching (1990), and another identified as Bands of Lines in 4 Directions (1991). The titles function as unadorned descriptions of what was in plain sight: three vibrant demonstrations of two rule sets. Yet at work within these seemingly authoritative descriptions are pervasive, slow-seeping indeterminacies. What sense, LeWitt challenges the viewer to ponder, can be made of the seeming double negative “not straight…not touching,” and how are proliferating “bands of lines” to be calculated? In various, perhaps infinite ways, we might deduce, at which point LeWitt’s ideas, his rule sets, have become partially ours, a shared endeavor.
Included in the collection’s opening installation were thirty-four drawings by twenty artists. Judging from the opportunities later offered these artists, particularly those new to such occasions, it is likely that a few of the exhibition floor plans and lists in circulation on that September evening acquired scribbled notes and made their way into the pockets and handbags of curators, gallerists, and collectors. Similar note taking and opportunity making distinguished the exhibition space’s ensuing years, firmly establishing its reputation as a site dedicated to the free flow of ideas and information.
And what was true of the opening exhibition is also true of the collection as a whole: It possesses the full range of drawing tendencies that gained new relevance for artists, particularly from the sixties onward. These include the emphasis on process and performance, chance and experimentation; the embrace of abstraction, reductiveness, and negation; and the deployment of elementary materials and forms. And to these we can add the predilection for serial processes defined by numerical systems and the overt demonstration of the traditional equation of drawing with cognition. Drawings manifest ideas. This has been understood since (at least) the sixteenth century, when Giorgio Vasari designated drawing as “not other than a visible expression and declaration of our inner conception.”5 But in the twentieth century, the cognitive aspects of drawing surfaced with new prominence as the medium came to be valued in its own right, independent of its traditional preparatory function, which, it should be noted, nonetheless remained intact and in use. The Kramarsky collection is an unusually focused representation of the kinds of drawing that established the medium’s independence and then solidified this new stature by repeatedly demonstrating the visual potentiality of the drawn mark over the last few decades to the present day.
It is also a collection that has grown through direct, ongoing contact with artists. When asked to speak about collecting, Kramarsky has described his initial discomfort at the thought of purchasing something so intimately “part of an artist’s life.”6 Intimacy is often evidenced in drawing—this is the autographic correlate of the drawn mark’s cognitive and emotive associations—and intimacy was one of the qualities that attracted him to the medium from the outset. Reassured by artists that they wanted their artworks out in the world, Kramarsky was unable, nonetheless, to overlook his growing sense that he owed artists something more than financial recompense. Specifically, as his collection grew, he came to believe that its pleasures are inseparable from its responsibilities. The pleasures are easy to understand; it's the responsibilities take some explaining, particularly in a contemporary art market presently ruled by art fairs and auction catalogues. For the founder of the exhibition space in suite 507A at 560 Broadway, these responsibilities constitute the “business of collecting.”7
Here are the tenets of this business gleaned from observing the work of the collection: Firstly, the collector of contemporary art considers how the act of collecting will benefit the artist directly. And, secondly, once an artwork has been acquired, the collector continues to help the artist by maintaining an interest in the development of her work that may include acquiring it in depth; by supporting a project, such as an exhibition or book, financially; and by facilitating the artist’s connections to the art world. Moreover, the collector holds the artwork in trust. This means that it receives good care and is never sold during the artist’s lifetime. That said, the collector can consider donating the piece to a museum, now or in the future, a gesture that helps establish the artist for the long run and contributes to the enrichment of publicly held collections.
The plan for a space that could institute opportunities for artists and provide ample room for the pleasures of experiencing art was brief but encompassing: create a flexible and welcoming environment for contemporary drawings, taking the collection as its principal wellspring. Develop the collection by making studio visits and by inviting artists to visit the collection for portfolio reviews. Dedicate the main gallery space to occasional special exhibitions—solo shows principally—with works drawn from the collection and from artists’ personal holdings. No loans were to come from galleries or from other collections, a stipulation that reserved the exhibition program for artists in search of an entrée to the art world, or artists who happened to have a cache of drawings, a new series perhaps, in need of a venue.
Designate the remainder of the space—principally the offices and common areas on the sixth floor as well as the fifth-floor gallery when not otherwise in use—for the collection, where works were hung with stalwart, even stubborn, disregard for hierarchies that dictate exhibition value based on the length of the respective artists’ exhibition histories. What has mattered to this collector is the art and, especially when working in the contemporary field, the artist. These, I surmise, have been the reasons for Wynn Kramarsky’s reluctance to have his name appear in association with his collection when selections from it have been exhibited in museums. His reluctance, therefore, has had less to do with modesty and more to do with a desire to facilitate the cultivation of optimal conditions for art and artists.
These conditions, in turn, challenge the viewer to dispel closely and perhaps unconsciously held prejudices and expectations, to assess a given artwork in terms of its ability to hold the viewer’s attention, to evoke presence and elicit active looking. This does not mean that looking should exclude thinking about artists or art history. On the contrary, when the viewer focuses thus on an artwork, she may also acknowledge an inclination, or better yet a desire, to understand not only how this artwork came to be, as tangibly evidenced in its formal characteristics, but also how it emerged from a particular context. In keeping with this emphasis on personal agency, the collection’s headquarters maintained its identity as a resource for drawings, contemporary artists, and art enthusiasts unassumingly: while gallery talks could be scheduled upon request, the breaking of silence was brief and to the point, with ample time left for contemplation. This is one of the ways that the exhibition space, to borrow the words of Jill Baroff, an artist whose drawings are part of the collection, “marked the spot and held it open.”
From 1991, when its lease was signed, to its final exhibition, a survey of Mel Bochner’s drawings that opened on April 24, 2006, the space that officially debuted in the fall of 1992 had a fifteen-year run.8 Designed by Andrew Ong, the gallery and offices were ideal for the display of drawings. The proportions always felt right; and the walls, floors, lights, and services were unobtrusively functional, so that exhibition areas, which were never significantly altered after their establishment, could be made and remade by the artworks on view. Each new installation in the main gallery and its adjoining offices was accompanied by a floor plan indicating which artworks appeared where. Considered collectively, these plans constitute a detailed visual history. While it should always matter where an artwork is placed and what it appears next to, the record shows that this task was undertaken with admirable care in suite 507A.
Informal installations of the collection were subject to ongoing revisions, and a new acquisition could inspire a complete overhaul of the list of works on view. Although these reinstallations were rarely announced to the public, frequent visitors to the space noted how certain works appeared, disappeared (often for the purpose of inclusion in outside exhibitions), and reappeared over the years.
In contrast, special exhibitions were publicly announced. In all, the collection hosted twenty-nine such shows. Seventeen of these were solo ventures, the first of which, a presentation of collages by Lynn Schnurnberger, opened in November 1992. The Bochner show was unusual in that it presented works made in the past four decades by an artist who came of age in the 1960s. In contrast, the other solo exhibitions were uniquely dedicated to drawings of recent vintage. Two artists in the debut exhibition, Ann Ledy and David Jeffrey, later had solo shows in the space, and such ongoing opportunities were indicative of the relationships that artists established with the collection and maintained over time. Other solo shows were dedicated to the works of Agnes Denes, Frank Gerritz, Stephen Antonakos, Joshua Neustein, Cristos Gianakos, Jill Moser, Russell Maltz, Joan Witek, Allison Lasley, Christine Hiebert, Julia Mangold, and Linda Matalon.
In addition to solo projects, the space featured several two-person exhibitions that were treated as concurrent one-artist shows, with separate lists of works and publications. Nonetheless, given that the artists in these doubled exhibitions shared space, special consideration was given to choosing the pairings. The first such shows, which were mounted in April 1994, presented drawings and related works by the couple William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw, longtime collaborators of the late composer John Cage who utilize similarly immersive approaches to chance procedures. Five years later, in April 1999, the gallery displayed drawings by Linda Lynch alongside clay vessels by her sister, Bonnie, demonstrating the intimate interconnections they have developed between these very different media. And, in May 2000, the gallery exhibited drawings by Baroff and her partner, Stefana McClure, artists who work with similar degrees of meticulous attention to detail but to very different effects.
Twice in its history the exhibition space was made available to other organizations in need of venue. In October 1993, the collection hosted Drawings from 55 Ferris Street, which presented works by twenty-nine local artists belonging to a loose association known for mounting exhibitions at its eponymous address in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The show temporarily transplanted an outlying alternative space to the heart of SoHo, and a few of the Ferris Street artists came to have works represented in the collection. A year later and at the unsolicited request of the Icelandic Consulate, the space was given over to a group show of works by six Icelandic women artists. The exhibition, which consisted of figurative sculptures and installations, could not have differed more from the collection’s aesthetic, but it was nonetheless in keeping with the exhibition space’s open, unscripted support of artists. In an unanticipated development, a work by the artist Rádhildur Ingadóttir featuring shoes arranged at the entrance to the gallery caused visitors to remove their own and add them to the display. This behavior was welcomed as one more instance of serendipity for a project that had arrived, fully formed, like a temporary, peaceable, occupying presence.
Several shows hosted by the collection focused partly or fully on collaborations. This was the case when, in March of 1997, Janet Cohen’s drawing series Estimating Pitch Location was presented in conjunction with The Argument Drawings, collaboratively made and conceptually inclined works by a trio that included Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito. In the fall of 1998, an exhibition of David Lasry’s drawings and monoprints took place alongside a selection of his print collaborations with artists at the nearby Two Palms Press. Later that year, the collection joined forces with Dieu Donné Papermill, commissioning six artists in the collection to make paper works using the mill’s new seventy-five-ton hydraulic press, affectionately nicknamed “The Crusher.” The artists chosen for this project were Alice Aycock, Mel Bochner, Elena del Rivero, David Jeffrey, Sara Sosnowy, and Steven Steinman—three women, three men. Each was given the opportunity to create large-scale projects—the press can handle sheets as large as 40 x 60 inches—that effectively dispensed with the traditional association of paper works with diminutive dimensions.
Each of these exhibitions was accompanied by the usual assemblage of printed matter—an announcement, a press release, listings, and the occasional ad. In early 1996, Kramarsky decided to augment these materials with a small catalogue or brochure for each show. In keeping with the collection’s inclusiveness, both well-known and up-and-coming writers were invited to contribute to these occasional publications. Among the contributors have been Michael Brenson on Jill Moser, Barry Schwabsky on David Lasry, Eleanor Heartney on Allison Lasley, Lilly Wei on Jill Baroff, Gregory Volk on Stefana McClure, Frank Badur on Julia Mangold, and Kathryn Tuma on Linda Matalon. Janet Cohen chose to write her own statement, adding an epigraph taken from an article by LeWitt that included the phrase, “I am grateful for the opportunity to strike out for myself.”9 Some of the most beautiful writing I have encountered about the experience of looking at drawing is contained in an essay by Donald Antrim that appears in Christine Hiebert’s catalogue. Take, for instance, this passage:
One way to look at a large Hiebert drawing is to approach it and walk its length, traveling quickly or slowly, depending on the speed inherent in the lines. Impenetrable structures in the drawing loom as temporary obstructions; they draw us close and make us examine the paper, before pointing us off in some new direction. Here and there lines break off or fade—the gum eraser has been at work—and we pause, go back, and contemplate a field sanded white, a respite before continuing. Marks, after all, are used less in the service of the drawing-as-picture, more as a medium for describing qualities of thought and sensation—the proprioceptive, tactile experiences of the artist in relation to spaces and objects, wind and weather, lightness and darkness, and to the particular memories and basic feelings produced as a function of bodily, physical awareness, the artist’s awareness of material existence.10
Artists chosen to exhibit in the collection’s gallery were encouraged to participate in the production of their respective catalogues by suggesting writers and/or by contributing to the design process. Rather than establishing standard dimensions for these publications, sizes were allowed to fluctuate to best accommodate the representation of artworks. This is another instance of the collection’s inspired pragmatism and its ongoing openness to art and artists. A few artists designed their catalogues themselves, with little or no input from a graphic designer. This is true of the publications that accompanied Baroff’s “Stacked Drawings” and Hiebert’s charcoal works. Baroff confronted the difficulty of reproducing her ethereal, light-dependent drawings by effectively transforming the catalogue’s interior into an installation site, allowing several of the images to enter the book partially, surfacing seductively and enigmatically along the left or right edge of a given page. In contrast, Hiebert chose a horizontal format to accommodate the widths of her drawings (some of which are more than 100 inches) and further extended the available space by inserting three foldout pages. In a similar move, Linda Matalon selected an unbound, folded format, so that two page-spreads with reproductions can be removed and pinned up above a desk, a bed, or any other chosen patch of wall.
The same thoughtfulness and sense of purpose that guided the exhibition program in suite 507A has also characterized the gradual donation of much of the collection to museums throughout the United States (and to a handful of institutions abroad). Equally significant is the spirit of exchange and collaboration fostered by members of the informal community that the collection has naturally attracted over the years. In 1995, the space founded by Wynn Kramarsky gained non-profit status and became officially known as the Fifth Floor Foundation. The anonymity of the name was purposeful and functional, the workaday manifestation of a closely held faith in art. The Foundation and the collection are inherently selective, but this selectivity cultivates, even anticipates, potentiality; it does not dictate. A place for art. This was the idea that took root some fifteen years ago.
The epigraph that accompanies this essay originally appeared on a banner that hung outside the entrance to the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, during exhibition ‘Zeichnen ist eine andere Art von Sprache’ in 1999. It reappeared on the back cover of the Akademie’s publication Minimal-Concept Zeichenhafte Sprachen im Raum (2001), which is where I encountered it.
- James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 4.
- Robert C. Morgan, “David Jeffrey at Wynn Kramarsky Gallery,” Review, October 1, 1996.
- David Jeffrey uses this phrase to identify the untitled work.
- Ann Ledy to Christine Mehring, September 9, 1996. Werner H. Kramarsky Papers, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Giorgio Vasari, Vasari on Technique, Introduction to Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori (2nd edition, 1568), trans. Louisa S. Maclehose (J. M. Dent & Company, 1907; reprint, New York: Dover, 1960), 205.
- Werner H. Kramarsky in On Drawing: A Conversation with Werner H. Kramarsky, Connie Butler, and Harry Cooper (Dallas: Pollock Gallery/Division of Art, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, 2000), 15. This is a transcript of a conversation that took place on February 5, 2000.
- See “The Business of Collecting” at blogspot.com, posted on May 25, 2006, a commentary inspired by a talk that Wynn Kramarsky gave at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
- In the fall of 2006, the collection moved to new offices in Manhattan, closing its fulltime exhibition space.
- Sol LeWitt, epigraph to “Paragraph on Conceptual Art,” Artforum (Summer 1967) in Janet Cohen, Estimating Pitch Location (New York: Wynn Kramarsky, 1997), n.p.
- Donald Antrim, Christine Hiebert (New York: Wynn Kramarsky, 2000), n.p.