Despite pouring rain and unusually bitter April weather, guests crowded into Capitale last night for a gala to celebrate the Drawing Center’s 40th anniversary. As Brett Littman, the Drawing Center’s executive director, noted, it was something of an arbitrary marker in the institution’s history. “We’ll be 50 in ten years, which is actually a bigger deal,” he said.
But it was still a landmark for the Drawing Center, and an important one, because non-profit alternative spaces struggle to survive in New York these days. “I’m a grandchild of the alternative-space movement,” Littman, who has also worked at P.S1 Contemporary Art Center, UrbanGlass, and Dieu Donné, continued. “The people who founded those organizations, they were visionaries. Things are different today, in 2017, but nonetheless, it’s important to look at these institutions that have had longevity.”
On hand to attest to the space’s rich history were the night’s honorees, Marcel Dzama, Teresita Fernández, Rashid Johnson, and R. H. Quaytman. Hard as it may be to believe, each artist had one of his or her first major shows at the Drawing Center. All four are now represented by some of New York’s most blue-chip galleries.
After a four-piece band ushered people in to Capitale’s cavernous dining room, blaring discordant music until guests put down their cocktails and took their seats, the artists said a few words about their experience at the Drawing Center, which was the first place Dzama showed his cartoonish work in New York, in 1998. After arriving in the city, “the first place I went was the Drawing Center, so straight from JFK to the Drawing Center,” he said. “I had my suitcase sitting at the front desk.” Guests laughed, but Dzama, humble and awkward as ever, concluded, “Other artists here will tell you more interesting things than I will.”
Fernández confidently told of how the Drawing Center took a chance on her work when she showed there in 1995. “I was a very young artist who’d been to grad school. I put some 35mm slides in the mail, sent them to the Drawing Center, and got selected, which is a really significant thing, if you’re a young artist,” she said. “It’s not lost on me that that was in 1995, and that in 1996, I had shows at Deitch Projects, the New Museum, and Lehmann Maupin, who I’ve been with since then.”
Drawing used to be something artists needed to defend to critics, who, four decades ago, thought of the medium as being lesser than painting and sculpture. For Quaytman, whose work appeared at the Drawing Center in 1984, there was a beauty to the medium. “The wonderful thing about a drawing is that it shows how thoughts happen,” she said. “That’s why I never show mine.”
The last speaker of the evening was Johnson, who Littman said “almost maybe didn’t make it.” Johnson had been in London, and was feeling very jet-lagged. “My wife and I took a nap, and we didn’t wake up until about 7:10,” the artist said. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m never late for anything—I’m an incredible punctual person. Stereotypes beware.”
Johnson is currently adapting Native Son for the big screen, while also prepping an upcoming show at Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset space in England. You wouldn’t think he has too much time to create works on paper in between a feature-film debut and creating room-size installations, but it’s important, he concluded, to have a space that focuses on, and lobbies for, artists who draw.
“Everyone at the Drawing Center,” he said, “keeps that practice alive.”