Since joining the Drawing Center in 2010, curator Claire Gilman has routinely examined and challenged the institution’s already expansive definition of drawing. Having earned a PhD in art history from Columbia University, Gilman approaches the various roles that drawing has played throughout art history with a fascination for the intimate and fundamental act of mark-making. The New York native spoke with us recently to illuminate what this perennially overlooked medium still has to offer.—LILLY SLEZAK
What was your first priority when you arrived at the Drawing Center last July? What projects have you worked on so far?
My first priority was getting started on my exhibition “Drawn from Photography” which, scheduled to open six months after my arrival, did not have a lot of lead time. After the checklist was in good shape, I sat down with director Brett Littman and assistant curators Joanna Kleinberg and Rachel Liebowitz to begin conceptualizing future exhibition programming. We only had a few shows scheduled when I arrived in July and now we have a fairly full plate through 2013!
How was the concept for “Drawn from Photography” initiated?
It originated with a talk I gave at the College Art Association conference in 2009. That talk focused on drawings based on photographs of political protests by Andrea Bowers and Sam Durant, and I subsequently adapted it for publication in Art Journal. For the show, I wanted to expand beyond this specific concentration on scenes of protests while still exploring the way in which artists are engaged with images of social and political change more generally. For me, the fact that so many artists today are making drawings after photographs and digital material has a lot to do with an anxiety over agency-a desire for control and connection within an increasingly fast-paced, information-saturated world-and I wanted the work selected to reflect that trend.
How did you come to write your dissertation on Arte Povera? What is the historical significance of Arte Povera in relation to drawing?
During my first semester of graduate school, I went to see the post-1945 Italian art survey “The Italian Metamorphosis” at the Guggenheim Museum. I was blown away by the work I saw and by Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror paintings in particular. Benjamin Buchloh was teaching a seminar [at Columbia] on France, Italy and Germany circa 1948–68, and I decided to write my final paper on Pistoletto. The rest is history.
Arte Povera is not a drawing-based movement, per se, but neither is it exclusively concerned with exploring natural materials and energy states, as is the common assumption. In fact, much of the work investigates different kinds of mark-making and the nature of representation in general. In this context, drawing plays a big role. Artists like Giuseppe Penone, Alighiero Boetti, Mario and Marisa Merz, and Giulio Paolini all developed unique and varied drawing methods.
The Drawing Center clearly sees itself as filling a particular niche. What aspects of its mission do you feel most strongly about?
The Drawing Center was founded in 1977 by Martha Beck, then chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, because of her perception that drawing remained a second-class citizen at the big museums. Today, things have changed. Increasingly there are large-scale, museum exhibitions dedicated to drawing—such as “On Line,” which recently closed at MoMA. Drawing has assumed relevance on a par with painting and sculpture.
Nonetheless, the Drawing Center remains the standard-bearing institution for thinking about drawing as a medium and its specific meaning and function within the history of art. I believe that this agenda assumes a new importance as artists increasingly work in multiple media and as the boundaries between the disciplines become ever more porous. At the Drawing Center we adopt an expansive definition of drawing and we are very interested in investigating the ways in which artists use drawing alongside other media. However, I believe that it remains important to explore the specificity of distinct materials and gestures—something that the Drawing Center’s mandate forces us to do in a rigorous and productive way.
What’s so important about drawing?
Everybody draws. It is a fundamental, universal act that lies at the core of the representational arts generally. Drawing serves different purposes, chief among them being to sketch out ideas or think through issues that are in gestation or remain unresolved. But drawing is also a distinct artistic tradition, one often associated with a particular intimacy between the artist and his or her materials. Of course, much contemporary art challenges this notion and it is this very tension-between the personal and the intimate, and the mediated and disconnected—that intrigues me right now. That tension stands at the center of my current exhibition, “Drawn from Photography.”
Where do you see the institution heading?
The Drawing Center is at a very exciting juncture. We recently purchased the upstairs apartment at 35 Wooster and in July we will begin a renovation project that will result in 50 percent more programming space. We plan on moving the offices upstairs and creating a second gallery behind our main gallery as well as a lower-level space that will accommodate additional curatorial, education and public programming. The Drawing Center excels at putting on small, focused exhibitions and these kinds of shows will continue to be an important part of our schedule, but we will also be able to stage larger-scale, multiple gallery exhibitions as well as more spontaneous, project-oriented shows. We are in a great place right now and I am excited to see the Drawing Center pursue the course of drawing into the next century.
What are the pros and cons of the center’s SoHo location?
Certainly SoHo is not the art mecca that it once was. However, there are still a number of vital nonprofits in the immediate vicinity, including Artists Space and the Swiss Institute, both of which are putting on excellent programming, not to mention galleries that have stayed the course, like Peter Freeman, Team and Peter Blum. More important, if one expands the Drawing Center’s “neighborhood” to include the Bowery to the east and Hudson Street to the west, we become the center point of a vibrant art scene. For example, many people don’t realize that the New Museum is only a 10-minute walk away.