A branch of Paleontology, known as Ichnology, denotes the study of “trace fossils.” Trace fossils are primarily the footprints that were left behind by ancient dinosaurs as they trudged through the primordial mud on their evolutionary journey to extinction. Over the ensuing eons, these casual footprints became fossilized as they lay buried, beneath the sands of time, waiting for some ichnologist to dig them up.
Last week, I went on an Ichnological dig of my own, rummaging through the secret storage area beneath the raised floor, in what, while I was still living there, was called the “living room.” There are many boxes buried in the crawl space, hidden underneath the floor that have remained unopened, since we first moved to the country, nearly half a century before. Among the artifacts that I recently discovered there, were two large flat boxes packed with stacks of figure drawings that I did, over the course of three short years, from 1968 to 1970. From the very moment that I drew them, they have remained packed away, and have never seen the light of day.
These amateur attempts at rendering the human figure are the footprints that this ancient dinosaur left behind on his journey to, hopefully, becoming an artist, someday. Unfortunately, along the way the dream of doing fine art died, and that anticipated “someday” never did arrive. Instead, this aspiring would-be artist spent the rest of his long life, dabbling in toy design.
Now, the discovery of this new trove of trace fossils only complicates the question of what will happen to all the stuff that I either collected, purposely, or merely failed to throw away, throughout my life. What should I do with these? God knows, they will, no doubt, be tossed into the trash, after I die.
Several years ago, I found another batch of drawings, similar to those I just discovered. In an attempt to save then, I framed some of my favorites. Then, I hung a group of them in the living room, on a wall that was once reserved only for posters and proof sheets that were given to us by Maurice Sendak. I distributed the rest of the framed drawings, throughout the house. Clearly, I was skating on thin ice. The last straw arrived when our old 25 inch television set burnt out, and I eagerly replaced it with a cutting-edge plasma TV, complete with bone shaking surround sound. Eunice hated it! She regarded this expensive electronic masterpiece as a monstrosity, inflicted on her by yours truly.
Therefore, one day, when my welcome had worn perilously thin, Eunice said to me: “Get those naked ladies out of here.” And so, I did. And I more or less went with them to never “frequent” the living room again. I hung a few of the larger drawings in the big room, where I occasionally hang out, and the bulk of my collection dwells. Others that I gathered from around the house, I crammed into the only remaining empty space, the walls of the bell tower where I sleep now. They look somewhat ridiculous there, and over the top, like the pinup plastered walls of a men’s locker room, or an old fashioned barber shop. And, even though, some folks who see them there experience a modicum of shock, I enjoy looking at them every day. And so, there they will stay as long as I remain. In a way, being surrounded by this fading evidence of my once vibrant youth makes me feel young again.
Now, there is no more wall space left, and to make the conundrum this new batch of drawings presents even more complex, there are no less than 85 of them that I feel compelled to save. Therefore, I will, once again, embrace the solution that I often fall back upon, of late; I will post them on the Internet! There, may they remain, at least, momentarily safe, transformed into electronic impulses, floating endlessly, through the vast reaches of cyberspace.
As I am gathering all these drawings in one place, I will also include those that were hidden in the recollection pages under the title of, “Life Drawing,” as well as appropriate selections of that previously written commentary.
All the drawings gathered here began in the loft above mine, on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, in 1968, or maybe 67. At that time, my upstairs neighbor, Haig Adishian initiated a weekly life drawing class. I had not done any drawing, since I attended the Academy Julienne in Paris, ten years before. Over those ensuing years, I had given up all hope and pretense of ever being an artist. Now, as it no longer mattered if my drawings were good or bad, I found this lack of importance had freed me to view figure drawing as a kind of sport, a pleasant pastime to be enjoyed, just for fun of it. The first drawing that I did on that occasion is the one below.
The group of drawings that follow were from those early days, as well. They were fast, bold, and often, out of control. I was using the ebony pencils I had from Paris, on rough paper. So the lines were darker, and sometimes, reminiscent of charcoal.
I was also inclined to scribble. This was born out of excitement, as I tried to beat the clock, and capture the pose in the fleeting time allotted, usually twenty minutes. I never lost sight of the fact that twenty minutes was all the time I had. Therefore, I worked feverishly, at lightning speed, to capture all the information I could gather, and throw it at the paper.
There was no time to stop and think, or hesitate to plan the page. I simply let the insanely intoxicating act of drawing carry me, wherever it might lead. And because I left my meddlesome mind behind, and relied solely on my unconscious intuition as a guide, the resulting art, for once in my life, was unequivocally mine.
On occasion, I would even pick up an eraser and smear the drawing up a little. This is an example of that. It’s also quite abstract.
I soon gave up the use of an eraser. Whenever I made an error, I just left it there. Sometimes, a pose was even less that twenty minutes, and the drawing became little more than a fleeting impression.
Of all the drawings I found recently, I believe the sketch below is my favorite. Even though, it is enthusiastically messy, the languishing voluptuousness of the reclining figure shines through. Paging through the hundreds of drawings I found in those two boxes, I had eliminated this one, early on. Lying flat on the bell tower bed where I sorted the drawings, it looked like a total mess. In the end, it was the one that I reluctantly chose last. Ironically, when seen upright, through the camera’s eye, it turned out to be the one that I liked best.
Here are three more drawings, done with dark ebony pencils. I soon gave that pencil up, and began using an ordinary number two pencil on smooth bond paper.
Using the lighter pencils offered me much more control. I found that I could draw with a newfound delicacy, and at the same time, by pressing harder I could still go bold.
Waiting for each new pose to begin, I turned off my consciousness, and prepared to dive right in. Like an athlete, who all his life had trained for an event that required only a few seconds to take place, this was the moment of truth, an opportunity to ascertain where all those years of doing art had carried me. For a small fraction of eternity, I would not try to please anyone, but me. There would be no contriving, no composing, no rethinking, or second-guessing, and above all, absolutely no erasing! There simply was no time for any of those things. This would be an exercise in total honesty. I stood behind my easel, which was the starting gate. My oversized drawing pad was opened to a clean white page, and locked in place. And once the model settled into a pose that everyone agreed was OK, I rushed forth with abandon, and began the race!
The way I drew was daring. That was partly an attempt to make it more exciting, and partly because of lack of skill. I didn’t have that kind of awesome ability that is possessed, for instance, by my friend James Gurney. When he picks up a pencil or a brush, it does exactly what he wants it to. When I, on the other hand, attempted to draw even a single line, the results are always unpredictable. I came to grips with this reality, and stopped worrying about it. And thus, I drew with purposeful abandon, and threw lines at the paper wildly, because that made it more exciting. Like basketballs aimed at the net, from clear across the court, a few, from time to time, dropped in, but many more fell short. I played the drawing game for fun; and sometimes by fate, or just dumb luck, I won.
As a kid, I had an amazing book, called, “Junior’s Fun to Draw.” It was published in 1944, when I was seven; and that might have the year I got it. It taught Junior how to draw, step by step, beginning with circles. There were even actual model sheets from animated cartoons, mostly picked up from Fleischer Studios. These revealed how comic characters were constructed, one circle at a time. And so, at that early age, it became fixated in my mind that if I could just find the hidden circles, I would be able to draw anything. I never outgrew that simple concept, and even as an adult, figure drawing for me remained a treasure hunt for pure geometry! Rectangles, squares and triangles were often hiding in there too, but first and foremost, trumping everything, I sought to find, and render visible, the secret circles.
I loved to circulate among circles, languish amid their curvaceous contours, and often times exaggerate their size.
But most of all, I savored the exquisite pleasure of balancing precariously on the razor thin line that separates abstraction from reality. I strove to master the subtle trick of adding just enough exaggeration to hopefully convey to others the elements that I found exciting, without stepping across the line into the realm of caricature.
Here is a drawing, so bland and conventional, I find it hard to believe I did it. It could pass for competent, but ordinary. For the most part , thinner models did not inspire me to exaggerate. Beside her, is another model with a figure that contemporary women might consider commendable.
The drawing on the lower right, I find infinitely more satisfying. I ultimately gravitate towards exaggeration. Here, I over emphasized in the opposite direction. Quick and direct, I like to see it contrasted to this almost caricature of a lady on the left, who was more weighty. These two drawings always seemed like a pair, to me.
Recalling my own art school days, viewing fellow students work not only revealed their level of proficiency, it could also reveal their interests, in ways that sometimes bordered on hilarious. One often encountered drawings, especially among beginners, in which certain areas of the anatomy were rendered in great detail, or enlarged outrageously, while other parts were totally ignored. Now, all these years later, my drawings, too, were hardly exercises in objectivity. I admit that they revealed a point of view. This visual overstatement is something I did purposely, knowingly exaggerating the curves and contours, hills and valleys, shapes and shadows that seemed most interesting, hoping that the viewer would see them too.
On occasion, I tried to play it straight and capture the model in proportion. This drawing almost looks like a standard 1960s magazine illustration. Its rendering is adequate, but to my eye, unexciting.
I much prefer drawings that stray off the path, into the realm of the abstract. This is one the pleases me. One has to look twice to detect the model, who, even though, she is a group of abstract shapes, is rendered almost accurately.
And here is a large drawing, in which acute abstraction is intermingled with islands of reality. The model’s knee has become an unrecognizable abstraction, while, here and there, her hands and face, and exceedingly unique breasts are rendered quite accurately.
I found life drawing most amusing when I turned off my brain. Nonetheless, on some occasions I attempted to explore new variations, consciously. Here, for instance, I attempted to draw with both neatness and solidity.
This is a similar example. I attempted to explore the forms with a carefully studied line, and control my propensity to go nuts with crazy shading. This might have been a longer pose, permitting me to take my time, and lightly sketch in the forms, before I committed to them.
This extremely large drawing was a long pose, three twenty minute segments. Here, I carefully planned the composition and placement on the page. Then, I meticulously tickled in the shadows. I really do not favor drawings, like this, in which I get too consciously involved.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT