A glittering Kandinsky and a splashy Pollock. A handful of Tiepolos. A Jacques-Louis David of Roman soldiers. Picasso women rendered in each of his styles. These are some of the treasures to be discovered in the quiet, low-light galleries of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. More than a hundred drawings are new acquisitions, thanks to the venerable art historian-gallerist couple, Mary and Richard Gray (d. 2018). “Pure Drawing” is a sequel to a 2010 exhibit that showcased their huge gift.
Representing the world with lines as old as human history; it defines our species. But drawing in particular seems to be closer to artists’ raw creativity, what Richard Gray meant by “pure drawing.” Full disclosure: the pieces here are wholly Western, there are virtually no artists of color and only a few women. Even so, because the Grays “were less interested in celebrity than in greatness,” the show is not a trophy display of blue-chip artists. Superb works by lesser-known artists comport comfortably with those by recognized masters. One advantage of an exhibition like this is seeing the works of so many artists in one place. It rewards viewers who are up on their art history, as well as those who simply like to marvel at excellently made things. Even though every piece is a drawing, there is nevertheless great diversity in materials and technique. Some are unfamiliar, such as “iron-gall” ink or “clear acrylic gel.” Papers are “laid,” “wove” or “flocked.” Artists “stump,” “smudge,” “wipe” and add highlights of chalk or watercolor. Some drawings are preparatory for paintings or murals––several revealing the squaring lines to aid in their transfer to larger formats––while others are fully realized works. Their varied size and color astonishes.
Bold modernist drawings grace the first gallery. Black-and-white academic nudes and landscapes are in other rooms. Detailed religious images from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries account for many of the pieces. Throughout, the hanging advantages the individual artworks. An especially important acquisition, a Van Gogh drawing, is dark and mysterious and inspired by a wistful poem. Despite its moodiness, Vincent once bubbled, “There is nothing so delightful as drawing.” Also featured is a guest book from Gray’s gallery in which artists and writers wrote and made drawings. A veritable roster of renowned twentieth-century creatives—modern writers as well as artists, including Susan Sontag and John Updike––it’s a testament to the Gray’s long and deep connection to the contemporary scene.
The handsome catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes high-quality photographs of all the works, along with probing descriptions and solid scholarship. Four readable essays by AIC curators—on artists’ materials, and on Italian, Flemish-Netherlandish and French drawings—provide in-depth historical context. Altogether, exhibitions like this, of important gifts from smart, dedicated collectors, remind us that actual people––benefactors––stand behind the artworks we enjoy. As Gray himself once said: “What we have assembled will become part of the shared cultural property of our city and benefit many lives, as it has ours.” Truly, Gray family––thank you. (Mark B. Pohlad)
“Pure Drawing: Seven Centuries of Art from the Gray Collection,” The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through May 10.