From Géricault to Rockburne: Selections from the Michael and Juliet Rubenstein Gift

The fifty drawings in this fine show come from a selection of 160 works promised to the Met by donors Michael and (the late) Juliet Rubenstein, in recognition of the 150th birthday of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Collector Michael Rubenstein, a born New Yorker and by profession an architect, regularly made visits to the Met while only a youth. His education resulted in a passion for art. This collection, ranging from Géricault and Delacroix to Juan Gris and Julio Gonzalez to Philip Guston and Dorothea Rockburne, selectively, but highly effectively, brings to light the works on paper ranging from French romanticism through European and Modern modernism to the contemporary efforts of outstanding American artists. In a show like this, we are as aware of the sensibility of the collector as we are the efforts of those who have been collected. Rubenstein’s gifts as a hunter and gatherer of excellent works of art are readily evident in the exhibition, even if the availability of good work may have been limited, given the concerted collecting of other people, whose affluence may have gone farther in the corralling of works on paper that earlier times did not recognize as being as valuable as they are.

But the truth is that drawings are marvelously collectible, being spontaneous evidence of the hand. Paintings, which can be reworked, of course have greater prestige in the canon, but they do not reveal the innate skills of the artist as transparently as drawings, whose vividness and directness of markings on paper enable us to see the artist thinking. Then, too, it is also possible to do highly finished work--one of the later works in the show, a marvelous drawing in response to Fra Angelico by Dorothea Rockburne, consists of multicolored, close-to-complete circles in pencils of various hues on vellum. It is a truly complete work of art, not being a study for something larger or more ambitious. The material forthrightness of drawings means that we are looking at work whose process is evidently alive rather than being reworked, as happens so often in painting (it is surely more difficult to correct a mistake in a drawing than in an oil work). Rubenstein’s sensitivity as a collector is wonderfully clear in the collection, which is of a uniformly high caliber, even if not everything can be considered great (major drawings may have already been in collections for some time!). As a gift to such an important museum as the Metropolitan, the group of works are assured safety of placement and, equally important, safety of recognition; they provide us with a prominent anthology of one person’s astute choice of works representative of major artists.

The show can be seen chronologically, beginning with the Romantic painters mentioned above. Not least important, though, is Rubenstein’s choice of contemporary and near contemporary works of art. It goes without saying that he has made clear decisions about what he likes, favoring a lyric expression that perhaps drawings are inherently good at conveying. Why is it that this medium is usually given short shrift in discussions of so-called “major” efforts? Finished drawings, or not-so-finished, inspired ones, can communicate design, great energy, and ambition wonderfully well. For example, we see in one of the earlier works, Man Seen from the Back (ca. 1818) by Géricault, a drawing done with graphite on tracing paper, a nude man from behind, bent slightly in outline so that his position is skewed. His right is extended outward, and his left leg is bent; we do not see the complete left arm, which is hidden a bit by the man’s back, nor do we see the complete right leg, whose lower exists beyond the bottom of the paper. It is a vigorous drawing, done at a time when such studies were both technical and expressive. Emphasis is placed on the rough energy of the figure.

A much later drawing, graphite on paper, called Apples in a Bowl (1954), by Giacometti might also be called an academic study, were it not for the slender lyricism of his line. Apples pile up in a bowl on a table, throwing a shadow behind them. The image could not be simpler, and that is the key to its attractiveness, even grace. Giacometti’s wiry, often alienated line is evident immediately in his heavily reworked portraits, but here a lighter touch exists. Balthus’s Reclining Nude (1964), a graphite work on brown paper, is a little bit messy in that the young girl’s head is repeated some, and the bedding she is lying on also transparently folds over her body. Balthus’s skill of hand, well established, comes into play here as he sketches a favorite theme. And Matisse’s Two Reclining Nudes (1928), a work in which one attractive woman, fully unclothed, lies on top of another, with the latter’s head supported by a pillow. Often Matisse is erotic, a predilection made more so as he works with his remarkable levels of skill, and this attractive, sensual drawing bears this out. I have jumped across time periods here to emphasize the fact that the problems facing artists making drawings, still lifes or nudes, don’t change much over the years.

Abstraction is also well represented in the collection. Philip Guston’s untitled ink work (ca. 1962) consists of a series of connected, rough black lines, of variable widths, that enjoin each other in ways that emphasize the white space of the paper they contain. This work was done at the very end of the first generation’s activity in abstract expressionism, before Guston embraced the raw, symbolic figuration a few years later. So the drawing keeps traces of the poetic impressionism of his abstract art, made earlier. Mentioned above, Rockburne’s Angelico (1978), a study in open admiration for the great early Renaissance painter, doesn’t offer any overtly religious imagery, but the sense of perfection in the colored pencil, near circles on folded vellum (a distinguishing feature of the artist’s work) conveys her marvelous abstract treatment of what can only be called the devotional undertaking that can exist in art. Finally, Eve Aschheim’s lyric blue abstraction Overlap/Underline (2012), an oil on canvas that has been mounted on board, represents a poetic vision of the color blue, here seen as a near triangle on the left, with a couple of stripes and black lines following the angle of the deep blue. On the right, we see an angled intrusion consisting of a darker blue, with a white stripe cutting vertically through the left side of the shape. Clearly, these three images are indicative of New York’s long strength in gestural and geometric abstraction.

Maillol’s lithograph, Two Women Embracing (1898) is a small image of one nude woman grasping the left arm of the other, similarly unclothed. Both feel voluptuous and offer the viewer a voluminous effusion of hair; the sexual element of the embrace is undeniable. Morandi’s small, watercolor still life from 1960 moves in a completely different direction; it presents three differently colored jars--from the left, dark blue, brown, and a shadowed pink (the first two have thin extensions rising above them). Morandi’s art is classical in its sensitive simplicity. The unusual beauty achieved in his work has to do with the way he lets color and form speak for themselves, without rhetoric or over-justification. To jump stylistically once again: Graham Nickson, British born but living in New York for decades, offers Bermuda Sky #1 (1998), a beautifully colored watercolor that is composed of a dark blue sea, divided by a yellow strip of light descending from a sunset, which takes over the upper half of the work. Dark blue clouds and orange, yellow, and even green light fill the sky apocalyptically. This might be an expressionist view of the Caribbean twilight, but it could also be an accurate treatment of what the artist sees. His light and colors may be extremely romantic, but they are never lurid and feel like they connect to actual observation.

Charles Demuth, the major early 20th-century American painter, sums up the collection’s interest in abstraction, figuration, and landscape. His watercolor, called Abstract Landscape, Provincetown (1915), consists of hills nearly approaching a mountainous state, with a bright blue sky filled with cumulus clouds. The tall hills are built up by broad strokes of differing color: blue, mauve, light orange, tan, and white. It is an easily recognizable landscape, but with a bit of effort, the imagery can be broken down into horizontals that reference themselves alone. Thus, the composition magically--and deliberately--loses its figurative coherence, so that Demuth, not known for being a nonobjective painter, participates in the play of abstraction dominant at the time. By collecting this work, and the others mentioned, Rubenstein demonstrates his ability to appreciate fine drawings across the boundaries of time, nations, gender, media, and style. So the show pays homage to a way of seeing that is catholic to a high degree. Because the examples in the collection are so consistently high in accomplishment, we must praise their ability to persuade the Met Breuer audience of drawing’s ability to inform and delight. It is a great shame, seeing work like this, to know that the Met Breuer will close over the summer; the art, though, makes it clear just how distinguished the space’s brief tenure has been.

- Jonathan Goodman