The Myth of a Degree Zero Moment

Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury Photo: MoMA

Degree Zero at MoMA provides counterpoints to the understanding of drawing’s role in post-war art. Gathering 75 works, made between 1948 and 1966, from Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Alfredo Volpi, and many others, as well as recent acquisitions by artists such as Uche Okeke, the exhibition freshly examines the commonly perceived subsidiary practice of drawing, defined by curators as “modest, immediate, and direct”. The works reconsider mid-century drawing’s provisional qualities that acquired new values through the interlocking of movements, distant geographies, and generations. The phrase Degree Zero is associated with Kazimir Malevich who declared, in 1913, that he wanted to find the “degree zero art.” When he created the pioneering painting “Black Square,” now considered an icon of the avant-garde, it symbolized the break from the prison of figurative painting and formed the foil for a discussion of the current state of the modernist archive of artworks in the West. But Malevich is left out from the conversation in this exhibition.

The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic also bore on the rationale of the exhibition, which related the death toll and economic crisis as a Degree Zero moment. “According to the curators”, drawings can “offer templates for beginning again.” What it means to “begin again,” though, was portrayed in this exhibition as emanating from a globally applicable moment. 

Post-war renewal has various implications. It did not only depend on whether a country won or lost the war but also the degrees of destruction sustained by the urban centers in which artists worked. America emerged from World War II relatively unscathed, with an economy on the rise and an artist population inspired by the European avant-garde, many of whom had relocated to the U.S. While the rest of the world began dealing with immeasurable trauma, New York emerged as a center of artistic activity. Total destruction did not always mean a zero moment. In some artistic cultures, particularly those that emerged in the countryside, history is not attached to infrastructure. The European would have a very different degree zero to the American, or the Asian to the African. 

The German artist Otto Piene began making “smoke drawings,” in 1959 by setting up a mesh screen over a candle and placing paper above so that “the smoke impressed the sheet with its vibration pattern.” The soot on the surface became symbolic of vicarious healing, yielding faces that bear the rudimentary marks of ruin and inner suffering. Pienne’s wasteland ran counter to the sense of promise that American Ellsworth Kelly saw in post-war Paris: “Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added,” he wrote in 1949. While living in there on the G.I. Bill, Kelly visited the Musée d’art moderne, where the ordinary shape of a tall window captivated him more than the art on view, resulting in his sparse ink and pencil drawing, Study for Window. There is a similarity between these works coming out from opposite sides of the war: the motivation to create a visual archive of messy and unfiltered post-war existence. Drawing became the physical manifestation of working through the disputes of modernism with remnants of pre-war definitions of art that no longer fit neatly. But the placement of the zero moment in the Second World War and in the medium of drawing rather than in painting remain dumbfounding to those who have a longer view of art history.

Other than the flattening of post-war conditions around the globe, the curators bit off more than they can chew. Drawing Degree Zero argues not only that the selection of artists retreated to a neutral, anonymous mode of inscription analogous to Malevich’s Degree Zero in painting or Roland Barthes’s Degree Zero in writing, but also that drawing was the medium where this was achieved. This notion undermines the content and methodological dimensions of drawing as artificially separate from painting, collage, and other visual media. In terms of content, there are no anxieties and visions that are unique to the label and practice of drawing.

 The exhibition curators quote Jean Paul Sartre: “So one must begin again from scratch,” which was a comment which the philosopher made on the sculptures, not the drawings, of Alberto Giacometti whose crayon “Portrait” from 1951, an iteration of the same figure depicted by sculpture, is included in the exhibition. Knowing the specificity of Sartre’s dictum, the curator’s premise  becomes suspicious. The attempt to examine the possibility of drawing as the choice medium of renewal, though, remains important because of the transparent retention of mistakes and erasures that makes it a regenerative medium. But associating degree zero with starting from scratch veers from the general point of the modern impulse to regenerate. Many artists in various contexts did not feel the need to forge a new visual language in the aftermath of World War II. What is “modest, immediate, and direct” does not universally stand if we think about calligraphy’s relationship to the works of Yayoi Kusama whose Accumulation from 1952 was a discrete and lyrical commentary on the embarrassment felt by her people during American Occupation following the defeat of Japan in the war. 

Drawing’s outgrowth from the purview of connoisseurs and repositioning at the forefront of contemporary art, gaining the same flexibility and range that characterized painting, was a pivotal moment in the post-war period. Drawing began to take many forms, from the abstract to the figurative, the organic to the hard-edged. Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell are not known to make preparatory drawings, rather they are thought to make paintings on paper, and the redefinition of that practice in this exhibition becomes a testament to the porous border between painting and drawing. Another crucial post-war shift was drawing’s mimicking the look of language, which brings it closer to its origins in ancient writing. But to call it as “starting from scratch” when Western artists came up with graffiti, or made works that resembled traditional calligraphic practices, is a bit of a stretch. What becomes evident in this exhibition is Modern Art’s colonization of non-western ancient practices. Suddenly, the rhythmic lines once the motif of African art “asserted the primacy of the individual,” and the accretion of marks that drew from oriental patterns now “mirrored an increasingly consumerist society’s urge toward accumulation.” Malevich was truly radical in his painting of reduced geometries, more so than seeking to communicate universal ideals. [“In his words:” or some such] “In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.” In his 1927 book The Non-Objective World, he went explicitly against making a drawing before painting. Not that this means he never did any drawings but that whenever he did, it was going to be its own finished product. His elevation of drawing by not drawing was a true degree zero moment. 

Drawing does not initially appear as an independent category in Art History. Wax tablets in medieval workshops or the preliminary sketches for frescoes were erased or painted over immediately. It was not until the introduction of parchment and later paper in the West around the 12th century that drawings became portable. From then on, they were taken by artists in portfolios throughout their peripatetic life. Such was the case of Swiss ab-ex painter Sonja Sekula who wrote to Betty Parsons in 1956 that “Small size . . . suits my heart best.” The medium allowed her, who struggled with mental illness, to work as she traveled back and forth between New York and her native Switzerland, where she received treatment. This transatlantic journey is alluded to in the ship that appears in the interior frame of The Voyage, an ink and watercolor work from 1956. 

The invention of pastel sticks in the late 18th c., was the medium’s last significant innovation. In almost all cases, they remain in service to an artist’s main body of work. Unlike “Abstract Expressionist”+painting or “Minimalist”+sculpture, we cannot tag the same terms for drawing. The medium never spawned a movement, instead defined by eternal types and methods based on materials, and the formulations of their practitioners. An exception is the Nigerian artist Uche Okeke, whose degree zero moment came in 1960 when his country gained independence from British colonial rule. Okeke sought to create a “truly modern African art to be cherished and appreciated for its own sake.” This declaration is quite ironic considering that the work selected for this exhibition is an ink drawing made in preparation for an ironwork in 1959, and that its leaps back over the interruption of colonization to adopt the lyrical curves of uli designs, traditionally practiced by the Igbo people of southern Nigeria in mural painting and body art.

Another zero moment occurs when two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, threatening the nature and purpose of making art. In Japan, a distinction is still made between the traditional Nihon-ga and the western style of painting which until recently only meant the canon of Old Masters and Classical Modernists. When the avant-garde Gutai group started in the early 50s, drawing was not perceived with the status of an autonomous work apart from the tradition of calligraphy. This lends a radical peculiarity to Saburo Murakami’s Bōru paintings from 1954, made by bouncing an ink-covered ball against a sheet of handmade torinoko, or “egg paper.” When he declared: “Zero means ‘nothing’: start with nothing, completely original, no artificial meaning,” he was aware that it may fall on the deaf ears of a conservative imperial Japanese society, but may appeal to the experiment-inclined Western art world. 

The panorama of drawings at MoMA did not result from artists drastically changing the nature of drawing but rather from the dismantling of the traditional boundaries of mediums in the avant-garde movements of the pre-war period. The state of drawing in the mid-century is also the result of visual expression bending towards approximation of reality in geometric shapes and the recovery of ur-forms from ancient history. The inclusion of artists from diverse geographies at the MoMA’s survey of drawing can be dangerously retrograde without the mention of the specificities of the Degree Zero moments from which they emerge: after colonization, after fascism, after atomic apocalypse. 

Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury runs through February 6, 2021.

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