The Drawings of Downtown SoHo – The Spectator World


Too bad for the poor Drawing Center. Founded in 1977 – or rather “born in the petri dish of the SoHo art scene in the 1960s and 1970s” – the Center was the pet project of Martha Beck, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art. She felt that the drawing medium, underserved by the art establishment, needed its own specialized venue. Over the years, this downtown gallery has a proven track record of hosting a variety of historical and contemporary exhibitions, while making a point of reaching out to working artists, some of whom have gone on to gain more great recognition.

But this petri dish? Much has changed since the heyday of cheap rented industrial lofts. Although painters and sculptors continue to work in SoHo, it is no longer the hub of the international art world. Real estate, as the truism goes, follows artists and, as a rule, moves them. Galleries are now rare in SoHo. As a result, the Drawing Center finds itself stuck amongst a slew of luxury shops, high-end hotels, expensive restaurants and, proving that some things never change, a noisy line of traffic entering the Holland Tunnel.

Will culture vultures think twice before going to SoHo or, as one acquaintance puts it, “the boonies?” It would be a shame if they did, otherwise they might miss The clamor of ornament: exchange, power and joy from the 15th century to the present day, a sensational exhibition curated by London-based historian and curator Emily King. Bringing together over two hundred objects from around the world, King, along with co-curators Margaret Anne Logan and Duncan Tomlin, seeks to highlight how ornament can be not just “a medium of exchange across geographies and cultures” , but the basis for “pleasant disturbance”.

Pleasure? Yes, you read that right. Notwithstanding the obligatory moment of extra-cosmetic harassment – the wall’s introductory text continues on “power imbalances and exploitation” – The clamor of ornament shamelessly emphasizes visual effusion and stylistic fecundity. The curators have collected an impressive array of media: mostly drawings, textiles and prints, but also photographs, books and even a set of baseball caps originally sold to pedestrians on nearby Canal Street. A set set juxtaposing Martin Sharp’s psychedelic homage to Bob Dylan with “The Second Knot, Interlaced Roundel with an Amazon Shield in its Center” (vs. 1521), Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut riff on a drawing originally from Leonardo, sets the stage for a melee of great splendor.

Among the primary virtues of The clamor of ornament it is to what extent it confirms the universality of the decorative impulse. Culture and chronology are put to the test for an installation that favors the common points of rhythm and color, the complexity and generosity of the pictorial spirit. “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men” (1864), a quintet of kaleidoscopic prints by Toyohara Kunichika, is seen near a book of tattoo designs by an unknown hand from the turn of the last century. Nearby is a 1953 study for eleven ornamental bands by John deCesare, a work commissioned by this Medici from the supermarket, General Foods. With its sudden changes of location and intent, the show could feel like a bumpy ride. In fact, it flows like a river.

Which is appropriate, given that a majority of the work is devoted to works based, in one way or another, on the natural world. Geometry is approached, in particular as an organizing principle, and symmetry is a constant. But it is the sinuosity of the organic forms, enhanced by an extravagant color, which predominates. Hirase Yoichirō’s sketchbook studies of seashells make the point clear, as does an unfinished watercolour, a plan for Chrysanthemum wallpaper, by the estimable William Morris. The Welsh architect Owen Jones – whose founding text, The grammar of ornamentserves as the cornerstone of the exhibition – is seen to stunning chromatic effect in a trio of pieces elaborating on Chinese precedent.

Other notables include Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Louis H. Sullivan and Paul Klee. But star power does not carry The clamor of ornament, not with key pieces made by unknown, anonymous craftsmen or specialists. The craftsmanship, as one would expect, is of a high standard, and the work on display is, on the whole, shaped with meticulous and sometimes breathtaking virtuosity. If you need a reminder of the ability of the human hand, especially in our age of digital flimflammerie, a visit to the Drawing Center is a must. But beware: once you enter the exhibition, you won’t want to leave. The splendor is addictive.

This article was originally published in The spectatorof the August 2022 global edition.


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