I prefer drawings, always have—take Andrée Bonnard, Albrecht Dürer, Pablo Picasso, Rochus van Veen, Paul-Marie Verlaine, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Fragonard, Roy Lichtenstein, or even the contemporary Kara Walker. Drawings hold a direct and focused elegancy, the stark verve and fluid movement I find pleasurable in running, in fishing, in archery, in sex. The drawing seems to me serious, yet playful and mischievous. The drawing doesn’t strive for some grand gesture, but is content in a variety of sparseness, opening itself to empty space, to discovery. The drawing contains flair of improvisation, flux of immersion. The hand, the instrument, the line, or, to borrow a phrase from Yeats: How can we know the dancer from the dance? Or, to more aptly appropriate a drafting master, Henri Matisse, who sums it up with, “The essential thing is to spring forth, to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing.” The act itself is the essence of the drawings; the artifact of the drawing embodies the essence of the act.
I don’t prefer convoluted, overeager drawings, wrought with shadings or crosshatchings, overly done contour lines and what not. I’m not into blur. I want to see the art as physical manifestation, take for outstanding example, Picasso’s light drawings. In 1949, LIFE magazine’s artist and technical pioneer, Gjon Mili, devised a technique to attach and photograph lights during instants of movement (figure skaters, for example). He brought this innovation to Picasso, letting him “draw” images in the air, art that vanished as soon as it was created—but it didn’t really vanish. Mili captured Picasso’s motions by leaving his camera shutter wide open. The results are perfect realizations of yet another Matisse concept of graphic arts: “Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.” That’s it, exactly.
As I’ve noted, I admire starkness, lines slashed into the canvas, a shadow, a blade, all the crazy curves and re-curves and angles of the world rendered, inky spills and splotches, splats. I like contrast.
I even like the silly word ‘doodle’—a dream state of digging in and letting go—which leads me to another form of drawing, the literary. The drawings by authors. A favorite of mine is an artist who stumbled into his drawings by using them to flirt with women at cocktail parties (he would sketch on napkins), James Thurber. (Excellent Paris Review interview here.) Thurber’s drawings are generally light of tone, but always crisp, with integrity in the line, and always wonderfully weird. Some call his drawings “cartoons,” but I scoff. The juxtaposition in this image transcends. There’s something Rothko in those curtains, or supple lines of Van Gogh (a prolific draftsman). And all of us have a horse hiding somewhere in our living rooms.
Charles Bukowski’s drawings were almost compulsive—“bolts of lightning” indeed, they were also highly profitable for his publishers and booksellers, who used his drawings to illustrate their catalogues, hence increasing their value. Bukowski could also be more abstract, as we see in WHAT MATTERS MOST IS HOW YOU WALK THROUGH THE FIRE.
The signature of Kurt Vonnegut—his hair, his cigarette—all iconic. Vonnegut went from doodling on manuscript edges to a much more serious intent and interest in graphic arts. He came about this honestly, his family visual artists for generations. He claimed to prefer drawing to writing. Like Bukowski (or even a great number of artists, in many genres), Vonnegut would go from fanciful sketch to a more abstruse form; for example, Tralfamadore #1:
Last week I was surfing literary blogs, an activity just banal enough to keep me for hours from my own writing (when I’m not making coffee or staring dumbly out the window). I visited the website of sometimes controversial (for reasons I will not wade into here) writer, Tao Lin. In one posting, Mr. Lin claimed he was bored, possibly depressed (I’m paraphrasing), and had nothing to do with his life. He found mailing things to others as his primary stimulation these days. (Or maybe he’s just broke.) Would I send him some money? If so, he’d mail me his writings, publicity campaign artifacts, other hipster accoutrements, etc. I sent Mr. Lin $15. I told him the truth: I don’t care for your prose, I like your poetry, but I greatly admire your drawings. Send me some drawings. This he did.
I enjoyed his drawings for the same reason I enjoy drawings in general: They’re whimsical, fantastic and mundane, strange. In some ways, they remind of the poetry of Tao Lin, my preferred genre of his, as I’ve noted. In other ways they might represent the entire oeuvre of Tao Lin—whatever you might think of it. What is this art? People often ask when approaching his work.
But that leads us to the larger question: What is art? What is the power embodied, for me, for others? Some definition of beauty—and then what is beauty?—or an evolutionary game? An expression of emotion? An autobiography? Or simply a recognition that we are together; art as a conduit, lines actually connecting us as we share, the artist, the art, the audience for. I don’t know. I don’t need to know. I admire drawings, so what of it? Again, in the words of Matisse: Would not it be best to leave room to mystery?
Sean Lovelace teaches creating writing and is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ball State University. Lovelace is the author of Fog Gorgeous Stag by Publishing Genius Press. His first book of flash fiction, How Some People Like Their Eggs, won the Rose Metal Press chapbook prize. His works have appeared in numerous journals. He is a contributor for htmlgiant.