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“Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury” at the Museum of Modern Art

Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901–1985), Landscape (Paysage), 1951. Ink on paper, 11 3/4 x 12″ (29.8 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury

Museum of Modern Art

Through February 6, 2021 


Going into the Museum of Modern Art during the height of the quarantine was a sobering experience--almost anyone would have been startled and disappointed by the ghostly emptiness of the museum’s lobby, whose inhabitants could easily be counted, nearly with the fingers of both hands. But “Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury” made it clear that, despite the struggle involved in running a museum in an ongoing medical crisis, MoMA continues to put out exhibitions of lasting value and meaningfulness. The show, comprising roughly eighty works of paper made between 1948 and 1961, beautifully summarizes a moment of real creativity, mostly abstract. It is characterized by a degree of plastic freedom unusual in its openness and appreciation of form for its own sake. The show includes major names such de Kooning and Dubuffet, but extends the range to include African artists of distinction. The point is that, as we have come to find (once and again), what may have seemed a movement concentrated in a few major cities in America and Europe was actually dispersed worldwide, creating an international language that joined people from different, far away cultures. “Degree Zero” does an excellent job of building connections between works of art we might not have noticed; one of the strengths of our new worldwide attitude toward art is that we can create ties between artists working at great distances from each other--perhaps the information was compiled by the exchange of newspapers or books.

The freedom afforded the artists on display in this show has resulted in work that is joyous, formally innovative, and conceptually free. The work is done mostly in black-and-white--a stylistic choice that heightens the inherent bravado of a lot of the work we see. Landscape (Paysage) (1951), a linear ink drawing by Dubuffet, roams all over the composition. More or less completely abstract, Landscape at the same time manages to communicate the open space of a field. The different gestures, the lines and blots, come close to decoration but fall short of merely casual embellishment. It is a drawing of high personal interest, in the sense that the markings feel particular to Dubuffet, whose expressiveness here is exquisite. Nigerian artist Uche Okeke’s linear drawing, called Design for Iron Work I (1959), is an exquisite treatment of a design for iron work. It is completely achieved through line alone. A wonder of restraint and economy, the drawing makes it clear that gifted artists at a distance from traditional centers of art were perfectly competent in ways that both followed and challenged the traditional art field. Design makes that very clear. 

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925-1992), Untitled, 1957. Oil on paper, 19 1/2 x 17 1/2″ (49.5 x 44.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Drawings Funds © Estate of Joan Mitchell

In a show devoted to mid-century, mostly abstract art, it is inevitable that we would find the American major figures Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock. Mitchell’s untitled work, from 1957, is a rather typically messy oil on paper. It is more colorful than a lot of the works we see in the show--turquoise stands out along side a lot of free-handed expressionist black markings. Mitchell was a master of the emotional implications of free design, and the painting communicates an outlook notable for its enjoyment of free form. In the case of Pollock, we see an ink painting, mostly orange and black and, strangely for the artist, suggestive of a rudimentary grid, although the rest of the markings are typically free and open, in the artist’s traditional manner. Pollock has been championed for a long time as an artist of great verve and freedom, but there has been at the same time a consistent formal strength, indeed a measure, behind his skeins of paint and free-flowing drips. In a way, the same is true of Mitchell, whose messiness conceals a tough-minded, and disciplined, authority 

Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, born 1929), Infinity Nets, 1951. Ink on paper, 15 1/2 x 10 1/8″ (39.4 x 25.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds provided by Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder © 2019 Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets (1951), an ink on paper work, consists of a column of tiny, linked squares that that proceed down the length of the paper, with a margin on either side. It is a work based on the skilled repetition of Kusama’s hand. Although it would be easy to read this work as indicative of an engaging simplicity, the small boxes can be viewed as deeply complex at the same time.There is something performative about the image--we can imagine just how much effort went into constructing the image. Generally speaking, this excellent show demonstrates our capacity for creating and appreciating art at its absolute beginnings--hence the title “Degree Zero.” We all have to start somewhere, and it looks very much like the mid-20th century was a moment when modernism was beginning to slow down and a more conceptual understanding of art was replacing the earlier emphasis on formal values. Whatever the reasons for the changes in art may have been, “Degree Zero” brilliantly shows how creativity, especially in recent times, can proceed point blank from another way of looking at things. The leap is metaphysical, as the charged, highly original elements in this show point out. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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