Merlin James Practically speaking, drawing is the easiest kind of art to make, requiring the least tools, materials, preparation. But artists so often find it an effort - something they keep meaning to get around to (back to), do more of. The very simplicity is a psychological barrier and a test. It requires a difficult humility.

Joe Fyfe Well, what is a drawing? It's not the same, necessarily, as a 'study', a 'sketch', or a 'work on paper' even.

James Hyde Isn't drawing defined by the very act of defining? A set of marks that manages to recoup intention, or at least the atmosphere of intention? Painting seems to me to emphasize presence: making the thing present. Drawing, in contrast, is direction. Plans, projections, descriptions, indications.

JF A drawing is not a thing in the world. A drawing is prepositional, a question, a 'what if?'. Robert Smithson's drawings don't seem like drawings as such to me. They are sculptures, like Lawrence Weiner's An object tossed from one country to another is a sculpture. Both those artists are using a non-sculptural medium - drawing, and words - to create sculpture. But when Billy Wilder writes a note to himself on a scrap of paper, 'Silent picture star commits murder. When they arrest her she sees the newsreel cameras and thinks she's back in the movies' (and that becomes Sunset Boulevard) - that seems like a drawing to me. Ideational notation. Even if he wrote it after he finished the movie, it's still a drawing. Hopper's 'preparatory' drawings were done after the paintings. We are artificers; drawings don't have to be authentic propositions.

MJ Drawing seems to have a paradoxical implication of invention (fiction) and of description (fact) - both at once. But one thing that fascinates me is the very way it shows up this arbitrariness of how we divide up art - creative activity - into categories. We say, this is a drawing, this is a painting, because this is on paper, that on canvas, or whatever. We often say this (drawing) is a lesser thing than that (painting, sculpture) - it's a preparation, a study towards something, a sketch, and so on. And although they're often misleading (lots of drawings are better than lots of paintings or sculptures, and don't clutter up the world so much), I wouldn't decry these arbitrary, conventional divisions. The enduring fascination is the very fact that they have come to be - that humans have decided there is something called drawing.

JH An artist friend of mine recently returned from Thailand, where there is a program training elephants to paint.

MJ It features in the Venice Biennale this year.

JH It's the artist Komar and Melamid who sponsor it. With the Thai economic collapse, the boys who handle the elephants have been reduced to begging. They are given materials and the elephant marks the canvas. Then the 'drawings' are sold. But who is the real artist there? The boys, who have an intimate bond with their animal, or the sponsors, or the elephants?

MJ Well, that puts the question philosophically, but it's a little like the Sherry Levine copies of Matisse of de Kooning drawings - it's not that interesting to me, because it distils the theoretical question so purely. In good art those question are embedded in a much more messy, rich, complex performance.

JH I haven't seen the elephant drawings, but my friend said some were very varied and beautiful. The question of authorship aside - and of course the politics are fine - what I really like is the imagery: using an elephant as a drawing tool instead of as a subject! And coming from that looping proboscis, these works have to be drawings, not paintings. Drawing is a following of the outline.

JF Martin Kippenberger's drawings on hotel stationery, or Bonnard's drawings on his daily calendar - there is this sense of futility, this counting out of days, of places, of weather; this wonderful exile of the artist. Or Degas - or Polke - mixing up painting and photography in their drawings. They ask the question, and resolve themselves formally just as the question is being asked.

But there's something else a drawing does. It takes that exile, even that exoticism, and brings it back home.

MJ Jim, you have a drawing by Morandi which embodies something about line. The way 'outline' drawing mimes a certain kind of experience of things in which we see something 'as' something else - a shape, a conceptualized contour - and then, at the moment when out consciousness flips back from that to a realization of the 'real' object - the 'thing itself' - at that moment we are given the object somehow more fully, more richly. Our awareness of the presence of the thing is renewed, revitalised, by this little displacement, or this contrast with an abstracted conception of it.

There's a latency, an unfinishedness. Is a drawing ever finished? Perhaps that's when they become illustration. The most famous drawings, fixed as they are in out memory bank - Durer's praying hands, da Vinci's proportional man - they retain an unfinished quality.

And intimacy. Even in Pollock or de Kooning, who most conflate drawing and painting, there is still greater intimacy in their drawings. Why?

The kinds of movement one makes when one draws something mime the kinds of movements one would make to feel it, stroke it, examine it by touch if one's eyes were closed. That's not so true of painting it. Even less true of photographing it, obviously. Only modeling in clay would be more like a haptic, tactile contact with the thing itself. The act of drawing an image also somehow implies a taking possession and a putting of an image into a storage 'mode' from which it can be retrieved, having become the artist's own. It's not like storing a photograph. If you've drawn it, somehow you've turned it into your own substance.

JF And I like the comment of Louise Bourgeois that all her drawings were made for pleasure.

As opposed to the old idea of drawing as a solid training for an artist, like practicing scales for a musician? Drawing's been held at times to be the foundation, the 'basis' and credence of art. If you could do it well, then maybe you could go on to avant-garde improvisation which would be informed by that discipline. Now that may be dubious (I don't think artists have to draw, there are no drawings, really, by Vermeer, Soutine, Chardin; few by Courbet), but it's true there is often something in drawing that gives an artist away.

Like a 'tell' in poker. I wasn't impressed by Donald Sultan, Karen Finley or Tracy Emin, until I saw their drawings, which told me they held a strong hand. Then drawing shows some artists at their worst - Jasper Johns tends to illustrate. Joel Shapiro to decorate, Hockney to be pious.

MJ I think in Beuys it's in his drawings you see the phoniness in him, or the sort of hocus-pocus.

Ah, something to disagree on! Those Beuys drawings are amazing.

MJ I'm not discounting them necessarily. There's been a show of them at the Royal Academy in London. It's certainly his drawings that are most interesting to me in his work, because there he enters an arena and can be compared to other artists. But that's what shows up the evasive nature of his art. He doesn't really want to engage with precedents and perform in a known arena. He wants to be this amazing individual whose products are valuable simply because they're by him.

They are boring - just glancing around a room full of those little fucking framed things is exhausting. But they're ambitious. It's like he was trying to capture the most fleeting of his thoughts, the lint drifting through his mind if you will. And a terrific influence on younger German artists. A lot of their drawings are intelligently nuanced, and seemingly spun out of nothing - like good jazz.

Sure, a drawing can be quick enough that you forget doing it, so then you can rediscover a drawing of your own and be surprised at it, even an hour after doing it. But drawing also connects you. It really puts you in with art history - sink or swim. Good draw-ers of the twentieth century: Lowry (UK), Helion (France), Lindner (USA), you can put their drawings next to Watteau's or Holbein's and make a meaningful comparison. I can't quite feel that with Beuys.

But a roomful of any drawings can be deadly. The beautifully intimate can always become quickly tiring. For drawing to maintain its virtue, it needs to keep a sense of the disposable as well as the projectural. In these basic pictural urges - the primal impulse to mark, the propositional ure - drawing has a link to origin that is miles from a sense of the 'canon'. When I was eight I began drawing with a friend. The gratification was immediate, and unlike other play there were palpable results.

JF Yes, drawing when I was eight or so was heaven. A friend and I would do collaborative drawings on large sheets of brown paper - sea battles. It was the Age of the Side View: cross sections with submarines below, airplanes above. In Third Grade, I did dragsters, with nice round wheels drawn around coins - a dime for the front, a quarter for the rear. This was on Staten Island in the early '60s. A 'beatnik' gave children's art classes on a Saturday at the Community Centre, and my sisters came home having learned to rub pastels to make flash, but I wasn't interested in learning. I had enough coming out of my head to keep me bust. Only when I go to college I drew from life - by then I wanted to know how to do it.

MJ Yes, we are not making children's drawings still, nor just throw-away notations, much as we might use qualities from these. Aren't we trying to make drawings that individuate and distinguish themselves as works? That sustain, and don't become boring?

JH Well, my childhood drawing friend could draw 'properly' too, long strings of confident lines without correction. This I wanted to do, but always stumbled into 'sketching', with a smudge of corrections. To this day, much as I admire the perfect line in an Ingres - or a Keith Haring - my own drawing is by necessity something else.

JF There's a difference between the way Matisse will address drawing on its own terms, i.e. 'I will make a line drawing, a charcoal drawing, a brush drawing…', meeting the materials half way like the Chinese poet-painters, and the way Picasso always wants to suborn the materials to his desire.

MJ But both aspire to virtuosity of some kind.

Do you know the Terry Allen song The Beautiful Waitress?

Where he tells her he's an artist, and she says she can't draw a straight line.

'I told her if she could draw a line that was straight enough.' But she wants to draw horses… 'she could do the body OK, but never get the head, tails or legs. I told her she was drawing sausages not horses. She said no, horses'.
Joe Fyfe 1999
Merlin James 1984
Merlin James 1996
James Hyde 1997
Joe Fyfe 1999
James Hyde 1999
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