Paper dolls

The current generation of art fans is used to work that shows its seams — and its dirty chones, and its neuroses — as a method of deconstructing the art-making process, of pushing art off its pedestal, as a document of exploration, and so on. But it wasn’t so long ago that art, sculpture as much as any of its cousin mediums, was presented like a little miracle, as if conceived and born whole from the artists’ minds. Muses, patrons, and fellow artists were the lucky few who got a glimpse of the messy studio, repository of artists’ blocks and dead ends as well as success.

The popularity and collectibility of artists’ studies attest to our desire to get inside that studio, if only virtually, to glimpse the mysterious power of the creative process, and part of the appeal of the McNay’s small works on paper show, Sculpture in 2D: Prints and Drawings by Sculptors in the McNay Collection, is that a few of the works are studies, including Henry Moore’s 1950 “Ideas for sculpture,” a collection of faint pastel figures composed of his familiar fluid blocks, sinewy turns, and shrunken, beady-eyed heads. The suite of torsos shows the artist playing with weight, balance, and perspective, and it’s fun to consider the potential problems with a voluminous figure balancing atop a pair of birdlike feet.

The number of materials Moore used to sketch these “ideas” — watercolor, crayon, and graphite — makes it an artwork in its own right, and its neighbors in the show are standalone works of art, too, that immediately reveal their relationship to the sculptors who made them. In an untitled 1999 work, Leonardo Drew’s sepia and rust palette dominates the usual grid, which overflows with asphaltum. Likewise, his 3D wall hanging of the same year, “Number 33A,” displayed just upstairs in the Stieren wing’s sculpture gallery, spills oxidized shoes and papers from its compartments: the sorting that makes sense only to the sorter. The drawing helps us to see the sculpture as a painting, in which physical objects are pigments and brush strokes.

Louise Nevelson’s most familiar work is similarly beholden to the grid — which she first constructed in the late 1950s with crates from her studio — and the gorgeous print in the McNay show, 1970’s “The Great Wall,” is composed of geometric lead-foil reliefs arranged on a pale cream background. The imposing graphite-gray building blocks are humanized by a wood-grain texture and the curving forms within them. It’s directly reminiscent of the giant installation “Mirror Image I,” created of crates and wood scraps, in Houston’s Fine Arts Museum, but upstairs in the sculpture gallery, her 1973 wall hanging, “End of Day Nightscape V,” builds a more mechanical punchcard landscape with wooden dowels, drawer handles, and planes ordered to her own tune and painted black. It’s the symbology understood only by the semiographer, but the more works you see the closer you feel to a Nevelson Rosetta Stone.

An abstract ink drawing by Richard Stankiewicz — subject of the 2004 retrospective “Miracle in the Scrap Heap,” which documented his engaging, lifelike sculptures created from the refuse of the industrial revolution — is especially fun to compare to his 3D work because the parallels play out so differently on paper and in metal. In both, an untitled drawing and an untitled sculpture from 1960, delicate tendrils arc up energetically from heavy dark masses to meet their counterweights, giving the work a sense of movement and evolution: something becoming something else. Matter is not created or destroyed, only rearranged. On paper this effect is primordial, engulfing, while his sculpture feels friendly and inquisitive.

But my favorite work in the show is the one that first pushed me away because its false simplicity is like a brushoff. John Fraser’s recent “Composition of rectangles” is a plain-Jane meeting of just that, Mondrian-like, but without color except for the vaguest delineations created by tape, what might be watermarks or just the small reliefs of surface tears, and a little pencil tracing. Like certain Rothkos, it seems to suggest that the most interesting things happen at borders and intersections — just like America.

If you’d like a glimpse of another America, that Eden despoiled by the immigrating masses starting with the first broad-brimmed and straitlaced pilgrims, cross over to the original McNay building for another show of works on paper, Prints Gone Wild: John James Audubon, featuring the startling lifesize prints by one of America’s most-hailed naturalists. Behold the long-necked crane and coral-pink flamingo, the trundling armadillo, the skittish but enormous Texas hare. These renderings may be as accurate as Mother Nature’s own hand, but the ethical imperative of the paradise Audubon recreates for them is the reason they belong as much in a fine-arts collection as a natural-history museum. Audubon was a visual lyricist and moralist of the first degree, and the images would be overpoweringly elegaic even if his muses didn’t tend to be extinct or endangered. I vote to have them installed in the halls of Congress for the entire next term. •


Sculpture in 2D: Prints and drawings by Sculptors in the McNay Collection
Through Feb 15, 2009

Prints Gone Wild: John James Audubon
Through Jan 18, 2009
10am-4pm T, W, F; 10am-9pm Thu; 10am-5pm Sat; noon-5pm Sun
$10-$13 through Jan 11; $5-$8 after Jan 11; free Thursday evenings and the first Sunday of the month; children under 12 free
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
(210) 824-5368

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