Modern Times: Slick on the draw

Scribbles, sketches and fine lines... Tom Lubbock traces a century of drawing and hails its power to surprise
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The Independent Culture

Abuzz, a zip: a snap, crackle and pop. Scratchy flashes, insect fireworks, lightning sketches of tiny fish vertebrae, scatterings and showers of sparks: that's what it's like, and it comes in a staccato series of instantaneous outbreaks of light, dotted here and there around an otherwise black screen, each sighting lasting for a few frames only. This is the story, the texture, of Blinkity Blank.

Abstract cinema is a genre that has never really taken off, and personally I can't enjoy it for more than about 10 minutes. But this work by the Scottish-Canadian animator Norman McLaren takes only five, and it's a delight. It's light but nervy, ever on its pins, a constantly disappearing act of drawing before your very eyes. Drawing: that's the point here.

It's one of the stars of an anthology show, just opened at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. The exhibition is called Modern Times: Responding to Chaos. It's mainly about drawing, specifically 20th-century drawing. But it has a few abstract films in it too – including Leger's Ballet Mécanique – a sign that drawing is being quite widely defined. It has been put together by the film-maker Lutz Becker, and it has something to say about drawing generally, and the modern age generally.

Now if you've been keeping your eyes open, you may have noticed there have been quite a few exhibitions on the theme of drawing in recent years. Life-drawing itself may not have been fashionable, but there are things about drawing that have kept it a cool medium. It is transparent. It is physical. It is process. It is performance. It's so diverse. It has the charm of being traditional-but-actually-not. At the drawing board, even the stickiest old master could come up fresh as a daisy, talking the same language as a contemporary. Meanwhile, modern drawing has occupied an expanded field but never quite an exploded one. Drawing has held onto a common ground.

Modern Times makes the best of this situation. It's the most creative bit of curating I've seen for some time. It takes your mind off the isms (cubism, abstract expressionism, conceptualism etc.), the standard choppings up. It puts the focus first of all onto about 100 individual works, most of them little known, sometimes by quite little- known artists.

And it's creative, not for the programme that the curator composes and imposes upon the exhibits, but for the richness of connections that it lets the viewer finds among them. It does what fine curating does: it quickens reciprocally the pieces that it gathers. (Or why bring them together at all?) Echoes, tangents, links, a network of family resemblances crisscross the spaces. Of course this takes arranging.

You could spend your time here happily singling out one work after another, noticing how each is enlivened by likenesses and differences. Take Henri Michaux's Composition, a mescaline-driven field of juddering ink-interference. And then turn to Mark Tobey's Night Celebration, a web of wiry squiggle, woven tight as a Brillo pad. They compare. Both have a density and chaos. But then ask: which is the more energetic, or more graceful? Which is merely prettier? That old sarcasm, "apocalyptic wallpaper", seems to be threatening somebody, but who? This show is very good at making you wonder about what you like, what you value.

There are many false amities or false enmities to catch you. Pair Agnes Martin's serene parallel lines and Sol LeWitt's rational grids: perhaps they are closer than you might think. Or compare the branching construction of Mondrian's incipient abstraction, Tree Study, with Karoline Bröckel's open twig-fine framework, Snow. The visual link (each is a linear structure) is immediate but deceptive. The Mondrian is about growth, forces. The Bröckel is about surface pattern – clearly inspired by bird-footprints in snow.

But there are larger dramas here. The one that strikes me goes like this. Suppose you are drawing with geometrical instruments, with ruler and compass and curve templates. But then you put them down and start to draw without these guides. This would be called drawing freehand. The drawing you're doing now is always at risk of wavering.

Now suppose you come at this from the other direction. You start by doing a wild scribble, the pencil dashing and flopping all over the page, but then you tighten up your control. You're guiding the pencil's motions and marks. I'm not sure what name you'd use now, to specify "not scribbling". But what you're doing is in effect the same thing: drawing freehand.

There are these three modes: ruled, scribble, and between them freehand. They're not rigidly apart. You can do freehand lines that are very neat, almost ruled. And you can let your freehand go, getting wilder. But there is also a clear strong adherence in the drawings in Modern Times. They are drawn to the extremes. They tend either towards the ruled or the scribbled.

On the walls of Responding to Chaos, you meet a parade of diagrams, plans, models, blueprints, constructions – all sorts of compositions that are not necessarily jig-drawn, but which approach strict regularity. Names to watch for here: Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Naum Gabo, Donald Judd. The action follows rule-governed projects, or compass pirouettes.

And there's an answering repertoire, an amazing variety of unrestrained strokes – jabbed, twitched, flicked, shuddering, flung, spattered, splashed, smeared, looping, tangled, flailing, or helplessly trailing. Names here: Carlo Carrà, Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly. The action belongs to slasher, rattle, tombola. But these two extremes, though visibly antagonistic, have a common cause too.

In both ruling and scribbling the hand surrenders its control – one way to instruments, the other way to muscular spasm. But either way, the drawings here are making a definite choice, against free will and articulate control. Their cause is a deliberate resistance or evasion. Modern drawing is after some kind of liberation, into order or chaos, out of the self.

True, you can look out for counter-examples, instances of this middle way. Surely Ben Nicholson's drawing in St Remy, Provence is a piece of guided shaping. Surely Patrick Caulfield's study of a wine glass is too. Both are freehand, no? But each time the drawing veers off, and deliberately, and a little too much – in one case into sudden jabs, in the other case into a precise template trace.

These borderline cases can be the most exciting things. There are also some weird leaps between remote registers. Corrado Govoni's Self-Portrait is a bare diagrammatic image of a face. In theory, its component lines propose a pure geometry, circles, triangles. In execution, its lines have got the shakes.

But this is only one of the dramas in Modern Times. You might equally be drawn by the play of violent and calm, heavy and light, simple and complex, bold and faint, clear and blurry. And in this environment, the conflict/cohabitation of figuration and abstraction goes almost without notice.

Finally, energised by the company, there are the individual works, often such happy discoveries. There is Philip Guston's Hooded, for instance: a comedy character, a dumb bullet-head, made of short fat lines. There is Victor Willing's untitled scene of jumping beans by the seaside – I think that's what it is. Just right for Bexhill-on-Sea.

Modern Times: Responding to Chaos, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (01424 229 111) to 13 June