SOME years ago the South Bank Centre decided to mount a series of touring exhibitions about drawing. The first show was put together by Deanna Petherbridge in 1991. "I've been invited to select this exhibition because I've done nothing but draw for years," she said then. That's fine, and she produced a thoughtful exhibition. Now there's the second show, "Drawing the Line", currently at the Whitechapel Gallery. This time the curator is Michael Craig-Martin, and inevitably one asks what expertise he brings to his commission.
On the face of it he has more disqualifications than credentials. As Roger Malbert of the South Bank Centre writes, he is "internationally known for his conceptual works and wall-drawings". This is true. But anyone who has followed Craig-Martin's work must know that a basic tenet of his conceptualism is a dismissal of fine art. And the point about his wall- drawings is that they are mechanical. He surely executes them with some kind of stencil. Blankness is their goal, and if there were any sign of human involvement they would not be so effective. If any freehand drawings by Craig-Martin exist I've never seen one. He likes his public appearances to be perfect and impressive.
Just as Craig-Martin hides his sensibility in his own work so also has he concealed his taste when choosing this exhibition. On my first visit I was puzzled. Surely, one thinks, he can't truly believe that this sheet or that sheet is a good enough drawing to put on the walls of an important show? He must have deliberately chosen bad drawings. Perhaps not so deliberately, he represents certain artists with works that are not their best, when better examples must have been available. This happens with Picasso. Or he selects works that are in poor condition, like the Constable. And thus, walking around the Whitechapel, one goes from drawings that are shockingly inadequate to works by excellent artists having an off-day. It took me a little while before I realised the purpose of the exercise.
It's rather clever. Craig-Martin has responded to Malbert's invitation by devising a show that aims to criticise or undermine connoisseurship. Traditionally, connoisseurs have always been especially interested in drawing. In works on paper they find opportunities for fastidious analysis, appreciation of nuance and delicate judgements of quality. This may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned exercise. Perhaps it is. But some of us believe that connoisseurship is as essential to today's art as ever it was. Such an attitude is of course unpopular among the conceptualists of Craig-Martin's generation. For them, it smacks of elitist modernism.
Hence the first paradox of "Drawing the Line". A connoisseur's exhibition would encourage the visitor to appreciate the best drawings on display. This show demands that we pay attention to the worst. I suppose that the lowest point is reached by Damien Hirst's little doodle, clearly included as a provocation to visitors. Here's something really worthless, Craig- Martin seems to be saying, what are you going to do about it? Well, we sigh; and go on to consider the varied badness of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini, Arnulf Rainer, Fred Sandback, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner and many more (I place the really poor drawings not in a hierarchy but alphabetically).
Most drawing exhibitions are either specialised or have an educational air. Petherbridge's show contained many delights, but one felt that a teacher stalked behind the exhibits. No one will accuse Craig-Martin of being over-didactic, though he has a deserved reputation as an educationalist. The show is intriguing precisely because it has no intellectual or aesthetic purpose. It suggests that thought is as pointless as artistic discrimination. Is this not rather like the work that made Craig-Martin famous, the glass of water he claimed was an oak tree? It was offensive to reason, but what the hell. There was hardly anything to look at, but so what.
Another paradox of "Drawing the Line" is that one feels a rush of sympathy for Craig-Martin. People who choose large exhibitions always reveal something about their personality: that's one of the wonders of art. I've known the present selector for 20 years yet never before realised how unhappy he must be. Craig-Martin wishes to be cool and enigmatic, yet he longs for certainties. What art most reassures him? I think it's mechanical drawing, as presented in the Whitechapel by, for instance, a computer drawing by Julian Opie of a tower block, and the Duchamp reproductions by Richard Hamilton.
"Drawing the Line" has the feel of Hamilton's "Artist's Choice" exhibitions at the National Gallery a few years ago. Artists were invited to choose a show from the NG collection. Hamilton responded by playing some tricks. He hung all works at the same height, included a mirror, and placed a reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers next to the original. Something of the same sort is happening at the Whitechapel. Nothing is proved, nothing is gained. Fine art isn't really called into question. We just all go home feeling depressed.
! Whitechapel Gallery, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 10 Sept.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies