As exhibitions go, “Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury” at the Museum of Modern Art is a relatively modest undertaking. After all, it is simply a show of 79 drawings from the museum’s permanent collection, a kind of potpourri, if you will. But it is also an ambitious effort — selected and installed with great care by Samantha Friedman, an associate curator of drawings and prints. You sense a fresh point of view almost as soon as you enter the gallery.
The show focuses on the 1950s and seeks to challenge the traditional view of the decade primarily as a period when the abstract expressionists emerged, precipitating the so-called triumph of American painting. It couldn’t happen at a better place, since MoMA was central to constructing this blinkered view.
“Degree Zero” recasts the 1950s as a time when many artists in different parts of the world approached art with an experimental attitude. Reeling in the aftermath of World War II, they felt compelled to begin again, from degree zero. The drawings, sketchbooks and music and dance scores in the show tend toward stripped down, more or less abstract and usually black and white. The effect is less austere than sparkling. Diversity helps: Each work seems to stand out, crisp and assertive in its own way.
You may get stuck, as I did, trying to figure out who made the large, vibrant ink drawing on the show’s first wall. A prominent black rectangle with two rounded corners poised on a fat dot suggests a cartoon truck backing into the frame, its bulk enhanced by a dense surface unusual for ink. It is by mystical conceptual-performance artist James Lee Byars, made in 1959 at the start of a decade spent in Japan. Suddenly it becomes a partial view of a giant calligraphy, at once witty and dignified.
Next, magnificent drawings by Louise Bourgeois and especially Willys de Castro foretell swerves in style from the organic to the geometric and back. Then two smaller, more linear pieces — Jean Dubuffet’s 1951 humorous ink “Landscape” and Dick Higgins’ 1960 maplike script for a performance — imply that images, language and gesture will subvert pure abstraction and that Jackson Pollock’s vaunted allover compositions will have plenty of company. You may think back to the Higgins in the show’s final gallery, in front of “Music for Electric Metronome” (1960) by composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, which has a similar cartographical energy.
There are other less than familiar sights: drawings that MoMA acquired in the 1950s but has seldom exhibited, and others that it has acquired since, some quite recently. One standout among several works that entered the collection last year is an untitled pastel from around 1955 by the singular Beauford Delaney. Its circling reds, oranges and lavenders coalesce into a hazy glow that is both multicolored and almost monochromatic. It complements the expansive marshaling of yellows and greens in his great “Composition 16” (1954-56), a painting that MoMA acquired in 2012.
Only half of the 58 artists in the show are American. The rest are from Europe, South America, Japan and Africa, which is represented by a single artist, Uche Okeke of Nigeria, an important figure in the development of post-colonial modernism and a master of line. Two of the six drawings that MoMA acquired in 2015 are here: vivacious jigsaw fields of straight and curling lines titled “Design for Iron Work I” and “Design for Iron Work II,” both from 1959, ink on paper that reflect Okeke’s Igbo heritage, as well as his familiarity with Western modernism. They are Okeke’s version of Igbo Uli designs, linear configurations typically reserved for body decorations and wall murals and executed by women.
VR Sunil Gohil