I Am Still Alive at MoMA, New York

by Ian Wallace, September 2011

What can be called drawing in post-conceptual art? This is one question posed, whether deliberately or coincidentally, in MoMA’s I Am Still Alive: Politics and the Everyday in Contemporary Drawing, organized by associate curator of drawings Christian Rattemeyer and closing on September 19. In an art practice that is still smitten by conceptualism’s romance with information by way of starkly formal presentationalism, the contemporary conversation around drawing is imagined here in a refreshing but complicated light.

What seems to have carried over in this reframing of the medium is the starkness of drawing, or perhaps drawing as starkness. The show’s name comes from On Kawara’s pieces of the same title, telegrams that were sent to his dealer in Amsterdam. Cengiz Cekil’s relatively similar piece—a flowery journal stamped with the phrase “I am still alive today” on every page and produced in Turkey in 1976 during a period of political terrorism—is also nearby, as well as two of Kawara’s date paintings.

This is not to say that the old conversations are completely brushed aside; in fact, what makes the particular grouping of these works so successful is the knowing nod to art historical discourses with respect to drawing—material process, paper as the artifact of conception, the artist’s hand and so on. The show’s subtitle attempts to play up the conceptualism of the works displayed in order to make amends for the fact that many of them cannot be considered drawings by any conventional sense.

The most brusque upturning of drawing as it is historically understood comes in the form of several sculptural elements that inhabit the gallery alongside more traditional ink-on-paper works by Guy de Cointet and Trisha Donnelly. Felix Gonzales-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991)—a stack of individually wrapped candies originally meant to be taken by visitors—sits in one corner next to his personal friend Jim Hodges’ diary piece, which happens to end on the day of Gonzales-Torres’s death.  Danh Vo presents the chandelier from the hotel in which the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed (an event which, later, would consequentially result in his family’s departure from Vietnam), disassembled and laid out like an erector set along with a series of letters in both French and English, transcribed by hand and written in cursive, by Vo’s father, who speaks neither language.

Adding to the strange effect of the presentation is a sense of familiarity, as many of the works (mostly acquired by the museum since 2005) have been shown in New York galleries recently. The cursive lettering transcribed by his father also appeared in Vo’s show at Artists Space last year; Paul Chan showed his language-distorting fonts displayed in frames resting on pairs of shoes at Greene Naftali a couple winters ago (although I noticed that the shoes propping the frames up at MoMA were much dressier than the sneakers at Greene Naftali).

The real subject here, then, is not drawing in the material sense, but a drawing-out, or a drawing-together. The exhibition, unintentionally perhaps, becomes a semantic exploration more than anything else.

It’s worth noting how elegantly this relatively small sampling contrasts with the MoMA’s headlining exhibiton, the sprawling Talk To Me, just around the corner. Against the ambitious blockbuster show, I Am Still Alive is, subtly, so much more successful at wrangling a cohesive vision from relatively disparate materials by uniting them under one name.

I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing
23 March—19 September 2011
Museum of Modern Art, New York