Drawing Past and Present:Paul Pagk with Master Works from Dürer to Matisse
18h - 20h
CLOSER TO THE FORCE
a text by Adrian Dannatt, Brooklyn, November 2023
Drawing is a way of coming upon the connection between things, just like metaphor in poetry reconnects
what has become separated.
We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something
invisible to its incalculable destination.
– John Berger, Bento's Sketchbook
When Paul Pagk was invited to exhibit his drawings alongside works from one of the most important Canadian private collections of ‘Master’ drawings, the first pleasure was for him to make his selection from this richly diverse trove. Only having done so, did Pagk then look through his own works on paper. The result, twenty-two ‘Master’ and twenty-two Pagk drawings, is remarkable.
Indeed, so strong and felicitous are the resonances, resemblances, echoes, and implications, so rightful the call-and-response, that one feels obliged to emphasize again that none of Pagk’s drawings were done later, they were not ‘after’ (in either sense, temporal, or art historical) these Masters, but already existent.
These synergistic stylistic parallels of shape, contour, composition, are impressive, but less surprising when one realizes that of course Pagk would choose Master drawings which unconsciously, automatically, have such affinity with his work; the artist’s DNA, specific aesthetic makeup, is such that it is impossible not to always find harmonies and synchronicities in the work of other artists, indeed in the surrounding world.
The notion that a drawing could be in itself a work of art (as opposed to a study or technical diagram for a subsequent painting, building or object) is relatively modern; even more modern is the idea that one can judge and analyze works of art not in terms of their subject matter, their ‘meaning’ but according to their composition, structure and coloration, shapes and tonal deployment. Such a way of looking at art, ‘formalism’ perhaps, was an integral part of the modernist shift in perception which produced abstraction, and it is within this context that Pagk’s striking pairings proves felicitous.
Here, for example, the extreme softness of Rodin’s sexuality rubs off against the delicacy of Pagk’s touch, pregnant with its own sensuality; and here likewise one might conjure a small city, an enclave and separation, confinement and alignment, the grid and the stain, spread and strictness, energy and seepage. Here we sense a sort of dissolved Cubism of signs and wonders, with the ‘push and pull’, the tension on the page taken to the very edge, limit of the paper.
Pagk’s passion for traditional Asian art, ink brush and classical poetry, is reflected in his selection of Foujita and Hokusai, the sense of the ‘floating’ world as much in his own delicate line, lightness of wash, as the lily pad and leaves, ‘One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse’. Moving through Pagk’s drawings one might trace arrows, mandala, even perhaps a Star of David, organic and protean forms breeding by themselves, stamen and separation, the loop and lasso of these lines like time itself circling and returning, going back on itself, completing the perfect continuity of creativity.
If Pagk’s drawings are, obviously, abstract, he was trained in the still relatively traditional ateliers of the École des Beaux Arts of Paris in the late 1970s, and his earliest work was part of the ‘figurative revival’ of that era. Pagk, after many student years of live-model drawing, was a valiant representational artist, whose precocious work at age twenty included a painted naked figure set into an actual physical bathtub, almost like a homage to David’s Marat. Pagk’s talent was recognized at a young age, from his childhood drawings to his increasingly sophisticated draftsmanship and, having established a reputation in an old foundry squat in
Paris as an Enfant Terrible of nascent Neo-Expressionism, he slowly shifted, expanded, from figuration into abstraction, as if some logical extension, consolidation of his innate aesthetic trajectory.
For Pagk has an insatiable curiosity and deep knowledge when it comes to the art of the past, not least Italian and French painting and consciously, overtly, would consider his own practice a continuation and consolidation of such art historical precedents.
Like any true modernist he believes his work to be necessary to the world he lives within, up to and including its limits, in exactly the same way a Venetian painter in the 16th century was making the art that had to exist at that time and place; Pagk’s modernism is not a throwing-over, but an extension and intensification of everything that has come before, rooted in the soi disant ‘contemporary’ art practice of each preceding generation.
Whilst it would be perverse to claim any overt aesthetic kinship, direct link, between Pagk’s art and that of the Masters, but as long ago as 1992 I found myself writing in a catalogue on his work the following: ‘Here we find some of the same integrity manifest in the chiaroscuro of Goya or Zurbaran, the sheer depth of color of Titian, a rich luminous darkness, a seriousness of tone that donates morality to the composition. Such comparisons might seem forced, but it is both in formality of structure and profundity of palette that such historical heritage is evoked, not the plastic concerns of Old Masters but rather, and more importantly, the cultural and social solemnity of a moral universe, a place of values not conservative but human.’
Drawings have been a consistent motor at the heart of Pagk’s art, never as studies for his paintings but possible rehearsals, overtures, études, like the practice of practicing scales, smaller compositions, tonal sketches, improvisations.
For Pagk’s own extensive knowledge and love of music, of all sorts of music, from Baroque to bebop, free jazz to hardcore punk, seems integral to an understanding of his own drawings, often created whilst listening to music, and in response to it, frequently titled in oblique allusion to his addictive listening habits. Dare we even posit that these are the drawings of someone looking at Piero Della Francesca whilst listening to a bootleg concert of The Damned. This same graphic spontaneity is spoken of by Jasper Johns regarding his own personal collection of Master drawings,
‘...the belief that works on paper reveal most directly an artist’s passion and emotion, it is the
reflection of this immediacy in drawings that differentiates them from paintings.’ Explaining his
fondness for study sheets in a 2006 interview Johns opined that, ‘Compared to paintings, the
best drawings seem more succinct, more austere, more schematic, more naked, closer to
thought, closer to the force from which they arise.’
Amongst these many different roles that a ‘drawing’ can have, it must be stated categorically that Pagk’s drawings have always been separate works of their own, entirely outside (as much as they can be) any comparison or continuum with his paintings. And it is this which marks the major difference between his drawings and those Masters he has chosen, all of which have manifoldly varied purposes and origins, whose stand-alone independence as ‘works of art’ is continually compromised, compounded, by their historical milieu.
But it is the relationships we are here to enjoy, not least the wide variety of medium employed by Pagk, which equal the long list of different materials and techniques amongst the Masters. Thus, we have ink, wash and dry pastel, oil pastel, pencil, gouache, watercolor, a whole gamut of methods dexterously switched and applied, carefully chosen before being boldly deployed. Unlike the varied-scaled sheets from the Masters collection, Pagk’s works are all approximately the same size (38.1 x 28cm, 15 x 11in) and the majority of them were made this year (2023), by comparison with 1503 for the oldest work selected by Pagk from the collection, the Dürer etching, or 1525 for the Parmigianino of Diogenes, dating back over 500 years.
Two exemplary catalogues were produced by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal for their separate exhibitions of selections from the drawings collection, From the Hands of the Masters in 2013 and again in 2018 and studying these ones can extemporize further parallels with Pagk. Indeed, the illuminating essays and detailed analytic descriptions by curator and scholar Hilliard T. Goldfarb could even be mined for comparative resonance. Thus, he writes on how drawing, ‘reveals the artist at their most intimate - working out and finalizing compositions, exploring ideas, recording sights and imagining others - and ranges from the immediacy of rapid sketches to the refined beauty of finished creations for presentation.’ And indeed, how his exhibition, like Pagk’s, presents drawings ‘selected for their inherent beauty and diversity.’
Whilst delving deep into the practice and theory of ‘il disegno’ Goldfarb describes the work of individual artists in terms which it would be tempting to hijack and apply, outrageously out of context, to Pagk’s own work. Thus, he writes of Bandinelli’s style as ‘characterized by rapidly drawn, sometimes continually scribbled and zigzagging strokes’ or elsewhere he posits an oeuvre ‘defined by shorter, multiple, reinforced, nervous lines.’
Thus, Goldfarb writes of Piranesi, ‘these sorts of spontaneous works, in which one can almost feel the stylus of the artist’s pen fly across the paper as he scratches in the design in rapid scribbles and a few strong contours, catching the essentials...’ or likewise of Tiepolo, ‘engulfed in fluid washes that do not so much define shapes as convey the experience of shifting light and shadow floating over the forms.’ Nor in conclusion could one resist quoting Goldfarb’s analysis of the Courbet portrait chosen by Pagk, how his ‘informality of presentation and his fast, sketching manner are all reflections of his personality’, and his ‘more atmospheric
toning...suggest greater volume moving in space.’
That the final drawing selected by Pagk should be the most modern in the collection seems a perfect concluding note, this atypical 1942 Matisse set-off by the presque ‘Fleur de Lys’ (an oblique wink to Québec!) elegance of Pagk’s stained-glass seepage of blue. This specific style of Matisse drawing would also serve as an obvious inspiration to the young Ellsworth Kelly, visiting France around that very period, the same Kelly who Pagk would himself meet, suitably reverently, on occasion in New York and Washington.
Such continuity, lineage, heritage has always been inherent to every artist’s personal development in every age, the slow forging of their own inimitable aesthetic; and within this pairing, sharing, comparing of drawings by Pagk and his chosen Masters one can enjoy the richness of such historical connections whilst equally appreciating the extreme differences in their intention and presentation. And here one might finally cite the celebrated advice of Ingres to the young Degas, “Faites des lignes, jeune homme, beaucoup de lignes, de souvenir ou d'après nature, c'est ainsi que vous deviendrez un bon artiste.” (Draw lines, young man, many lines, from memory or nature; it is this way that you will become a good artist.)
Here I am Again