The New York City subway is a strange mechanism that collapses distance and time. A train moves through a tunnel, most often beneath the city, carrying people who are more or less stationary; it hurtles in darkness at intense speeds, so that its passengers can emerge elsewhere above ground. The act of drawing—the process of making marks on a surface—also complicates spatial and temporal realities. Through the hand, a thought becomes corporeal, transforming the flatness of paper into the optical space of a picture. The manual gesture can mirror the eye’s movement, or vice versa; or it can be in total darkness, with the hand doing all the “looking.”
The drawings of William Anastasi and N. Dash at Nicole Klagsbrun bring the two actions—riding and mark-making—together. I want to say that one is passive, the other active, but there is another important element here that problematizes that comparison; the act of seeing (which is never really just passive, but then oftentimes subservient to a kind of narcotic stupor) has been pretty much omitted from the creative process. The works in the show were made through blind drawing and paper-folding while the artists rode the subway or walked the streets. The results aren’t immediately known, but intuited. And perhaps they are not meant to be known retrospectively as results. Rather these drawings are records of bodily movement and less a reportage of eye-witnessed experience.
Anastasi’s sprawling lines on paper have a nervous, spindly energy to them. The flitting darks and cool grays of graphite over a grid of yellow, folded paper are the most sensuous (Pocket Drawings, 1969). The small size of these papers and the Lilliputian scratching is integral to their haptic quality. You can feel the history, contained or held in the pocket. I imagine Anastasi’s hand moving in confined, but furious gestures. Since the 1960s, Anastasi has been making conceptual work that plays with repetition and chance, and questions the reality of images. His Nine Polaroid Photographs of a Mirror (1967) is a mimetic image of images, with the mirror accumulating and being covered by a grid of the very Polaroids used to represent it. The grid, a staple of Conceptualist and Minimalist art, structures his subway drawings in a similar way. Drawings that emerge from sightless scribbling become images to be seen, once they are presented on the wall. There’s a negation of Anastasi’s improvisational method, though the furtive, fleeting quality of the marks remain, retaining their urgency and the performance that ushered them.
Dash—almost fifty years younger than Anastasi—has created drawings (Commuter Works, 2010-11) that emerge from folding sheets of paper and then applying pigment to them to bring out the network of wrinkles and creases. The after-images, or rather objects, appear like indigo and gray-tinted maps that, folded, can fit in the artist's pocket. By omitting a drawing tool, Dash achieves a process that is more directly connected to the hand. This is still drawing, although it is more sculptural in its textured handling of paper and made visible only later when the artist has covered the entire sheet with pigment. They are hung directly to the wall, emphasizing their cartographical appearance.
In the sense that the folds follow the hand’s direction, Dash’s drawings are maps that render her movements timeless and static. Anastasi’s drawings are more urgent.
~Aldrin Valdez, a writer living in New York.
Images: William Anastasi, Untitled (Pocket Drawings), 1969, pencil on transparentized paper, 2 sheets: 10.875 x 14 inches (each); N. Dash, April III (New York, 2011), 2011, graphite and paper, 20 x 29.5 inches. Courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery.