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The navigational medium

MoMA comes to Berlin, presenting over 300 works on paper in pencil, watercolor, charcoal, acrylic, body fluids, soot, oil paint, plant extracts, ink and spray paint.

Image for The navigational medium
© Marcel Odenbach / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011

As a title, Compass: Drawings of The Museum of Modern Art New York is somewhat misleading. The collection is not limited to what we typically think of as drawings, but includes over 300 works on paper in a diverse range of media: pencil, watercolor, charcoal, acrylic, body fluids, soot, oil paint, plant extracts, ink and spray paint, just for a start. The works – selected from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, acquired by MoMA in 2005 – present art fans with the largest, most exciting collection of contemporary works on paper to be seen at a Berlin museum.

For many of the artists on view, a work on paper is a liberation, a medium unfettered by the heavy-handed rhetoric of painting. Works from established names like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch, Jasper Johns, Dieter Roth, David Hockney and Mona Hatoum reference their primary practices. In particular, one of Richter’s earliest oil-on-paper studies reveals an experimentation with the materiality of paint signature to his later abstract work.

The early 2000s return to collage trend is well-represented and given a thorough reworking with a political edge in Marcel Odenbach’s You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees (2003, photo) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Provide Ruins I-VIII (2003). Primal Scream pal Jim Lambie’s Screamadelica (2004) is a slightly unsettling highlight and makes much more of an impact in person than on the album cover. Also included are genre-defying artists who have stretched the definition of the medium, from comic illustrator Robert Crumb to attic-dwelling eccentric Henry Darger. Some of the best work in the show is lesser known, like Christian Holstad’s mutated political monsters on erased newspaper and Marc Brandenburg’s horizontal, masterful adventures in graphite.

‘Compass’ refers at once to the various geographical locations that have risen and fallen as artistic and cultural centers and also to the navigational tool, a way to find one’s bearings. Compass provides exactly such context; it manages to show both the great extent of experimentation made possible by the medium’s adaptability as well as the monumental, movement-defining power of a single sketch.