Seurat at MoMA: Play Misty for Me

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The Echo (study for Baignade), Seurat, 1883 — Yale University Art Gallery

Having posted yesterday about the pending retirement of John Elderfield at the Museum of Modern Art, I’ll stay on a MoMA topic today, which is the really superb show, “Georges Seurat: The Drawings”, organized by MoMA associate curator of drawings Jodi Hauptman. I can’t think of another 19th century French painter, not even Ingres, whose drawings were a more important part of his overall practice as an artist. Even if Seurat had never developed pointillism as a means to restabilize painting after the Impressionists, his drawings would have made him a major figure for the way they provided an early glimpse of a drawing as an all-over field of marks, a fine mesh of particulates where image and ground interpenetrate.

Seurat literally created a new kind of draughtsmanship, one that de-emphasized line and cross hatching in favor of a broad massing of light and shadow produced by unusual means. Seurat’s method was to drag conte crayon across the tufted surface of the thick textured paper called Michallet. (Do me a favor and just picture an accent over the “e” in conte so I don’t have to go through the struggle to place one that my software puts me through. And let’s not even talk about umlauts.) When he used light pressure on the crayon he left deposits of graphite on the upper surface of the tufts, but not in the channels below, so that solid forms still carried a slight luminousity of unmarked paper radiating in faint lines from beneath the darkened surface. With heavier pressure he could produce an impenetrable sooty black.

Seen up close, a Seurat drawing resembles a stormfield of bristling dots, like a TV screen, a darkened field permeated by pinpoints of light, out of which the ectoplasmic image dimly yet distinctly emerges. The line between figure and ground is uncertain, like in a Whistler nocturne. Contours oscillate at high frequencies. The border of a face or even a building can dissolve into a gaseous glow.

At the Concert Europeen, Seurat, c. 1886-1888 — MoMA

What that means of course is that by the 1880s Seurat was pointing towards that fetish of 20th century modernism, the shallow-depth picture plane, one in which the image fluctuates between illusionist volume and flatness. The extraordinary pictures of his mother from 1882-1883, bidding to us through fogs of graphite, are fully modeled illusions of three-dimensional form, but on close inspection everything solid melts into the air.

Today a contemporary artist like Vija Celmins is still mining the implications of Seurat’s granular fields.

Untitled (Big Sea #1), Vija Celmins, 1969 — Courtesy McKee Gallery, N.Y.

And though Richard Serra may not have been thinking about them — he was probably filtering the monumentality of the ancient world through Malevich — his thickly applied paintstik drawings have their beginnings in the darkest passages of Seurat.

Dead Weight (Edfu), Richard Serra, 1991 — MoMA

And we haven’t even talked about Seurat’s drawings of the butt-end outskirts of Paris, the bain lieu, the Zone, at least one of them as lonesome and as radically composed — or is it decomposed? — as anything by Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand.

Railway Tracks, Seurat, c.1881-1882 — Collection Andre Bromberg

In all, a Seurat exhibition to stand with the great show three years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago about La Grande Jatte and the studies that led to it.