Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking at The Drawing Center

November 21, 2008 to February 5, 2009
35 Wooster Street, between Grand and Broome
New York City, 212-219-2166

Matt Mullican Untitled 1985. Gouache on paper, 12 x 47 inches. Cover, JANUARY 2009: Untitled 2004. Marker on paper, 31 x 23 1/2 inches. Both images, Courtesy of the artist.
Matt Mullican, Untitled 1985. Gouache on paper, 12 x 47 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.

In Matt Mullican’s smart show of more than 200 drawings spanning his long and varied career, there is an untitled piece from 1974, in which a horizontal line, with arrows on both ends, points on the left to the word “Abstract” and on the right to the word “Literal.” These two categories of conception encompass the limits of the artist’s—indeed, of anyone’s—meaningful investigation of the various ways we build up and tear down thought. But Mullican goes even further, not only exploring but also representing the means whereby our intelligence conveys images necessary to processing the world. In fact, in the show there is next to the arrow image another untitled line drawing, also from 1974, of a long-haired young man, with the caption “What is this man thinking?” In this particular case, as happens so often with this artist, the act of questioning is part of the drawing’s import, becoming as important as the answer to the query. Mullican brilliantly handles connotation and denotation, preferring to see both categories of intelligence as belonging to each other rather than as opposing poles. Working more freely than the philosopher, he imposes his radical imaginings rather lightly, as if the entire process of making sense were metaphysically ephemeral, despite his intense need to know.

It may well be that Mullican has an advantage over the more academically trained among us; by offering his ideas in two ways—as images and as words—he neatly escapes the conundrum that significance itself belongs to one kind of realism. Pictures no less than words offer insight into the way we think, and by conflating them he builds schemes that outline, in almost pure form, the way we make sense to each other. As it happens, his symbolism ranges from the obscure to the fantastically easy to read.  Mullican’s view responds to any and all suggestions, conveying to the bemused but focused viewer the need both to erect and deconstruct systems. In The Drawing Center’s single large gallery space, covered with his drawings, we encounter is a luminous aptitude for discursive thought, in which many centers of cogency simultaneously occur.  When Mullican asserts in writing that the “preoccupation with materials and processes seems to clutter up the phenomenon of what interests me,” he is making it clear to us that no individual person or thing can contain the entirety of that which engages him. Thus the artist reworks appearances as a means of describing the gestalt that both energizes and evades his hand.

In drawings other than the ones announcing his attention in readable language, Mullican can make rather a mess of things. Two drawings from 1978 are deliberately confused scribbles—offerings that refuse to classify the many, many objects that get in the way of our recognition of them.  Later drawings, those from the “World Frame” series in the 1990s, demonstrate considerable skill in the field of geometric and architectural drawing. But Mullican is not so much someone who presents the real as we know it; instead, he attempts to give voice to the hesitancies we have about making our way in the world. His schema relate to sign- and symbol-making, without which, he recognizes, we are pretty much in confusion. In this sense he adds to the world rather than reduces it. His systems never remain entirely abstract, nor do they give way to a literalism of intentions. Instead, he finds a middle ground, in which knowledge is a concomitant of representation, and the construction of categories is founded on what is available at hand. His drawings neither give way to easy dualities, nor do they deliberately overwhelm with complications. Art thus is a way of being in the world, whose classifications are never completely understood.