The Australian reviews the “keenly observed and beautifully realised” New York Drawings

Drawn in to an intimate take on New York

The Australian    |    BILL LEAK    |    December 21, 2012

THE editors of The New Yorker magazine have maintained a tradition of commissioning artists to illustrate their covers ever since the first edition hit the newsstands in 1925, with one that featured a highly stylised caricature by Rea Irvin of a top-hatted dandy peering at a butterfly through a monocle.

Although Irvin's character was based on an 1834 drawing of the then Count d'Orsay, he became known as Eustace Tilley and has since been reinterpreted in various ways by a large number of artists.

He reappears to this day with every anniversary issue, and has gradually taken on the role of the magazine's personal mascot, as instantly recognisable as any logo.

Individually, the covers have featured examples of work from artists with a variety of styles. Edward Sorel's exuberant flights of fancy, for example, are about as different in their approach from Jean-Jacques Sempe's whimsical sketches as you could get.

Collectively - and over nearly a century of publication - a distinctive New Yorker style has emerged.

Back in the early 70s Dr Hook sang about the musician's dream of having his rock star status officially established by the sudden appearance of his face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In the more subdued world of the illustrator, seeing one's own artwork appear on the cover of The New Yorker represents a similar confirmation of artistic celebrity. One of the most recent artists to hit the big time is Adrian Tomine whose book, New York Drawings, is a portable exhibition of his deceptively simple but evocative illustrations and comics. To look at works of art you used to head straight to a gallery, while to read about them you'd open a book.

Now the situation has been reversed. If you go to a gallery you'll spend most of your time being told what to think by reading the "artist's statements" while casting the occasional cursory glance at the potential investments hanging next to them on the wall.

If, like me, you prefer to look at pictures while doing your thinking for yourself, you'll find them on the pages of books like this one.

Tomine's keenly observed and beautifully realised pictures have all been born in sketchbooks, derived from direct observation. For him, the simple but profound experience of seeing is always the starting point for his art. The pictures themselves are the artist's statements, no further explanation required.

One such picture is the last one in the book and its title is, simply, A.C. A young woman lies naked and asleep on a bed at the bottom, a horizontal element in an otherwise vertical picture. Another horizontal element is an air conditioner on the wall behind her, the "AC" of the title. Above it, an open window reveals a section of a city skyline silhouetted against an evening sky where stars are starting to appear. You know what the weather's like in this picture. It's hot outside but it's cool in the room where the woman is sleeping. You can see she's been spending a lot of time in the sun because her bikini has left its light-coloured shape clearly imprinted on her slightly darker, sun-tanned skin.

Tomine's cropping of the figure and the contrast between the soft, flowing lines of her body and the sheets with the hard, almost clinical treatment of her surroundings combine to imbue this scene with a sense of immediate reality and a beguiling intimacy.

Suddenly you, the viewer, are there in that room.

I'm reminded of feeling slightly embarrassed the first time I found myself standing in front of one of Pierre Bonnard's paintings of his wife in the bath in the Tate Gallery in London.

The scene was so intimate I felt like an intruder who'd burst into a stranger's bathroom without even having had the decency to knock on the door first.

But I wasn't intruding because Bonnard had opened his world to visitors.

He wanted others to see it as it appeared to him.

Great art has nothing to hide; it invites you in and makes you feel welcome.

Shallow, self-important art keeps you out; it excludes you to preserve and emphasise its exclusivity.

People who neither paint nor draw can learn the language of visual art.

Once they do they'll find there's a lot to read in paintings such as Picasso's Guernica, the visual equivalent of a vast, powerful novel, just as there is in his pencil drawings, the visual equivalents of poetry. Great artists know that if you're interested enough in art, you'll go to the trouble of learning how to look at it.

Fraudulent artists, on the other hand, will assume you're visually illiterate so they'll kindly and condescendingly provide a list of instructions (or "artist's statements") that will enable you to gaze in wonder at their works and see that they are good.

This is essentially an illustrational, as distinct from artistic, approach because when the meaning of a work of art can be expressed in words it ceases to have any pictorial meaning at all. So here we have another role reversal: the so-called artists are doing the illustrations while the illustrators are creating the art. Stranger still, the cognoscenti are unable to spot the difference.

Tomine was two years old when his Japanese mother, after divorcing his American father, took him with her to live in Belgium. The Franco-Belgian, Japanese and American traditions of modern comic book art are the richest and most vibrant in the world, and he grew up steeped in all three of them.

In his best work he plays with the visual language of comic book art, creating images that are as pictorially elegant as they are wryly amusing.

It's only when he decides to produce actual comic book art that the work disappoints. Comics and cartoons are the perfect vehicles for funny or satirical ideas but, in my view at least, expressions of maudlin introspection might almost be tolerable when mumbled over a few beers in a bar but they're quite insufferable when foisted upon a reader in three pages of fussy little panels in which the captions occupy more space than the pictures.

Mercifully, there are only a few such lapses in what is otherwise a catalogue of minor masterpieces like Missed Connection, which shows a young man and a young woman, both reading copies of the same novel, making fleeting eye contact with each other through the windows of trains heading in different directions. It's an illustrational Tour de Force, a short story within a picture told with an eloquence that would have made Norman Rockwell proud.

In E. 9 St. a young waitress eats a snack outside a Japanese sake bar in the East Village and again you, the viewer, find yourself transported to that exact spot, in that same street and you haven't even had to pay for the airfare.

Arnold Schoenberg once said, "There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major", and drawings like these are a reminder that there are still plenty of good pictures to be painted by artists working with simple tools and limited palettes. While Tomine cites influences such as Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez, it's the echoes of Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard in his work that indicate it is artists like him who are maintaining the rich tradition of Western pictorial art. And it's a tradition whose history didn't start on the day Andy Warhol bought a Polaroid camera and started taking snapshots of celebrities.

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