Friday, October 1, 2010

Leonardo Drew at the DeCordova Museum

A year or so ago, Gwen Plunkett from Houston, a friend I had met at the encaustic conference, posted some images on her blog from a show at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. The images were of work by Leonardo Drew from "Existed," a show that had been organized at the Blaffer. When I learned that a large-format book had been published as a catalog of this show, I ordered one immediately, and since then I have been a Leonardo Drew (LD) fan, as you probably know if you follow this blog. All year I've been waiting for September 25th when LD himself was speaking at the much smaller installation of Existed at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. (September 18, 2010 to January 9, 2011)

The grand staircase at the DeCordova (not sure of exact name they call it) showing an installation by LD. (Click to enlarge)

No matter how many curators, critics or commentators talk about or explicate an artist's work, there is nothing like hearing it from the artist him- or herself. This was such a treat for me to meet LD in person and hear what he was thinking when he made the work and how one piece related to another.

Looking up at the staircase wall as I ascended

First of all, photography is not allowed inside the Museum, but how could I know that? So I snapped some pics of the installation as I went up the stairs.

LD says that he never throws anything away and that he takes apart older work to make new objects. The pieces in this installation look like they came from his No. 123, but they could have come from anything.

LD said that he installed this work along with the crew from the museum. They were working on scaffolding and did not have an advance plan. The work was installed intuitively and from LD's experience.

I thought it was pretty interesting to see the juxtaposition of some very finished elements and some things that look like they came from the lumber scrap pile - as you can see in the photo above.

Having the work in the stairwell was actually great for getting up close, as I like to do.

Looking down the stairway from the top.

LD said that he organizes an installation like this by feel or visual weight - what is heavy, what is light.

No Photos Allowed
So once I got to the top of the staircase, I came face to face with two pieces.

This one looked to me like part of No. 75, from 2000. The original No. 75 was a giant piece but this segment was only about 6' x 6'. I'm judging that because I think that the modular panels he uses are 24"x24". The number of disparate objects that he used in this piece was unbelievable. (Don't forget to click to enlarge.) I made a list of what I observed and found that a lot of it was broken children's toys or equipment. Childhood seems to be a real throw-away time when you think of it, such a transitory period.

I believe that this kind of collecting of objects for LD came about when he was an artist in residence in Brazil and sent out 100 children with trash bags to see what they could find on the streets. However, LD himself is a perennial street cruiser and says he goes out with his shopping cart all the time to see what he can pick up. Many artists do this, of course, and you can just imagine all the shopping carts cruising around in parts of Brooklyn to see who gets to the trash first. I used to love doing this when I lived in the city and even out here in the boondocks I've found some stuff - and I do have my own shopping cart.

After I took the photo of the piece above, a guard came up to me and told me to stop taking photos.  So I didn't get to take an image of No. 59 that was also hanging in the lobby area, but I did examine it up close to see how it was made. I was taking copious notes and felt like I was getting ready for an exam. This was the only work of LD's that I had seen in person except for his show at Sikkema Jenkins last February and that work was very different - much larger scale elements, very little rust, more wood of all kinds and shapes, I would even say more brutal and more physical. It had a very different feeling. You can see and read about what I said here.

The Man Himself

Leonardo Drew speaking to the crowd of 40 or 50 at DeCordova. Behind him is No. 28 from 1992.

I thought LD was great. He spoke in the gallery with his work and walked around from one piece to another but not in a programmed way. He spoke in a non-pretentious, direct manner and was willing to entertain all kinds of questions. He even talked to us about process - which he said he usually doesn't - and the best thing about him was his infectious laugh.

LD with a curator gesturing to No. 94 from 2005  - cast paper objects hanging by paper-covered ropes from a painted piece of wood.

He said that he liked seeing the show because he doesn't get to see his work too much after it leaves the studio. He works on many pieces at once (he said 7 pieces) and "they're all like crying babies" in that they're all looking for attention and help. Then "they get legs and go out in the world and have their life."

The History of His Work
Sure, I read all this before, but it never sunk in until I heard him tell the story directly: after he graduated from Cooper Union in 1985, Drew experimented with various types of work. In 1988 he made No. 8, which he calls the "mother piece." (By the way, initially he titled all his work but changed to a numbering system because he wanted a more pure reaction by viewers.) To make No. 8, he went to "The Dark" within himself. He said he doesn't remember feeling that dark, but it came from somewhere inside so that No. 8 has a heavy, brooding sensibility. In this piece, he put scavenged dead birds and animals he found on the streets along with all kinds of remnants and hunks of discarded things and he painted it all black. He said that this was the only time he's ever included dead things in his work and did it this once to get over his fear and get past it.

No. 8 , 1988 - 108"x120"x4" (from the DeCordova website)

Detail in No. 8 (shot from Existed catalog)

Two years later, LD made No. 14 - the first time he used rust in his work. Drew owns both No. 8 and No. 14 because they are seminal works for him.

No. 14, 1990 - 103" x 83" x 1/8" - shot from Existed

This is a large slab of rusted metal, or more than one slab, not attached to any wooden support.

Then four years later, in 1994, LD combined No. 8 and No. 14 to make No. 43 by using "the material mass" from No. 8 and the surface from No. 14. He says it "was not just the combination of materials, but of ideas." He believes that these ideas are "already in your body, like DNA."  There is "some form of history that flows through each of us and then comes out. Then we have to move on." He says that the progression of his work came organically as he worked through one form to another. He has noticed that "the more he touches things, the better they get."

No. 43, 1994 (from DeCordova website), babric, plastic, string and wood, 138"x288"x12"

Closeup of No. 43 from Existed catalog

The Grid
LD said that he made 1200 boxes for No. 43 and then he had to figure out what to do with them.

Notice that No. 43 also is based on a grid that LD said he began using first for practical reasons - it allowed him to make modular work that could be stacked, compartmentalized and moved out of the studio. He says that it's a device for him, a means to an end. (And also calls it his nod to minimalism.)

He uses it now to make modular panels with attached parts. For example, below is a piece from his February 2010 show at Sikkema Jenkins where the grid is a very big grid of panels.

The grid has been useful for him in moving the work and in reassembling it in various museums and galleries as it travels around. He can reconfigure work depending on the space, and he himself always figures it out with the curators. He has a very hands-on attitude toward his work. (By the way, if you go to the DeCordova to see this work, there is a time-lapse video of this exhibition being unpacked and installed that shows how much work went into getting it to look seamlessly hung. You will see LD throughout.)

It's no accident that LD is wearing a shirt with a cartoon figure. He got an offer at age 15 to work for DC Comics (plus being courted by Marvel Comics and Heavy Metal magazine) because he was such a skilled draftsman. He was lucky enough to be recognized and encouraged early in his life for his artistic skills, but instead of becoming an illustrator, he was inspired by reproductions of Jackson Pollock's work to aspire to another vision of art making. (He relates his No. 8 directly to Pollock's work.) The 1980 Picasso show at MoMA was a big influence and a 1983 trip to Europe introduced him to the work of Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Alberto Burri, Anselm Kiefer, Jannis Kounellis and Antoni Tapies. Art for him became about "materials as markers of cultural history" (Claudia Schmuckli in the introduction to Existed).

LD said that he began as a painter and so his work almost always connects to the wall; freestanding work is "an anomaly" for him. (But interestingly enough, he builds his work on the floor, not on the wall.) For most of his career, decay of one form or another has been a big part of his work, and he has created that decay himself by treating the objects. Now he is working with found objects such as "monstrous roots - emphasis on monstrous" from the Napa Valley. He says this makes the work go much quicker because he doesn't have to make everything. The show he's working on now is three years distant and he does most of the work himself ("I don't have slaves").

I found him personally as inspiring as his work and am grateful to the DeCordova Museum for giving us all the opportunity to hear Leonardo Drew speak.


Anonymous said...

Well you sure did have a blast taking photos before you got caught! I stood at the bottom of the stairs for a long time taking in the piece on the wall. This work draws some very strong emotions. Especially the piece with the birds in it, so powerful.
Great post, nice to read since I couldn't make his talk. Keep it up Nancy!

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

Thank you for another wonderful post, Nancy. I should tell you that you've opened my eyes WIDER regarding the abstract and, for lack of a better phrase, the art of construction. I'll be in New York at the end of this month and can hardly wait to look around with this new vision.

Gwendolyn Plunkett said...

Great post about LD. I didn't get to hear him speak at Blaffer. Glad you did. I wanted to move into the gallery and live there while his work was up.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for commenting, Lynette, Wendy and Gwen.

I did have a blast taking photos and I would have had more except that they caught me. You'll note that I did get those two surreptitious ones of him from the back of the crowd when he was talking. The one of him directly was with his permission.

Wendy, I'm so happy to hear that! I love it that you are visiting NY with new eyes. I hope you get to MoMA for the Abstract Expressionist show and so much else. There is so much to see in NY. I hope you have a great time.

Gwen, too bad you missed him in Houston but I could feel you there in spirit at the DeCordova.

Deborah Barlow said...

Drew me right in (in every sense!) You had me sold in paragraph 1. I'll be out to see the show when I get back in town. Thanks for this NN.

Carolyn said...

Great post, Nancy. Loved learning about LD's work.

Joanne Mattera said...

You are an engaging storyteller, Great post. Thanks. I have always liked Drew's work, but I like it even more after this post.

ArtPropelled said...

Thanks so much for this post Nancy. I'll enjoy reading through it again, studying each photograph closely.
What a wonderful opportunity to see LD's work in person.

Unknown said...

Nancy, your enthusiasm for art (and Leo's art in particular) is really infectious. I'm the Director of the deCordova, and brought the show to the museum in part because I'm a fan of Leo's too... and even for me it was entertaining reading about your visit to the show and Leo's talk.

I'm glad to hear our guards were on the ball--but if you'd like to come back while the show is up and take photographs, I'd he happy to make that happen. You can email me at

I hope you'll be back to deCordova again in future- we're trying hard to mount great shows!

Best, Dennis

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

I can't believe I missed this article. I love this artists approach to making art and I love the results!

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

I love this artists work and his approach.

Richard Stamats said...

Thank you for this wonderful review of Leonardo. I was one of Leonardo's first art teachers from about 1972 to 1982 at the Cultual Art Center in Bridgeport, CT. This center was next to the public housing where Leonardo lived. It brings great pleasure to all his former teachers to see this always special person deliver his art to the world and for so many to become his fans. His first large 6' tall painting was of Captain America and it's great fun to see the superhero on his T-shirt.

Amalia Grimaldi said...

Leonardo Drew, your art got the essence of universal energy!