The presence of love in a work of art shouldn’t be a primary gauge of its merit. If it were, the world would be overrun by masterpieces—or depleted of them, depending on how you looked at it. Love and artistic necessity don’t always go hand in hand. Take Matisse, for example. Love doesn’t exactly radiate from his paintings. His hedonism was inextricable from his mercilessness. As far as aesthetic judgments go, we have to ask (with Tina Turner): What’s love got to do with it?
Having said that, Eric Holzman’s drawings, the subject of an exhibition at the New York Studio School, are palpably suffused with love. There’s no missing it: The pieces, typically done in watercolor and egg tempera with occasional traces of pastel, charcoal and graphite, exude a quiet passion. For Mr. Holzman, making art is an endeavor through which intimacy and longing achieve a finely tuned, if tenuous, resolution.
All of which wouldn’t matter a whit if he weren’t in command of his medium and alert to all of its possibilities. For Mr. Holzman, the making of art is about pleasure, not catharsis, though it remains an enterprise that demands a sense of responsibility. He doesn’t favor expressive need over aesthetics—from the evidence on hand, the idea never occurs to him. Mr. Holzman isn’t indulgent: Love is both tempered and intensified by his touch.
He’s an ambitious artist, but he’s levelheaded and takes nothing for granted, including the weight of history. The clarity and quietude of Renaissance art; the discipline and effortlessness of Chinese landscape and Japanese scroll painting; Cézanne’s profound
uncertainty—Mr. Holzman taps into them all. He’s fully aware that mere reiteration is a slacker’s game, but he’s modest enough to understand how daunting a proposition artistic renewal can be. There’s nothing grandiose in his objectives.
Mr. Holzman begins each drawing by creating a weathered, fresco-like field. “Most drawings I love,” he says, “look like they’re on paper that’s a thousand years old.” Citing Michelangelo’s drawings as a pivotal influence, Mr. Holzman approximates their patina, thereby establishing pictorial “atmosphere.” Splattered and layered surfaces, grayish in tonality, contain hints of ruddy green, coppery ochre and, in Makiko (2004), burnished orange.
Paper is rendered slate-like, yet it remains open and airy. The drawings of people, still-life set-ups and the natural world resemble scrap-like Old Masters’ studies. Mr. Holzman treats paper with a respect like that found in Asian cultures; several pictures—particularly the beatific Sensei (2004)—make clear his affinity for non-Western art. Paper isn’t just a yielding receptacle for marks, but a “space for the image to live in.” It is relished for its flexibility and physicality, its metaphorical and material capabilities.
A strain of self-consciousness permeates Mr. Holzman’s initial treatment of paper. Nathan Kernan, critic and curator of the exhibition, likens the deliberate evocation of age to “background ‘noise’” providing “something to dream into.” It could be considered a pictorial affectation, but Mr. Holzman gets away with it. With a delicate balance of texture and image, he sidesteps mimicry, nostalgia and preciousness.
The drawings are hard-pressed to “hold” their subjects, among them flowers, a canary, passing clouds and a tumble of onions. They exist as ghostly remnants of observation arising from silvery fields of marks. Erasure—an integral part of Mr. Holzman’s process—simultaneously obliterates and re-establishes the tangibility of, say, a tree in Yonkers. Indeed, Large Tree (2001-7) is a wisp, but it’s nonetheless there, concrete and specific.
Other drawings are more defined, but they avoid absolute definition. In works such as Basement Still Life (2003), evolution—or, as Mr. Kernan has it, “the passage of time”—is encapsulated and made permanent. They’re complete even as the imagery is in flux.
It’s a perplexing meditation on mutability, reminiscent of Giacometti’s quest for the real. Things similarly elude Mr. Holzman’s grasp, but the experience is an impetus for reflection, not pessimism. Putting pencil to paper offers a quixotic repose, an opportunity to look—glimpse is more like it—with startling clarity. As a draftsman, he’s careful but not hesitant, sure but not glib, tender but never sentimental. His art is, in its own densely wrought way, as pure and concise as haiku.
His figure drawings, while handsomely delineated, are the least convincing of the lot. The demands of likeness and proportion gently stymie intuition. Notwithstanding their irresistibly milky grounds, Maryann (2000) and Neil (1998) are burdened by mannerism. One exception is the otherworldly Misha (2005-7). In the portrait, a child with an appealingly louche manner sits with his legs crossed. He appears as a memory barely recalled, at least by the intellect—the heart is another matter.
These are works by an artist who disappears within his labors. Humility and anonymity mark his drawings. It’s not difficult, though, to discern the love that powers them.
Eric Holzman: Drawings, 1990-2007 is at the New York Studio School, 8 West Eighth Street, until May 12.
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