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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Automatic Drawing

Preparations for Birds, 1963, Joan Miro
Automatic Drawing, Andre Masson
The title at the top sounds as if you could just push a button and a drawing would automatically appear. Insofar as its original meaning having to do with art, that's not the case, but in fact, there is digital software which makes such "Automatism" possible; though coming from a machine, it would mean little or nothing. Actually, coming from an artist, it might mean little or nothing as well. Or, it could reveal meaningful insights into an artist's subconscious psyche. If all this sounds a bit surreal, it is...and more than a "bit." It is surreal, one of the bedrock elements of surrealism, in fact--the probing of the artist's subconscious--both as a psychological exercise, and literally for drawing and painting content. The concept and the act itself have their roots in the birth of Surrealism coming from the mind of the French artist/poet, Andre Breton, though in fact, you'll find much more automatic drawing coming from the hand of his partner in crime, Andre Masson (above, left).
Automatic Drawing, Salvador Dali
Angel drawing, Jean Arp
Although Automatism (the more accepted term) didn't come into being until the founding of the movement around 1942 by Montreal artist, Paul-Emile Borduas, in fact, Breton and Philippe Soupault had written the first automatic drawing book, Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) as early as 1919. Later, The Automatic Message, dating from 1933, was one of Breton's more significant theoretical works about Automatism. Thus, the theories grew out of Surrealism (and before that, Dada) while Borduas pulled them together, promoted the concepts, and organized the artists. It was not a huge movement, just one of hundreds from the 20th-century, in fact; but there were a significant number of important names who dabbled in it to varying degrees. Most were refugees from Surrealism. Besides Masson, there was Salvador Dali (above), Joan Miro (top), Robert Motherwell, Jean Arp (right), Elsworth Kelly (below), even Picasso, if you don't mind stretching the definition a little.
Automatic Drawing--Pine Branches VI, 1950, Ellsworth Kelly
Automatic Drawing, 1950,
Wolfgang Paalen
Speaking of definitions, the simplest way of describing Automatism would be to say it is "drawing without thinking." Is that even possible? Yes, of course, and it happens more often than we realize. In fact, most of us have indulged in this type of "art" at one time or another. Have you ever sat, phone in one hand, pen in the other, doodling on a notepad while waiting on "hold." That's Automatism, letting the mind rest while the hand moves. In looking over the drawings here, it's not hard to see that there are degrees of mindlessness involve. Some artists are so adept at drawing that their skills cannot be "turned off" simply by disconnecting them from the mind. In other cases, the word "scribbles" appears appropriate. But, is such scribbled doodling art? Not in the traditional sense, no. Though some have been deemed valuable by art appraisers (depending mostly on the signature at the bottom). Such drawing is more accurately seen as just one step in the creative process, especially if you're into dreams, fantasy art, and the surreal. In most other cases, the mind rules, the hand obeys (or tries to).

Automatic drawing, Wesley Alvarez.
The Ritual, Wesley Alvarez.
The work of Wesley Alvarez illustrates what I mean. His automatic drawing (above, left) may not seem to divorce the mind from the hand in any significant way; but keep in mind, automatic drawing, though it may appear so at times, does not mean drawing with your eyes shut. Basically, it's starting with nothing, no source material, no message, no ideas--a blank mind--and then unleashing the hand, watching in surprise and amazement at what happens. Then, as Alvarez illustrates, that "mindless" drawing becomes the basis for a painting--The Ritual (above, right). A word of warning at this point: the subconscious is a deep, mysterious, often wild and wooly place fraught with fears, ambiguities, contradictions, sexual fantasies, and spiritual yearnings. If you try Automatism be prepared to be both stunned and/or amused, perhaps even disturbed by what develops. Many of Picasso's apparently automatic drawings were incredibly erotic.

An automatic Drawing by Oupsar seems to have started as a mere "doodle" but gradually evolved into a highly controlled pen and ink drawing "suitable for framing."
Automatism would be little more than a meaningless mind game unless the artist is prepared to "take the ball and run with it." Sometimes that means continuing the exercise on a larger scale. Sometimes it means gradually taking more and more control of the process, adapting, interpreting, exploring, and applying it, as in he work of Wesley Alvarez, to important, permanent art. Tim Barnard, with his Immaculate Hope Grenade (below), frees his obvious cartooning skills, putting them in the service of his subconscious, veering off into Surrealism, Pop, Psychedelia, bound together with swirling graphic design elements, flowing so mindlessly they don't even give way to the corner of the room, which might traditionally mark their bounding limits.

Immaculate Hope Grenade, Tim Barnard.
Automatic Drawing 2, Karole Amooty.
But, is it art?


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