The Drawing Center – Interview with Brett Littman

Drawing Dialogues LeWitt Collectionde The Drawing Center offices (The Drawing Center). Courtesy of The Drawing Center

L’Agenda du dessin contemporain : Brett Littman, you have been the Executive Director of  The Drawing Center, based in New York (SoHo), since 2007. From 2003 to 2007, you were the Deputy Director at MoMA PS1. You are also an active art critic, member of AICA-USA (International Association of Art Critics). You have a BA in philosophy, and you have been working in the non-profit arts field for more than twenty-five years. When we met, you told me that you started curating in your late thirties, so can you tell us more about your background?

Brett Littman : My path to working in the non-profit world and to curating has been an untraditional one. Growing up in New York, I was exposed to a lot of art and went to museums and galleries pretty regularly. My father was interested in photography and even named me after Edward Weston’s son Brett Weston. I went to Stuyvesant, a specialized math and science high school in New York, and at first I went to the University of California San Diego to study medicine, but I ended up with a degree in philosophy and poetry. After college I lived in San Antonio from 1991 to ’93, and I worked on two films one for Deep Dish TV called Puro Party: Celebrating a Genocide and an independent short film directed by Jim Mendolia called Pretty Vacant. To earn money to support my artistic endeavors, I started working as a fundraiser for a non-profit called the Esperanza Center, a social justice organization that hosted talks and workshops, curated exhibitions, and presented film festivals and music programs. When I came back to New York in 1993, I wanted to work at avant-garde performance spaces, like St. Ann’s Warehouse or BAM, but I ended up getting a fundraising job in a theater called Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College, which was not avant-garde at all, but was the most multi-cultural theater in all of New York. One week we would have Mel Torme perform, the next Sufi Music, the next African Dance, and then Yiddish theater.

In 1995, I started working at UrbanGlass, a non-profit glass making studio in Brooklyn. I knew nothing about glass and craft in general, but I started hanging out in the studio and watching people blow, cast, and slump glass, and in 1996 I started writing about glass art, design, and architecture for a variety of magazines. By the time I left UrbanGlass in 2001, I was the associate director, and I had started to lecture internationally on the medium and also direct a lot of commissioned projects with artists, industrial designers, and architects, including Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Long, Kiki Smith, Vladimir Kagan, Dakota Jackson, Tony Oursler, and Rachel Feinstein, to name a few. From 2001 to 2003, I was the co-director of Dieu Donné Papermill, a non-profit in SoHo that worked with artists to develop new projects that used hand papermaking. What I loved about Dieu Donné was that it operated like an old print shop, and so we had a lot of interaction with the artists who were working in or renting the studio for their projects. It was during this time that I started writing more about visual art for museum catalogs and more mainstream art publications. I also had the opportunity to generate editioned projects with Richard Tuttle, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, and Jim Hodges during my time there. From 2003 to 2007 I was the Deputy Director at MoMA PS1, a space that I had spent a fair of amount at during the late 1980s and 1990s. At MoMA PS1, I was involved in overseeing more than 150 exhibitions, co-producing Warm Up (our summer DJ Festival), launching the digital radio (now Art on Air), and managing our relationship with MoMA. I did start curating shows outside of MoMA PS1 at this time—as my role as Deputy Director was not curatorial in any way at the institution.

ADC : Can you tell us what is your “story” with drawing, when and how did it start?

B. L. : I would say, since my time at UrbanGlass and Dieu Donné Papermill, I have been interested in process, and by extension I have also liked drawing—I view it as an analogue for thinking. I have also collected works on paper like photography, prints, and drawings over the years, and I happily live and learn from these objects every day.

ADC : Along with the Cabinet d’arts graphiques at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which was founded in 1977 under the impetus of its director, the famous curator Pontus Hulten, The Drawing Center in NYC is a historical venue solely dedicated to drawing exhibitions. Can you tell us more about its history?

B. L. : I’m the fourth director now since the founding of The Drawing Center by Martha Beck in 1977. I think, when Martha founded the institution, she had a lot of frustration with the Museum of Modern Art where she was curator—every time that she proposed a drawing show, the Director at the time said, “Well that’s great we’ll put it in a closet on the second floor.” You know, drawing wasn’t given a lot of importance in terms of art history, there was very little commercial importance placed on artists who simply drew, we were still living in an age when drawing was on the way to something else, secondary to painting and sculpture. Martha was quite instinctive and saw the future, because in the late sixties, of course, there were many artists who were working both in land art and earth art in conceptual ways, trying to develop new technologies like neon or sound waves and drawing invisible things. So I think that she saw through artist practice that drawing was going to take on a kind of new importance, and when she founded the institution, I think it was more out of a defensive stance about drawing—“Drawing is important and we are going to plant the flag and we are going to make sure there’s an institution for artists who draw and maybe that’s the only thing they do, do in terms of their artistic output.” She did found the institution with several other core principles. The first was that it was going to be historical and contemporary. So immediately her first show was the drawings of the visionary Barcelonan architect Gaudi, followed by a selection or group show of Terry Winters and several other artists that are well known to us and that first showed their work in New York. She moved very fluently between fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth century drawing and contemporary drawing. The other thing that Martha was interested in was being able to interact with artists. I think, if you had gone to MoMA with your portfolio, you would probably have been escorted by a guard out the door—if you asked to see a curator, it was impossible at the time. Martha founded an institution where the wall between curatorial work and curators and artists actually was broken down, and she founded the ‘viewing program’ which has been a very important program for 37 years, although now it has shifted to a new program called “Open Sessions.”

Then, during the nineties when Annie Philbin was the director, I think the institution moved to a much broader exploration of drawing even in relation to pop culture: Ed Hardy’s tattoo show and explorations of drawing in other kinds of cultures, such as Indian legend drawings, miniature drawings from Rajasthan, and tantric drawings. So I think for Annie, the idea was the idea of multi-culturalism, of how drawing might operate in other cultures, not necessarily as rendering or as skill, but as dream markers for other kinds of things. As well, it was in 1994 that Kara Walker first showed her paper cut outs at The Drawing Center as part of a Selections show. This was an important moment for contemporary art, identity politics and for the institution. 

Catherine De Zegher, the third director, was interested in the idea of how line can move off the page, and maybe even away from the idea of medium itself. For her, the apex of drawing practice might be someone like Gego, the Venezuelan artist who made wire constructions, projected lights through those constructions, and then showed the shadows on the wall as drawings. There were a lot of exhibitions during Catherine’s time exploring the sculptural aspect of drawing, what does line mean when it’s freed from the edge, freed from the rectangle, freed from the white page and actually exists in space in the gallery. Also, there were some performances that she hosted at the Drawing Center during that period of time. 

I’ve been director now for 9 years, and the thing that has been interesting to me about drawing is the idea that it is an analogue for thinking. I’m interested in how drawing actually intersects with many disciplines, and that might include engineering, science, mathematics, and music. At this moment, I have not abandoned drawing as it relates to the visual arts, of course that’s the core of what we do, but I am very interested in what drawing means to many different kinds of practitioners in the twenty-first century, particularly as we move more and more to a digital age and what that actually might mean for the future of the medium too.

No one ever said that drawing is dead, and I have been on more than 500 studio visits since I’ve been the director of the Drawing Center. I must say that less than 20 percent of the time artists have taken out works on paper and showed these as drawings. They’ve danced for me, they’ve sung, they’ve showed me algorithms, they’ve showed me animations, they’ve performed, they’ve done many, many, many things, and also sometimes when they don’t even know what to call things, things that they just can’t classify; they call them drawings. So I think that the idea and definition of drawing has become both quite fluid and elastic. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s a bad thing, but also I have to say that I’m interested in how artists are defining it as well as how historians are.

Ferran Adria installation imagesde The Drawing Center offices (The Drawing Center). Courtesy The Drawing Center

ADC : Can you tell us about the various missions and programming of The Drawing Center?

B. L. : The Drawing Center explores the medium of drawing as primary, dynamic, and relevant to contemporary culture, the future of art, and creative thought. Its activities, which are both multidisciplinary and broadly historical, include exhibitions; Open Sessions, a curated artist program encouraging community and collaboration; the Drawing Papers publication series; and education and public programs.

We are attracting more than 55,000 visitors annually from the local area, across the country, and around the world, The Drawing Center has presented more than 400 exhibitions, published over 200 catalogs, and has been recognized with prestigious awards such as the International Association of Art Critics USA award for Best Show by a Non-Profit Gallery or Space for the 2010 exhibition Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion?, the 2009 exhibitions Ree Morton: At the Still Point of the Turning World and Unica Zürn: Dark Spring, and the 2008 exhibition Frederick Kiesler: Co-Realities

Exhibitions have toured to prestigious museums around the world, including: Tate Britain, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona; the Santa Monica Museum of Art; Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; MOCA, Los Angeles; the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; MOCA, Cleveland; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Minneapolis Institute of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo; and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome.

The Drawing Center’s acclaimed exhibitions encompass a wide range of artistic traditions and take a uniquely interdisciplinary approach. Dynamic Exhibitions connect drawing to science, architecture, literature, food, political movements, theater, film, music, photography, choreography, textiles, and technology [Thread Lines | Drawing on Film | İnci Eviner: Runaway GirlsFerran Adrià: Notes on Creativity]. Historical Exhibitions focus on both acknowledged and under-recognized masters [ Portraits from the École des Beaux-Arts Paris | Drawing and its Double]. Modern and Contemporary Exhibitions illuminate unexplored aspects of works by major present-day and next generation artists. [ Louise Despont: Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture | Rashid Johnson: Anxious Men | Xanti Schawinsky: Head Drawings and Faces of War | Drawn from Photography] In The Lab, emerging and under-recognized artists are encouraged to create experimental, cross-disciplinary work, as well as site-specific installations as part of Open Sessions.

ADC : Can you tell us more about Open Sessions program? How do you select the artists?

B. L. : Our newest program, Open Sessions, deepens The Drawing Center’s engagement with artists by bringing together artists from around the world to participate in exhibitions, conversations and public programs that explore the diverse nature of drawing in contemporary art practice. The program takes place over the course of two years and is led by Open Sessions Curators Nova Benway and Lisa Sigal. The curators work with the artists to focus conversations, provide feedback on public program and exhibition ideas, and to forge partnerships with other artist serving organizations.

Open Sessions intentionally builds on the strengths of The Viewing Program, a program for artists that debuted when The Drawing Center first opened in 1977. The Viewing Program and its Selection exhibitions were integral parts of our early programming and provided artists with a platform to not only exhibit their work but to also solicit feedback from fellow artists and The Drawing Center’s curators. The Viewing Program registry, which is currently archived in its entirety on The Drawing Center’s website, continues to serve as a resource for curators, patrons, and other members of the art community, who are able to browse the works in a variety of medium by Viewing Program artists. Open Sessions’ freeform structure privileges the artists’ voice and allows the Open Sessions Curators and Drawing Center staff to respond spontaneously to the artists’ specific concerns and ideas. The Inaugural cycle began January 1, 2014 and ended December 31, 2015. The application process began for the second Open Sessions cycle in the Summer of 2015. New 38 Open Sessions artists were announced in January 2016.

Open Sessions curators Nova Benway and Lisa Sigal and Open Sessions Fellows, artists Daniel Bozhkov, Onyedika Chuke, Chitra Ganesh, and Jina Valentine evaluated more than 1,400 applications to select the second class of Open Sessions artists. Applications were evaluated based on the quality of the work submitted and the artist’s eagerness to engage in conversations about drawing. Now that the next cycle of artists has been selected, the Open Sessions Curators and Fellows will divide the participating artists into several working groups, with 6-8 artists in each group. These smaller groups, which are designed to facilitate a spirit of collaboration and exchange amongst the artists, are essential to the Open Sessions experience. Each group is expected to organize a process-based, collaborative exhibition and a public program. The groups communicate regularly through conference calls, emails, and video chats to organize their respective shows and related programming. During the first cycle of Open Sessions, we hosted six shows organized by each of the working groups in our Lab gallery and Drawing Room gallery and many public programs over the course of the two-year period. Based on the number of artists in the second cycle of Open Sessions, we plan on hosting six shows for this cycle.

During the first Open Sessions cycle, The Drawing Center and the artists themselves were able to form partnerships with several other artist serving institutions throughout the country as well as in the United Kingdom. The Poor Farm, a not-for-profit organization, is an experimental arts space in rural Wisconsin that has invited Open Sessions artists to exhibit work on site for two years. A group of Open Sessions artists was also invited to expand upon their Drawing Center Lab gallery show into a larger exhibition at Blue Star, a not-for-profit space in San Antonio, Texas. Another group approached the Queens Museum even before they had their Lab gallery exhibition at The Drawing Center, to present a show that was on view from March 7-29, 2015. In addition, one of the curators, Nova Benway, was invited to spend a week at Islington Mill, an artist-run space in Manchester, UK, to discuss new models of institutional support for artists. We are delighted that the Open Sessions program has opened doors for artists at other institutions and we are working to forge new partnerships with organizations worldwide for the second cycle.

The feedback that we received from artists participating in this first cycle has affirmed our belief that Open Sessions had a strong impact on their respective practices. The Drawing Center has structured the program as described in order to provide support and community to myriad artistic practices, which find-and even create-new audiences through the Open Sessions exhibitions. The artists are invested in each other’s’ work and are generously sharing their resources and extending opportunities to one another. Open Sessions Artist Annette Cords writes, “For me one of the most engaging aspects of this program lies in its open-endedness. Open Sessions creates a framework for meeting with other artists and discussing and developing ideas around a range of topics, while not specifying a particular outcome. This focus on process and ideas directly connects Open Sessions to drawing, which to me is about the evolution of new ways of thinking and seeing.” The Drawing Center is excited to continue to develop Open Sessions and to provide a space for artists to experiment, collaborate, and expand conversations about drawing.

ADC : The Drawing Center will host the works of the 2016 finalists of the Prix Canson, one of the most prestigious annual drawing prizes in the world, from June 22 through July 1, 2016. Previous winners of the Prix Canson have been Fabien Mérelle (2010), Ronald Cornelissen (2011), Virginia Chihota (2013), and Simon Evans (2014). Can you tell us more about this project?

B. L. : I was involved with the Prix Canson jury in 2013 and 2014. This year we decided to not only help to organize the jury in the US but to host the finalists’ exhibition at The Drawing Center. I have been very impressed with the Prix Canson selection process and have really enjoyed getting to meet the wide range of artists, art professionals, and collectors who have participated in the jury process. I must say I am very excited about this year’s finalists—they are very diverse in terms of ethnicity (three artists of color), gender (four of the five finalists are women), and approach to drawing. I am sure that for the general audience it is going to introduce them to some great artists who are doing wonderful and adventurous work in the medium.

ADC : For many years, you have been a lecturer at Drawing Talks, in the context of the Drawing Now Paris art fair. In March, the art fair celebrated its tenth anniversary with an international symposium dedicated to contemporary drawing, which gathered collectors, artists, professionals, and researchers from all over the world. A few weeks ago, its director Christine Phal launched Drawing Lab Paris, the first art center dedicated to drawing in France, which will open next December. Recently, Jan-Philipp Fruehsorge, an art historian and former gallerist, opened The Drawing Hub in Berlin, which is a non-profit space also dedicated to drawing. Knowing that first market, small-sized galleries face many difficulties to survive since the 2008 crisis, how do you view this “non-profit craze/enthusiasm” in the European art scene?

B. L. : It does seem that drawing and institutions dedicated to drawing are seeing a resurgence in Europe which makes me feel happy about the future of the field in general. In terms of why this is happening: maybe artists today are more interested in a post-studio practice, and drawing fits very well into that way of working. You can travel easily with paper or a sketch book, and you can pretty much draw anywhere you are. I think in Spain, the UK, Germany, and France there is a strong tradition of thinking about drawing in a more philosophical way, and since the educational system for training artists is still pretty firmly grounded in the Beaux-Arts tradition, drawing is still considered foundational to all artistic practice.

As well, there seems to be a more developed market with real collectors of drawing in Europe. Here in the US there are some galleries that focus on works on paper, but for some reason collectors in our country are more interested in painting and sculpture and the possible profits they can make from flipping them. As an anecdote, I recently had a conversation with one of the biggest and most important collectors in the US, and I asked him if he had ever been to The Drawing Center. His answer was “No. Never heard of it—and I am only interested in big things.”

ADC : Settled in Manhattan’s SoHo district since its foundation by curator Martha Beck (1938-2014), The Drawing Center is still a medium-sized museum, although your audience and recognition is growing. As you stated US collectors and art professionals tend to think « big ». Does being « small » means being « controversial »?

B.L. : Well, it is possible that this day in age – being small could be considered a more radical approach to non-profits and exhibition making. When we decided to stay in Soho after a long process of looking at other possible locations and a much larger expansion from 2003 – 2008 – I felt it sent a signal to the field that maybe success does not need to predicated only on growth. That said, I am surely not interested in The Drawing Center being small in terms of its impact on the field and our outreach to new audiences. We used to be described as a “hidden gem in SoHo,” which in some ways always bothered me. Today, I think the awareness about the institution is at an all-time high, and much of this interest has come from our diverse programming and public events, our very active social media presence and expanded press coverage outside the art world, which has attracted many new audiences from a variety of disciplines.

ADC : Can you tell us more about the running exhibition « Drawing Dialogues Selections from the Sol LeWitt Collection »?

B. L. : Sol LeWitt’s status as one of the greatest American artists of the past half century is well established. What is less known is that LeWitt was also an avid collector who amassed during his lifetime an extraordinary ensemble of over seven thousand pieces by approximately seven hundred and fifty artists. The majority represent LeWitt’s friends and peers whom he admired and encouraged through purchase, exchange, and gifts; but the collection also reaches backwards and forwards in time to embrace art from other periods and cultures. The LeWitt collection is a remarkable example of an artist’s extraordinary curiosity and generosity, as well as a portrait of artistic developments in the 1960s and 70s, when European and American conceptual and minimal art came into their own. Indeed, the collection can be viewed as a lived archive of the world in which LeWitt moved and worked, even as it examines the possibilities for conceptual art across media, disciplines, and time periods. 

It is this expansive vision that Drawing Dialogues: The Sol LeWitt Collection explores through the lens of drawing specifically. The LeWitt collection contains (and the exhibition shows) classic examples of conceptual drawing from the movement’s key players like Mel Bochner and Hanne Darboven but it also includes work by artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Jan Dibbets, Eva Hesse, and Kazuko Miyamoto that investigates the parameters of mark-making in unexpected materials and formats. In addition, the exhibition will feature contributions by older artists whose methods inspired LeWitt’s own approach and younger artists whose work resonates with an earlier generation while extending the medium in new directions. Presenting over a hundred works by more than sixty artists in drawing, sculpture, photography, and installation, Drawing Dialogues: The Sol LeWitt Collection will re-examine conceptual art and the parameters of the drawn medium through the organizing lens of one of its greatest practitioners. The exhibition is curated by Claire Gilman, Senior Curator, and Béatrice Gross, Guest Curator.

Leon Golub, ALARMED DOG ENCOUNTERING PINK!, 2004, Oil stick and ink on Bristol, 8 x 10 inches. Art © Estate of Leon Golub:Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

ADC : Can you tell us about your best artist gift?

B.L. : The best gift that I have gotten in my career was from Leon Golub’s sons. I had worked on a posthumous show of Leon’s late drawings for The Drawing Center. The reason I started working on the show was that I saw a Golub drawing at Ronald Feldman Gallery during Art Basel Miami called Alarmed Dog Encountering Pink!, 2004, and fell in love with it. That started a two-year process of looking at all of Leon’s drawings in his old studio and thinking about what these works meant in the context of his long career. Several months after the show had closed, a mysterious package arrived at The Drawing Center. Inside was the Alarmed Dog Encountering Pink! drawing. I have to be honest, I actually cried when I saw it. I was really very moved. That drawing really means a lot to me and I look at every day when I come home to my apartment.

ADC : How can ADC readers support The Drawing Center?

It is very easy to support The Drawing Center. We have a new exhibition fund, that supports the programs at The Drawing Center, and anyone can donate on-line to it by clicking on this link: 

Interview conducted by Anne-Cécile Guitard.

Legends :  Brett Littman by Warren Chow ; Drawing Dialogues LeWitt Collection The Drawing Center offices (The Drawing Center). Courtesy of The Drawing Center. Ferran Adria installation images The Drawing Center offices (The Drawing Center). Courtesy of The Drawing Center. Leon Golub, ALARMED DOG ENCOUNTERING PINK!, 2004, Oil stick and ink on Bristol, 8 x 10 inches. Art © Estate of Leon Golub : Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.