Handsome new survey of 100 works defines modern drawing; The Modern Drawing: One Hundred Works on Paper from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by John Elderfield. Boston: New York Graphic Society Books/Little Brown. 100 color plates. 216 pp. $37.50.
Don't you enjoy just holding an elegant book in your hands? It's delicious! John Elderfield's book is like that. Beautifully produced, generously sized, it's a gallery without walls, filled with 100 years of modern drawing.
But, what is a modern drawing?
Mr. Elderfield answers the question with the drawings in his book. He says, ''Of all our modern arts, drawing is most resistant to definition. The Museum of Modern Art simply calls every unique work on paper a drawing.''
The drawings in the book come in all mediums: pencil, ink, charcoal, watercolor, pastel, collage, and cutout.
Elderfield begins with Georges Seurat's 1881 rendering of a stone breaker. This picture is in the mood of Millet and Courbet, with its laboring figure in the foreground, but Seurat's treatment of plane foreshadows the style we now call modern.
Elderfield concludes with a 1977 Jasper Johns drawing done, in modern enough fashion, on a plastic sheet.
Among the many interesting works in between is a van Gogh drawing with a brush, reed pen, and ink of 1888. Mr. Elderfield's description of this drawing helped me understand van Gogh's style better, and provided a key to a lot of the other works, too.
''By virtue of this reduction to line,'' he explains, ''the symbolic component of drawing achieves extraordinary prominence. The street at Saintes-Maries, near Arles, is not so much described as summarized. A sequence of discrete graphic devices - parallel strokes, dots, dash-es, curves and so on, all of a varying size, density, and interval - symbolize the separately identified parts of the scene. This is a coded abstraction of nature.''
To overstretch and oversimplify, one could say that the ''modern'' artist has invented a new hieroglyphics for us, seen in the power of cartoons to communicate ideas or of a Picasso doodle to capture new vistas.
The book shows us a Matisse of 1905, in which the master was interested in a portrait likeness but achieved it with an openness and variety of line similar to that recorded in Mr. Enderfield's description of the van Gogh.
Further on, we see Robert Delaunay's 1911 pen and ink of the Eiffel Tower, fragmented into dynamic forms played against the rooftops of Paris. Here again, simple lines create what he wanted us to see and allow us to enjoy the multiple views he found interesting.
While the old masters worked with sculptural form and depicted objects, the modern artists shifted their interest to the picture plane itself and gave the line freedom to take off on its own.
I think it was Paul Klee who said that a line is a dot taking a walk. Certainly the line is the basic element of drawing. Lines - grouped, cross-hatched, loosely scribbled, brought to a halt in stipple - are all beautifully employed in Picasso's 1911 Standing Nude in pen and ink.
A few pages farther, we come a 1916 pen and ink with charcoal in which Lyonel Feininger sticks to a consistent crosshatch to express the planes - simple means for a Cubist-like picture.
The changing ideas about drawing and picturemaking brought along with them a kind of humility, too. Artists became fascinated with the pictures all around them in newspapers and magazines, the glut of cheap reproductions. They started to incorporate these into their pictures and, in doing so, introduced the line to the collage.
In 1922 Kurt Schwitters put together a collage called Santa Claus. He was turning old materials he had collected into a new art, restructuring the scraps of the past.
Another expression of complexity is seen in the work of Jean Dubuffet. It seems a long way from van Gogh's dots, dashes, and curves to the Dubuffet drawing of 1950 we see here. In a series called Corps de Dame, Dubuffet was interested in playfulness, ornamentality, childlike picturemaking, even in graffiti and handwriting. At least these were the kinds of things behind this complex drawing, with its element of the grotesque.
Near the end of the book, we come to a 1960 Claes Oldenburg work. Looking at it, I began to appreciate the production quality of this book. Kudos should go to production manager Tim McDonough. Many of these works are in color, but the simplest black and white one has been carefully reproduced to show even the tint of the paper.
This collection of drawings gives us a record of adventures with the line and the dot. It testifies to the acceptance of drawings as independent works of art, and to the idea of art as play.
If you're not sure you like drawing, or if you just want to appreciate it more fully, choose a favorite drawing and copy it - one from this book or from a favorite artist. Van Gogh copied Millet and other artists, including a popular Punch illustrator of the day. Just use a soft pencil and forget that you can't draw a straight line. You don't have to show the results to anyone. Don't even look too long at the results yourself! Just enjoy. It's the experience of doing it that makes us take a really good look. And the more we look, the better we see.