A Century of Drawing: An Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art ...from the 20th Century. (Museum Today)

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AN EXHIBITION at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., celebrates the extraordinary scope and quality of drawings made by artists in the 20th century. The 140 works on display range in style from the late Impressionism of Edgar Degas to the conceptual art of Sol LeWitt. The earliest drawing in the show is a rare color pastel by Kathe Kollwitz, "Self-Portrait as a Young Woman," from around 1900, while the latest is from 1999--an enchanting 10-foot-high graphite drawing of a beanstalk by Ellsworth Kelly.

For the purposes of the exhibition, the 20th century is defined literally as extending from 1900 to 2000, and the choice of drawings is not restricted by notions of modern styles. Indeed, it begins with several artists normally considered 19th-century masters, such as Degas and Winslow Homer, who created some of their most inspiring works after the turn of the century. Homer's watercolor, "The Coming Storm," is a telling case in point. It seems surprisingly modern for an artist ordinarily associated with an earlier period.

During those 100 years, although many conventional art forms were called into question or even dismissed as extinct, drawing remained fundamental throughout. Whether artists engaged in traditional media like painting and sculpture or newer, even antitraditional expressions like environmental art or conceptual art, they persistently made drawings to work out their ideas, to offer formal presentations of their visual thoughts, or as artistic ends in themselves. Numerous artists showed facility in traditional draftsmanship--for example, Henri Matisse, whose beautiful graphite drawings are remarkably conservative for an artist associated with the avant-garde. Others continued to explore time-honored genres such as self-portraiture, and a striking number of self-portraits punctuate the exhibition, including Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, and Jim Dine.

At the same time, artists challenged traditions and readily tested the limits of what could be called a drawing. The National Gallery counts as drawings virtually all unique works on paper, including those made with pencil or ink, but also those done with watercolor, pastel, or collage, and even those created by experimental means. Thus, a drawing is defined primarily by support (paper as opposed to canvas or wood) combined with uniqueness (in contrast to the multiplicity of virtually all prints or photographs).

Collage, as a serious artistic expression, is one of the significant new media of the 20th century. Seminal cubist collages by artists such as Picasso and Georges Braque enliven an entire wall in the exhibition. It not only extended the parameters of what could be called a drawing, but altered the direction of the medium. By importing nontraditional materials such as wallpaper into a composition, Picasso and Braque charted a trend with immense repercussions. Thereafter, artists increasingly tested the limits of the medium. Rene Magritte integrated shapes cut from musical scores into his ominously titled "The Murderous Sky"; Jean Dubuffet employed butterfly wings; Robert Rauschenberg transferred images from newspaper and magazine clippings; while, in his wall drawings, LeWitt eliminated paper altogether and dismissed the notion that an artist's drawing must issue from the hand of its maker. …