During the past ten years, there has been an intensifying spotlight on artists who practise drawing as a sole or central activity. This recent offering from Phaidon is an attempt to do justice to this trend, and follows close at the heels the same publisher’s survey of contemporary painting, Vitamin P .
Whereas many recent books about contemporary drawing have been catalogues to accompany exhibitions, Vitamin D is part coffee-table tome, part encyclopaedic reference. Tastefully and imaginatively designed, it presents the selected work of 109 artists in A–Z order, including (to mention only a handful) Kara Walker, Hayley Tompkins, David Musgrave, Paul Noble, Katharina Wulff, and Graham Little.
The book’s designer, Julia Hasting, must have felt both blessed and cursed by this material. Vitamin D shows, for the most part, that drawings are well suited to presentation in book form—more so than sculptures, for example, which can often seem inadequately ‘documented’. There is the old association of drawn images with book illustrations, as well as with the ‘behind-the-scenes’ paraphernalia of artists’ notebooks and sketchbooks. Many of the featured artists—such as David Shrigley—have produced drawings for publication in the past, and it feels appropriate to be viewing this kind of image on a thumbed page.
However, the pale charm and ephemeral poignancy of works executed in pencil, watercolour and charcoal are notoriously difficult to retain in reproduction. It is a credit to Hasting and the book’s (uncredited) photographers that the majority of works included here survive the translation into print. What is more, Hasting has cleverly rejected glossy leaves in favour of a matt, faintly textured paper with a roughly-cut edge. The result is a fat fetish of a book, beautiful to the touch as well the eye. The illusion that the stock on which the images are printed might be the same sort of paper as that on which the drawings were made adds to the sensitivity of the design.
Verbal intelligibility is often sacrificed to this pictorial subtlety, and the text is somewhat difficult to read. It is, however, detailed and comprehensive, providing some interesting rationale behind the current resurgence of drawing in art practice. In addition to a critical overview and an introduction by Emma Dexter (contemporary art curator at Tate Modern), there are sizeable texts on each of the artists, by various international writers and critics.
Their conclusions occasionally smack a little too much of hype. When Dexter declares that ‘never before has drawing as an art form been more dynamic’ one can almost hear the corpses of Leonardo, Dürer, Goya and Blake spinning in their respective tombs. However, judging by its seductive presentation, the book’s purpose is utterly celebratory; and one could hardly demand that it play devil’s advocate with its own objects of reverence.
Laurence Figgis is an artist living in Glasgow