Some art-world pundits haughtily prophesy the death of drawing, but if this recent crop of books is any indication, representational drawing is alive and well — and arguably more exciting than a lot of conceptual art in trendy Chelsea galleries today. Those who, like me, are drafting-challenged and wish they could draw as well as masters like Saul Steinberg, R. Crumb, Drew Friedman and David Sandlin will savor these albums not just for their wry and ribald wit and humor, but also for the pure joy of seeing how the artists’ respective marks on paper (without the aid of computer manipulation) come alive. Regardless of style or technique — from Steinberg’s surreal linearity to Sandlin’s expressionist brush strokes — each artist is extraordinarily skilled at using pen, ink, colored pencil, gouache or watercolor.
For its conceptual virtuosity and stylistic variation, the most inspiring of them all is Joel Smith’s SAUL STEINBERG: Illuminations (Yale University, $65), a smartly annotated miscellany of rare and familiar sketches and finished tableaus. Organized chronologically, the book includes rarities like Steinberg’s early black-and-white newspaper cartoons from the late 1930s; such favorites as his architectural fantasies from 1967, in this case two screen designs for Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale”; and conceptual gems like his 1991 cartographic satire, “The Flat Earth,” which is not the much copied New Yorker cover showing a cityscape of New York in relation to the rest of the puny world, but rather a drawing that depicts the continents and assorted nations and cities as simple rectangles floating in a grid of oceans that resembles a street map. Smith’s informative text sheds more than superficial light, exploring Steinberg’s wide range of themes and techniques. The most uncharacteristic piece in a book filled with surprises is the 1994 “Delacroix (After Nadar),” a modest pencil sketch based on Nadar’s famous photographic portrait. It’s part of a sketchbook series documenting Steinberg’s influences, “a durable circle of comrades,” Smith notes, that included Turgenev, Chekhov and van Gogh.
R. Crumb’s heavy-handed crosshatched comic strips will never be mistaken for Steinberg’s elegant renderings. But THE SWEETER SIDE OF R. CRUMB (MQ Publications, $30) celebrates, as this “misanthropic sex pervert” announces on the title page, “adorable, heartwarming and lovingly drawing rendered drawings which, I promise, will not make you feel threatened in any way, and will put you in a state all warm and fuzzy and cuddly towards the artist and life in general.” Like “Saul Steinberg,” this is a miscellany of graphic musings. It ranges from a lighthearted sketchy comic strip, “Sophie,” which is named for Crumb’s daughter and chronicles her youthful fascination with certain animal bodily functions, to some tightly (though not stiffly) drawn portraits of famous musicians like B. B. King. Even though drawings like these have appeared in a series of Crumb’s facsimile sketchbooks, I never get bored seeing more work from a master who is so obsessively in love with the act of drawing; every image, even an otherwise prosaic still life from a “pizzeria in St. Hippolyte du Fort,” captures the eye and imagination. While his comic strips are truly his best work, this Crumb-style sweet side is a lot of fun, especially the back cover’s oddly fetching portrait of, he writes, “my gorgeous wife, Aline, without whom I would be dead.”
Speaking of fun, how can Drew Friedman’s OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS (Blab!/Fantagraphics, $14.95), a festival of drawing virtuosity and fabulous craggy faces, not be fun? Friedman, whose topical caricatures are frequently published on the front page of The New York Observer, is a maven for capturing ultrarealistic details — down to the minutest, seemingly insignificant freckle. This album of freckled and wrinkled Jewish gagmen — among them, Benjamin Kubelsky (Jack Benny), Aaron Chwatt (Red Buttons), Isaac Sidney Caesar (Sid Caesar) and Leonard Hacker (Buddy Hackett) — captures each one’s signature smirk, smile or stare, along with an occasional slow burn. Exactitude reigns, with only a http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=drawing few exceptions; for example, the portrait of David Daniel Kaminsky, a k a Danny Kaye, looks more like Michael Douglas. Friedman almost certainly worked from photographs, yet the results are not so slavish that they come off as mere tracings. Each intensely close-cropped picture has a Vermeer-like quality. In fact, Friedman might very well be the Vermeer of the borscht belt.
While the spirit of Vermeer is noticeably absent in David Sandlin’s book AN ALPHABETICAL BALLAD OF CARNALITY (Blab!/Fantagraphics, $14.95), Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, Gustave Doré and Walt Disney are present. Well, maybe Disney is a stretch, but this comically grotesque series of disturbingly funny tableaus about the upside of eternal damnation, filthy lucre and masochistic mendacity draws on the work of these greats in an orgy of brush and ink and color fantasy. Sandlin’s drawing may not be as well composed, precise or pristine as that of the other artists discussed here, yet its rawness raises the bar for expressive crudeness. It also gives me hope that even my own, much cruder scribbles have a place in the drawing world.