by Anna Lovatt. Penn State University Press, December 2019. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780271082431 (h/c), $89.95.
Reviewed May 2020
Andrew Wang, Art and Architecture Librarian, University of Oregon, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Drawing Degree Zero, Anna Lovatt (assistant professor of art history, Southern Methodist University) connects significant post-minimal and conceptual artists to the Nouveau Roman (“New Novel”) literary genre through the artists’ radical approach to drawing. Lovatt focuses on a selection of artists working in New York City during the late 1960s to the early 1970s, such as Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt, and pays particular attention to the ways in which scholars and exhibitions have framed their work. Although these artists superficially appear to pursue “degree zero,” a term used by Roland Barthes to describe Nouveau Roman through the genre’s deliberate break from literary conventions, Lovatt interrogates the term’s applicability and limits with a feminist perspective.
Drawing Degree Zero begins with a discussion of Drawing Now, an exhibition curated by Bernice Rose at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Rose emphasized detachment from “drawing clichés,” such as the demonstration of technical skill and the autographic gesture, in the exhibited works. Lovatt notes that some of the artists exhibited in Rose’s exhibition, such as LeWitt, would have been exposed to translations of Nouveau Roman texts, reaffirming their thematic intersections. Drawing Now faced backlash in the form of several reactionary exhibitions, however, due in part to its inclusion of only five women artists out of the forty-six artists represented. This tension between Rose’s exhibition and her peers, such as Lucy Lippard and Corinne Robins, prompted reflections on authorship, labor, expression, memory, and bodily engagement in the artists’ novel forms of drawing.
Lovatt carefully engages these themes through closer examination of the lives and work of five artists: Bochner, LeWitt, Rosemarie Castoro, Dorothea Rockburne, and Richard Tuttle. Each artist appears to depart from traditional drawing à la Nouveau Roman by utilizing unusual techniques and materials. Castoro’s Inventory series (1968-9), for instance, was comprised of simple objective descriptions and a seemingly arbitrary numbering system. Lovatt argues, however, that Castoro’s work, which documents both the passage of time and her body moving through space, should not be understood as void of subjectivity. Drawing Degree Zero concludes with a particularly poignant discussion on the rise of women’s rights coinciding with the growing interest in “the death of the author” in art and literature. Lovatt convincingly reaffirms the basic tenets of conceptual art while also identifying the patriarchal roots underlying calls for neutrality.
Though articulate and insightful, Drawing Degree Zero takes several detours through the lives of the artists within each chapter. Consequently, the transitions are at times abrupt, creating a sort of inventory of ideas associated with the Nouveau Roman. The pieces clearly come together, however, under Lovall’s stronger feminist perspective in her conclusion. Though Lovall at times explores what drawing is throughout the text, she ultimately considers what drawing can do. Drawing Degree Zero is well researched, provides unique contributions to the discourse, and includes both color and black-and-white images of exhibitions, installations, and ephemera. This text is an important addition to any library that supports advanced scholarship in postmodern/contemporary art, poststructuralism, or modern French literature.