The artist’s hand

In his lengthy volume Art and the Spirit of Man (1962), René Huyghe traces the history of art from cave painting to symbolism. He describes art as a language and the artwork as a text. On one level, artworks contain clear intended content, and on another, they reveal signs of the artist’s subconscious which lead us to his “deeper, essential nature” (1962, p.28). He claims that of all the art forms, drawing is the most legible because the line acts as a direct register of the artist’s unique gesture. The opening chapter Drawing and the Hand describes the characteristics that can be read through this “graphology of drawings” (1962, p.60): not only the “human type” (1962, p.30) of the artist, closely linked to national identity, but also his particular innermost character. The drawn line, because of its indexical relation to the hand, gives access both to the artist’s individuality and to universal human nature: “Everything shaped by the artist’s hand becomes by the same token one of the faces of his soul” (1962, p.161).

This figure of the expressive (male) artist exuding human essence through his mark is one of the legacies of modernism that has been drawn over by artists and writers of later generations. Three decades after Huyghe’s publication, Bernice Rose’s Allegories of Modernism examines the type of drawing emerging from the remains of modernism’s “heroic totalizing myth” (1992, p.113). The practice of drawing was facing problems in an age of mass media:

“At the critical center of art there is now a skepticism about the validity of the authorial role and the relevance of the signatory gesture. This struggle over self-expression as a still-valid concept strikes at the heart of drawing itself, long the primary medium of the authorial gesture” (1992, p.11).

With artists increasingly using photographic and technological means and questioning the idea of self as a constant and determining quality of being, what was the relevance of drawing? She presents a paradox: within modernism the “authorial gesture” was associated with the body, particularly the body in performance, but it was also regarded as “the first concrete expression of concept, as mind taking precedence over hand” (1992, p.12).

Lawrence Alloway, writing in 1975, observed a similar division in the discussions of drawing:

“There is the notion of drawing as graphological disclosure, the most direct marks that an artist can make and hence, because of their intimacy, authentic evidence of the artist’s presence. Personal touch is highly valued on the basis. There is another notion, which is that drawing represents not genetic freedom but the artist at his most rigorously intellectual. In this sense drawing is the projection of the artist’s intelligence in its least discursive form: line is the gist, the core of art” (1975, p.38, also quoted in Godfrey, 1990, pp.12-13).

Rose traces the dual readings of drawing through the progressive art movements of the 1950s to 70s. In the semiautomatic gesture of Jackson Pollock the performing body was rendered almost mechanical in its “ritualistic and depersonalized” movements (1992, p.15); gesture was emptied out of its association with the hand; it had become a convention. Following this, in the 1960s and 70s, the line as an abstract element became increasingly important; line as concept, “line as a subject in itself” (1992, p.13). According to Rose, in this pure intellectual form, drawing rose to a new level of importance on a par with painting and sculpture. In Sol LeWitt’s large site-specific drawings, lines were transposed into the three-dimensional space of the gallery according to a set of written instructions that could be carried out by any competent person. The art content of the work was located in the original idea, not the final object; theoretically, the artist’s hand was irrelevant.1 However, from this ground of Conceptual art, the performative element in drawing began to re-emerge tied to discussions of process. As Richard Serra stated in 1977: “Anything you can project as expressive in terms of drawing - ideas, metaphors, emotions, language structures - results from the act of doing” (1994, p.53).2 In the notations and events of the process art movement the act of making a mark became the subject of the drawing. According to Rose “the graphological and conceptual functions of drawing merged” (1992, p.13).

Michael Newman views this as a time of separation rather than merging. He argues that before the 1960s, the notion of the artist’s “expressive subjectivity” encompassed both the gesture and the idea (2003, p.95). The breakdown of this synthesis resulted in a “rupture” - illustrated by Sol LeWitt’s procedural drawings - and artists followed diverging interests “either in drawing as process, or as the proposal of a concept” (2003, p.95). The shift from gesture as self-expression to gesture as bodily action was apparent in process art. Describing the exhibition catalogue for the Anti-Illusion exhibition at the Whitney Museum (1969), Cornelia H. Butler remarks on how the manual labour of the artist was foregrounded in order to convey the transitive and transitory nature of their activities: “The emphasis in these pictures is often on the gesture, isolated arms and hands figure prominently as do the tools of the artists’ labor” (1999, p.84).

In 1968, William Anastasi was making various Unsighted Drawings in the pockets of his trousers. This type of furtive automatic drawing denied the artist visual control over the marks that were made; it was a rejection of illusionist and pictorial intentions, and of vision as the basis for art. The resulting crumpled scrawl was partly dictated by the material context of the trouser pocket and its particular relation of proximity to the body. In his Subway Drawings, begun in 1977, marks were contingent on the movement of the subway train as he endeavoured to hold both arms in a fixed position. Unlike the gestural movements of Jackson Pollock in which, according to Rose, the machine seemed to inhabit the body, here the body was inside the machine. The resulting involuntary (though not unintentional) marks registered the movement of Anastasi’s body in its specific mechanical and urban context. The indexical line was no longer pointing to the artist’s soul but to his situated, embodied and mundane experience of the world.

In the work of feminist artists the body was brought to the fore in an overt and political way. Bernice Rose gives the example of Nancy Spero, who “withholds her hand” using acts of mechanical repetition to make drawings that register her feelings of dissociation (1992, p.63). Sherrie Levine appropriated the drawings of male artists, copying from small reproductions “in her own delicate, almost tentative hand”, rendering “originality as a trope” (1992, p.78). Rose describes these approaches as part of the wave of reaction to Modernist values that included a variety of strategies: mass-production techniques; appropriation of the styles of popular culture; use of ready-made objects and images; collaborative strategies; impermanent and site-specific events; hybridisation between disciplines.3

Rebecca Horn’s 1972 work, Bleistiftmaske or Pencil Mask, combined sculpture, performance and drawing. The mask was a type of bondage for the face that negated manual control. A grid of straps formed a constraining bridle or muzzle, from which an array of short pencils stuck out at angles. The artist could only draw by moving her head rhythmically from side to side as a mute act of self-assertion, denying herself the freedom of dexterity.

The manual operations of art were subject to intense critique as artists adopted various strategies of appropriation. Academic drawing skills and craft processes were regarded as value-laden and outmoded. John Roberts describes an ongoing dialectic of deskilling and reskilling (2008). He argues that the artist’s hand has been displaced in this but that new skills, technologies and prostheses are now available to extend the reach of artists: “In operating in the space opened up by the crisis of handcraft, the hand is released from expressive mimeticism to find new forms of dexterity and facility” (2008, p.98).

Despite the various strategies used by artists to dislodge the aura of the unique hand-made art object, Rose concludes: “drawing retains an authority over the notion of authenticity and affirms that the artist’s hand still counts in the primary expression of ideas” (1992, p.10). She notes that drawing appears in both conservative and revolutionary guises. It is evident from recent publications that authenticity is still important to the art market.4 Emma Dexter lists the values associated with the hand-drawn: “intimacy, informality, authenticity (or at least with authentic inauthenticity), immediacy, subjectivity, history, memory, narrative” (2005, p.6).

While the market valuation of authenticity provides a cause for further debate, the directly-drawn line or mark retains its importance to many artists as evidence of his or her embodied presence and involvement in the making of the work. In the relation of artist to viewer, or artist to artist, the drawn artefact is seen as functioning as a connector from person to person, without an implicit hierarchy. The mark of the body does not have to be made by hand. Janine Antoni’s Loving Care, 1993, was conducted by dipping her hair in paint and then drawing it along the ground, leaving smears and trails.5 In 2005, Francis Alÿs dripped green paint from a leaking can as he walked across Jerusalem, marking out a “radically fluid” boundary (Cotter, 2007).6 The line he made by walking through the territory enacted a very different relation to that of drawing a line across a map; the trace of his body was left by a gesture of letting go.

The situation has changed since the 1960s and 70s. Then there was a perceived conflict between the mechanical and the natural. Now the computer is the new machine. Digital communication and reproduction provide an altered context for art-making. The computer as a drawing tool has yet to replace more basic implements, despite the availability of graphic pens and tablets making it possible to adopt the familiar grip. ‘Pressure sensitivity’ is intended to relay the inflections of touch, but the resulting line lacks the material contingencies, the accidental elements and the history of erasures that are retained in hand-made drawings. The digital line is an abstract, a procession of noughts and ones, a set of instructions (like those produced by Sol LeWitt) written out in binary for the machine to perform in its intangible spaces. Designed to succeed the dividers, compasses and precision pens of the 19th and 20th century, most digital drawing tools operate to smooth out or eliminate any trace of bodily movement.

Meanwhile many artists prefer to get involved with material messiness: soft, dusty and smudgeable; sticky, clingy and viscous; fluid, flowing and bleeding into a variety of surfaces. They still like to get their hands dirty, or if not hands then any part of the body that can immediately make a mark.

The computer as drawing tool in the strictest sense may be treated with caution, but as a device for communicating, collaborating, reproducing, developing, recording, documenting, relocating, reworking, editing and exhibiting it is increasingly important. There is a mixing of strategies. Hand-made drawings are scanned and become part of this expanded context, extending the artist's reach by means of an exchange of digits. In transactions and collaborations, the line is enacted as a virtual and metaphorical connector between ‘real’ bodies and their material, local drawing acts.7

  1. Cornelia H. Butler has noted how the instructional drawings made by artists of the Minimal and Conceptual movements have been carefully preserved and valued: “Donald Judd, for example, never considered his drawings as anything but mechanical instructions for the execution of standardized forms with mass produced, pre-existing dimensions and materials. That these are now coveted for their hand-drawn geometry is an interesting reassertion of the hand on the part of the market into Minimalism’s legacy” (Butler, 1999, p.86).
  2. This is quoted in Hoptman (2002, p.11), whose assertion “Drawing is a Noun” (2002, p.10) is a counter to Serra’s comments.
  3. Rose’s narrative of developments in drawing has become a reference for subsequent texts. The artists she refers to, such as Sol LeWitt and Sherrie Levine, are now established landmarks in the surveys of postmodern drawing, for example Kantor, 2005.
  4. “Drawing is particularly accessible and affordable to collectors, offering them at the same time the element of the hand made, the exquisiteness of touch, and a sense of intimacy...the uniqueness of a drawing provides evidence of the artist’s hand and the artist’s signature as validation of its originality” (Kovats, 2005, p.16).
  5. A photograph of this performance can be seen at
  6. The New York Times reported on Alÿs’s exhibition Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (Cotter, 2007). Alÿs’s walk retraced the line drawn on a map to divide territories in 1948, after the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  7. For example, Learning to Love You More is an internet group which sets regular ‘assignments’, sometimes drawing based, for members of the public. Assignment 54 in 2006 called for participants to “Draw the news...Using a colored pencil (just one color) copy several images from Google Image Search, forming a loose medley.” The drawings are then uploaded to the website and shared around the world on: