Drawing, the Art of Infinite Possibilities

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Figure Studies, 1553–56, Taddeo Zuccaro. Red and black chalk, 10 3/8 × 13 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 91.GG.58. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program


A late-Renaissance sketch by Italian artist Taddeo Zuccaro is surprisingly contemporary in its use of space and experimentation


By Minna Philips / 10.28.2016

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Figure Studies by Taddeo Zuccaro, like other drawings featured in the exhibition The Art of Change, offers us a clear and piercing vision into the artistic process of creation. This drawing reflects Zuccaro’s attempt to accommodate a figure of a sibyl (prophetess) in a fresco within a lunette above the altar of the Mattei Chapel in Rome.

The figure in the main red chalk study in the middle sits in a three-dimensional space, both arms extended, to fit into the awkward space. The figure to the left is a modified version, with her right arm extended across her knee and her head tilted, as she appears in the final fresco in Rome. Zuccaro used the same paper to make other studies as well, like a black chalk study of a head of man, which was used for the head of the innkeeper in Christ Washing Disciples’ Feet, also in the Mattei Chapel. Another figure, right next to the black chalk head, is an early study for the servant climbing the steps in The Last Supper. The paper also contains two outlined and very gestural figures in red chalk, at the far right.

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Church of S. Maria della Consolazione in Rome, Cappella Mattei (Mattei Chapel) showing Zuccaro’s frescoes of the Storie della Passione (story of Christ’s Passion). The yellow oval on the right indicates the figure in the Getty sketch. Photo © and courtesy of Rita Restifo. All rights reserved

Zuccaro worked on the Mattei Chapel frescoes for four years, carefully studying the architectural layout and how his figures would adapt to these structures. His figures activate the geometric spaces, inviting us to look at sections, thereby breaking down the enormity of the completed work. Adaptation of a figure to fit a certain space involves some amount of physical transformation, as we can see in the figure of a sibyl. Zuccaro draws her body in a contorted fashion to fit the lunette, and there she stays forever in a strenuous yet graceful position.

Design for a Circular Dish (recto); Figure Studies (verso)

The central figure shows Zuccaro working out the position and arc of the sibyl.

As an artist who has practiced drawing for over fifteen years, I was particularly attracted to this drawing for its inquiry into subjects that are also quite contemporary. My own interests lie in the capacity of drawing to transform and adapt through analytical studies.

Zuccaro’s adaptation of a form to fit an architectural space is not far removed from some contemporary performance or installation art practices. One might think of Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970), in which the viewer is forced to be aware of his or her body in relation to the space, or more recent works by Karl Haendel, where he considers “the role of drawing as performance.” By considering the space in which a drawing is to exist, the artist transforms that empty space into one with meaning. This once-blank page now becomes a “place” where memories and experiences can reside.

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Durand, 2015, Karl Haendel. Pencil on paper with shaped frame, 39 1/2 x 64 in. © Karl Haendel. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY

“Drawing” in this sense becomes an act, one that depends on the viewer to complete its function and meaning. The medium used to draw becomes a medium that communicates the artist’s choice, and not just graphite on paper, for example. This kind of flexibility opens up infinite possibilities for an artist to experiment, and to test the limits of drawing. Zuccaro’s Figure Studies thus reinvents itself as a modern work of art, maintaining its relevancy by leaving traces of its open history.

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