Anyone who has ever drawn with charcoal knows how tempting it is to draw outlines in soft, fat, black-as-night lines. It feels good. But it can really screw up what you’re drawing. Unless you are William Beckman. In that case, your fat black mark emphasizes the gorgeous contour of the human body without turning the figure into a paper doll.
The most beautiful example (to my mind) of this in The Columbus Museum’s retrospective “Wiliam Beckman: Drawings” now at the Arkansas Arts Center is the reclining woman in “Bed Study,” 1991. Beckman’s charcoal traces the foreshortened back, rib cage, hip bones, thigh, knee, upturned foot of the nude, a flowing mark of ineffable beauty. Beckman’s drawing of his own figure, next to the exquisite rendering of the woman, is nearly extraneous. Who can take their eyes off the woman?
All of Beckman’s drawings are on a larger-than-life scale. The retrospective features mainly dual portraits in which he and a woman stand side by side, staring out at the viewer. They are expressionless, indifferent and absorbing. Beckman’s own figure in the pairs is somehow dominant, either because he is partially clothed (and less vulnerable) or standing while the woman sits or reclines, or is a bit taller. But where he really gets into power are his virile drawings of bulls, a line of them charging the viewer, heads down, horns huge, dewlaps and balls swinging, masculinity on the move, a contrast to the stock-still portraits.
Some of the head portraits veer into graphic art, with outlined lips (one of those temptations mentioned earlier) and eyes without inner eyelids (“Dianne,” 2013), but perhaps here Beckman was taking a shortcut to the painting that will follow the sketch. I particularly liked Beckman’s more complete “Self-portrait in Sweater,” the artist in argyle.
The Arts Center’s own collecting is focused on works on paper, and this is one of those exhibitions that illustrate the ability of drawings to be complete works in and of themselves. “William Beckman: Drawings” may, however, make you want to see the resulting paintings.
The exhibition runs through Feb. 1.