Art in Vienna:


Interview with Elsy Lahner
June 25, 2015


The Albertina has long been renowned for housing one of the largest and most important collections of graphic arts in the world, with about 900,000 graphic art works, including around 50,000 drawings and watercolors. Why then does the current exhibition, “Drawing Now 2015”, which focuses exclusively on the merits of drawing, feature only a few works from the actual collection of the house? For Elsy Lahner, the show’s curator, the show is a way of “taking inventory”, not of the in-house collection, but of the medium of drawing itself over the last ten years.

Having taken the “learning by doing” path to success, Elsy Lahner built up her career as a curator in the Viennese art world by first organizing exhibitions on her own, then running the off-space das weisse haus for young artists together with Alexandra Grausam, and finally landing a position as a curator at the Albertina Museum—and all this, without an art history degree. With “Drawing Now: 2015”, she has used her fresh, innovative approach to curating to highlight the relevance of the medium of drawing today, thereby proving that drawing is not just the “little sister” of painting, but rather an art form in its own right.

Ewa Stern: What is the curatorial concept of “Drawing Now”?

Elsy Lahner: The exhibition is based on an exhibition we did in 1977 in cooperation with MOMA, which was also called Drawing Now. It was first on view in New York and then it came to Vienna. It was an exhibition with a very American focus. Our exhibition is more from a European view, but it is not a global overview. I wanted to show the artists within the last 10 years for whom drawing plays a main part in their work in general, so not just artists that also happen to be doing drawing. Another focus were artists that were born in the 1960s and ‘70s, so some younger generations, because we have already shown works from artists like William Kentridge and Robert Longo in solo exhibitions in the past. With this exhibition, we wanted to introduce some younger generations, although there are some exceptions, like Fritz Panzer or Silvia Bächli, artists who are a little older of course, but who have found another way of dealing with drawings within those last 10 years.

Drawing Now 2015 Albertina Museum Vienna - exhibition View

Exhibition view Drawing Now: 2015 at the Albertina Museum. Photo: Ewa Stern Fritz Panzer Rolltreppe 2006, Courtesy Krobath Wien/Berlin and  Los Carpinteros: Tornado Amarillio (Diptico) 2011, Courtesy Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary

ES: How was the exhibition put together?

EL: Drawing has already emancipated itself, the line of drawing went from the sheet of paper to bigger sheets of paper to the wall to the ceiling, and was animated in movies. A Fred Sandback work could be seen as a drawing, or the pivotal work by Richard Long, “A Line Made by Walking” from 1967, which shows that a line could be just a trace in a lawn.

In this exhibition, we try to focus on extended drawing, but we also look at what topics artists try to depict with drawing and why they specifically choose drawing as their medium. There are special characteristics, for example, the intimacy of drawing, or our familiarity with drawing, starting with the first drawing you do as a child, or tattoos, comics, graphic novels, street art—these could also be drawings. There are some other like the time it takes to do a drawing. It’s a way for artists to deal with our fast environment and all the images we’re surrounded by on the Internet and TV. These artists take their time and focus on certain images by drawing them. 

Paul Sietsema Painted Coins

Paul Sietsema Painted Coins, 2014, Collection of Maurice Marciano, Photo: Ewa Stern

To give you some examples of extended drawing, we started with an outdoor installation and intervention by Rainer Prohaska, in which the Albertina itself became a kind of three-dimensional drawing board. He used some orange transport belts, a tool which he uses quite a lot to combine things into sculptures. In this case, the orange belt becomes a small orange line surrounding the Albertina building. It’s not something that becomes more significant the closer you get to it and therefore requires the same intimacy that drawing does. Then when you enter the exhibition, you have several other examples of extended drawing: a drawing on the ceiling by Lotte Lyon, an animated line by David Shrigley in his three videos, a sculpture made of wire by Fritz Panzer, and the great ephemeral spatial drawings by Monika Grzymala.

ES: What is drawing today?

EL: I think the most difficult thing is to say where drawing ends and where something else starts. In this exhibition, you will see things that on the one hand, could be considered a sculpture, a video, or a painting, but on the other hand, could be considered a drawing. The interesting thing is how it addresses borders to other media, as well as borders to things like street art or comics. Artists deal with these borders in their work, sometimes even crossing these borders. One has to be careful not to call everything a drawing, not every line is a drawing or meant to be a drawing. It’s also a question of the approach: drawing could be considered as a method or approach.

Monika Grzymala Raumzeichnung

Monika Grzymala Raumzeichnung (Vortex), 2015, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Crone, Berlin Photo: Ewa Stern, © Albertina, Vienna

ES: A lot of people think of drawings as sketches. What is the difference or is there a difference?

EL: When you go back in history, drawing was sometimes just a sketch for bigger works, the “little sister” of painting. For a lot of artists, drawing is their main media, so then it’s not a sketch. We have some works in the exhibition that are sketch-like: a little pencil drawing by Amy Cutler could be seen as either a preliminary sketch or a drawing, depending on how you look at it. It also depends on the other works of an artist, whether drawings are just a sketch for something or meant to be a main artwork. Some works are notable for their extensive detail: the huge pencil drawings by Paul Noble clearly took a long time to do. There are a lot of details, you would love to have a magnifying glass to examine it even more closely. Some works look more like spontaneously done doodles or sketches.

Then you have drawings like the escalator by Fritz Panzer, which looks like a sketch but is made of wire. It looks like it was done quite quickly, but when you watch him setting up the work, he needs a lot of time to place each wire in the right position. We also have planned drawings for which the artist takes several weeks to work on the concept. Aleksandra Mir planned what she wanted to do much earlier, a whole corner in the exhibition, which is six meters on both sides and four meters high. Then she invited a team of artists as well as non-artist friends to work with her on that drawing, so it could be seen as a collaborative work.

Alexandra Mir

Exhibition View Drawing Now: 2015, Alexandra Mir, Tropical Room, 2015, Courtesy the artist, Photo: Ewa Stern © Albertina Museum

ES: What was the selection process for the show?

EL: With only 36 artists, everyone who’s familiar with drawing will be missing someone or something. I was aware of the fact that the exhibition cannot be everything to everybody. I also tried to avoid fixed categories. This wouldn’t match the diversity of drawing. But I tried to think about the visitor’s journey through the exhibition, so there are several groups: extended drawing, drawing as a collaborative act, drawing as a possibility to communicate with the viewer, narrative drawing related to film combined with text, abstract drawing. When you look at contemporary figurative drawings, a lot of artists deal with otherworldly environments and dystopian settings.

Then there is the section with more experimental ways of dealing with drawing, like in Nikolaus Gansterer’s work, which could be defined as drawing as performance. For him, drawing is a form of communication between our perception and the reflection of it, a tool for easily explaining things. With drawing, you can explain very complex things quite easily in a simple message or pictogram, like Dan Perjovschi does, or you can still stay complex and have a lot of layers, like Jorinde Voigt. From far away, her work looks like an abstract drawing, then you come closer and see her notes with pencil and her associations and interpretations.

Micha Payer + Martin Gabriel

Micha Payer + Martin Gabriel, innenraum denken, 2009, STRABAG Kunstforum, Photo: Ewa Stern 


ES: Do you have any favorites in the exhibition?

EL: From our point of view, it was important to include Austrian artists. It’s not an exhibition that you could call “Lives and Works in Austria,” but when you look at most biennials and fairs, Austrian artists might not be represented in the same way as they are in this exhibition. For us, they are part of this international context, not just because we want to draw attention to them, but also because the topics they deal with, like those of Sonja Gangl or Nikolaus Gansterer, have a very unique way of dealing with drawing.

I’m also happy that we have a variety of works that show just how lively drawing is. A lot of the artists did works for us in situ: Fritz Panzer, Constantin Luser, Dan Perjovschi, Nikolaus Gansterer, Monika Grzymala, and Lotte Lyon came and prepared their works especially for us. It’s sad that some of them won’t last longer than the exhibition.

Constantin Luser

Constantin Luser Extended Drawing, 2015 Courtesy the artist, Galerie Klüser, Rotwand Gallery und Galerie Jette Rudolph, Photo: Ewa Stern © Albertina, Vienna

ES: What is special to you personally about this medium, drawing?

EL: When you come to the Albertina as a curator, drawing becomes your main focus. Before I started here, we showed an exhibition at das weisse haus in 2011 called “The Borders of Drawing”. When we started with das weisse haus in 2007, we thought it was necessary to deal with younger artists, to give them a platform. That’s something that drawing needs as well, some support, some awareness, and some passion—getting people interested in it. When you work in a booth at an art fair, collectors come and ask, where are the oil and canvas works? And you say, why’s it just about oil and canvas, why isn’t it about the artists and the artwork? I personally think drawing is amazing.
From the point of view of collecting, drawings are generally much less expensive, so with a limited budget, you could invest in drawings, but they wouldn’t grow in value. In a sense, it will always be the “little sister” of painting.

When you look at this exhibition, it’s not little—there are huge drawings. The problem with drawing—if you want to call it that—is that it’s so fragile, you can’t show it that often. If you have drawings at home in your collection, you can’t just put them on the wall, they will vanish. You have to protect them with special glass, special frames, you may show them for three months then put them away and replace them with others—it’s not so easy to keep them in your living room above your sofa. An oil canvas is much easier to handle, and this makes drawings more difficult to collect.

ES: There’s a trend right now of established houses, including the Albertina, hosting contemporary interventions. Where is this trend coming from?

EL: The Albertina has actually always showed contemporary art. Even Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, founder of the Albertina, collected contemporary art from the artists of his time and this continued throughout the whole history of the Albertina. We got donations from artists that lived at that time and donations from collectors that collected artists at that time, and when you look at the history, there were always contemporary exhibitions.

Of course, we’re not a museum that focuses exclusively on contemporary art, but we do show contemporary art. We do have to draw our audience in somehow, so we know that visitors coming to see Dürer or Michelangelo will probably also end up checking out our contemporary exhibitions. We want to pick them up somewhere. If you just say, “Oh, that’s contemporary, you won’t understand it”, they might be put off, therefore we try to assist the viewer via audio guides, education, etc.

Our topics are also meant to provide the viewer with a kind of structure. When I first came here, I was thinking about drawing as a trace—one of the topics of the exhibition—or just everything that drawing could be in general, and then we realized that we needed a kind of “missing link” exhibition to bridge the gap up to this point. A lot of other museums have done drawing exhibitions in the last five or ten years, but we haven’t. We’ve been collecting drawings, including extended drawings, but we’ve never officially explained our point of view, our idea of drawing to the public. So this exhibition is maybe one of the most contemporary exhibitions we’ve ever done.

ES: If your biggest dream were to come true, what would it be?

EL: Actually, my big dream is working as a curator! It sounds funny, but maybe if you didn’t study art history like me, then becoming a curator at the Albertina Museum really is a dream come true. Sometimes, I can’t even believe it. I get access to really great artists who are still alive and visit them in their studios. I get to go to New York and meet legendary artists like Alex Katz or Christo, etc.-When you have a passion for art, that’s something really amazing. Working at the Albertinais a great gate opener!

Exhibition view, David Shrigley, digital print from untitled drawings, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.


Exhibition DRAWING NOW 2015 is on show until October 11, 2015 at the Albertina Museum in Vienna


Albertina Museum
Albertinaplatz 1
Vienna 1010
Phone: +43 1 534830