It is a rare event for a living artist to have a retrospective show at an American art museum: rarer still if he is a realist. “William Beckman: Drawings, 1967–2013,” first hosted by Georgia’s Columbus Museum and now at the Arkansas Arts Center, provides an in-depth look at nearly a half-century of the development of Beckman’s visual language of drawing. Works included range from his delicate graphite and silverpoint drawings from the 1960s and 70s, through his straightforward self-portraits and figure drawings of the 1980s and 90s, to his more recent series of bull drawings and portraits of his partner, Dianne.
The figures in the drawings are always confrontational, meeting the viewer’s gaze directly with a full sense of their own presence. There are two nude self-portraits and a number of nudes of women, sometimes in combination with his own clothed self-portrait. One has the sense that Beckman draws nude women because he, as a heterosexual man, is naturally enticed by the other. There is a danger of objectification and/or sentimentalization in such an undertaking, but Beckman’s drawn women are full participants in this exchange. Their bodies are powerful, and they seem at home in them. Like Manet’s Olympia, they meet the viewer’s eyes, rather than demurely looking away while offering themselves up for consumption. They are full of their own interior life and thus convey a sense of agency.
In contrast with his paintings, there is often no or precious little indication of a background. The figures are isolated in a void, and the focus is right where Beckman’s interest lies: the individual. Even when multiple figures inhabit a single drawing, Beckman’s emphasis on the outline of the form leaves each of them self-contained. Never do they look at each other or seem to acknowledge each other’s presence in any way. Even with the nudes, there is no sense of voyeurism, for the actors break through the fourth wall and appear to scrutinize the viewer in their turn.
A true master of the craft, Beckman manages to say much with very little. His charcoal portraits of Dianne say just what is needed of the hills and valleys and gentle curves of her structure, without ever feeling overworked or finicky. The charcoal sits lightly on the rough paper, retaining a sense of openness even within its sense of completion. The drawings are not very much about getting a likeness, although there is definitely a convincing sense of one. And they are certainly not about achieving a level of polish or finesse: that is the domain of his paintings. His drawings are much more about capturing some kind of life-force energy—some primal animas—and harnessing its power through pulsating, deeply inscribed edges. To understand the visual impact of these edges, the work must be seen in person, for the same edges that can look dull and repetitive in a photo reproduction, come to life when seen in the flesh. Those edges draw a direct link through time and space back to cave paintings, such as at Lascaux, and one can sense that same shamanistic urge to capture life in a symbolic visual language and to imbue the everyday with the potency of the mythic.
Like many of the most profound figurative artists, Beckman is a master juggler of polarities. In his case, he particularly explores the complexities of male/female relationships, the clothed and the exposed, fragility and toughness. His drawn bulls, almost caricatures of masculinity, are clearly the visual descendants of those overlapping aurochs scrawled on the cave wall, just as the actual animals have biological descent. With all of Beckman’s skill in depiction, there is a clumsy awkwardness to his presentation of the bulls, as if they were too gruff and powerful to be bothered with anything as dainty as elegance. The confrontational posture of the bulls is emphasized by the crushing of the charcoal into the fibers of the heavy paper. And yet these bulls, like Beckman’s drawn people, are always individuals: always specific, never generalized. Animal, Man, Woman, Sex: it’s all there in Beckman’s work. And so we have another great polarity: the plain-spoken Midwestern farm boy who visually struggles with our most innate and ever-replenishing mysteries. He says in his interview with Charles T. Butler, director of the Columbus Museum: “Drawing can be an advanced study, but, more often than not, it is a different version, a new possibility. Drawing carries the raw thought, as close to the birth of creation as it gets.” (William Beckman: Drawings, 1967–2013, London: D Giles, 2014, p. 32) Beckman, in his reductivist tendencies, searches for the potency of the real. It is through essences, rather than inventions or flights of fancy, that he makes his statements about the world. “William Beckman: Drawings, 1967–2013” is on view through February 1, 2015, at the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203. arkarts.com